‘The Child Thief'
Written by: Brom
Rating: Four out of five bookmarks.
To kick off Halloween month, I chose a book that I felt might have the perfect balance of fantasy and macabre; a re-imagining of a classic tale from my childhood, only this isn't the watered-down Disney cartoon.
Once a story about a mischievous boy who never grew up and lived in a whimsical land of fairies, pirates and mermaids, "The Child Thief" has all the familiar elements of J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan," but viewed through darker, more primal eyes. Peter Pan's magical land is now populated with witches, monsters, ghosts, madmen and wild children who call themselves Devils.
It also mixes in elements from the Celtic legends of Avalon, and given that Halloween is the beginning of the Celtic new year, it makes this debut novel from famous illustrator Brom an appropriate read for October.
Brom is well known for his science fiction and fantasy art, his work including designs for "World of Warcraft," "Batman" and "Sleepy Hollow." His background in painting haunting scenes of myth and magic is clearly reflected in "Child Thief."
The reader is introduced to Peter, a half-human, half-fairy boy who travels between present-day Brooklyn, New York and his hidden world of Avalon (which is cloaked by an invisible barrier known as the Mist). He is trying to recruit "lost children" - the abuse, the abandoned, the friendless and the miserable - to steal away and bring back to Avalon to become part of his tribe of Devils.
In his search, he comes across Nick, a 14-year-old who is running away from home and a group of drug dealers who have been torturing him. After Peter saves Nick from being killed by the dealers, he whisks the runaway off through the Mist, where Nick learns that Avalon is dying thanks to a scourge brought about by the wicked Flesh-eaters.
Nick must decide whether to help Peter and the Devils in their quest to battle the Flesh-eaters and hopefully restore Avalon to its former glory, or to find a way back home to his mother and correct his own mistakes.
There is a lot of fantastic imagery in this story, as to be expected from an artist. The descriptions of the fairy world and its various inhabitants (including the blue-skinned pixies, the wolf-like barghest, the forest elves, and the willowy Lady of the Lake) are vibrant, colorful and imaginative.
It is very interesting how Brom ties in both stories of Peter Pan and the Arthurian legends, although I felt that the novel gradually meandered away from its initial premise and lost much of the Neverland mythos that Barrie had created. For example, while there is a Captain Hook-type character (known here as Captain Samuel Carter, and he doesn't appear until about three-quarters of the way into the book), the real villain of this story is The Reverend, a religious fanatic whose drive to rid Avalon of its "black magic" is what has turned him and his followers into Flesh-eaters and is slowly destroying the fairy world.
Much of the novel centers around the history of the persecution of the pagans by the Christian church, and while Brom attempts to paint both sides as sympathetic, there seems to be a heavy-handed message in regards to the author's views on religion.
I hate to focus on what the author's religious or political views might be; however, rather than if it makes sense in the story and if the characters expressing those views are well developed and honest. There are dozens of characters to keep track of throughout the novel, but they all remained consistent and (for the most part) were integral to the plot. For a debut novel, I found this to be an impressive piece of writing that should satisfy any fan of fantasy, and it includes Brom's dynamic artwork.
For those who don't typically read fantasy, "The Child Thief" might be a bit hard to get into, but I recommend it if you like a tale with vivid description and adventure. With its creepy, sometimes horrifying, new version of Neverland, this book makes a good match for the impending night of All Hallow's Eve.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.