Down the Mysterly River


Bill Willingham


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

March 14, 2012

own the Mysterly River is a young adult tale about a boy named Max who suddenly finds himself in a strange wood. Max has no recollection of how he came to be there, but it is certainly not his normal world, because Max soons finds himself talking to a badger named Banderbrock. In Max's normal world, animals don't talk!

Max and Banderbrock immediately find themselves in the midst of a fight between a vicious tom cat named McTavish and a man called Lord Ander wielding a blue sword. Lord Ander is defeated, and McTavish joins our company of heroes. Who is the villainous Lord Ander? He is a member of the Blue Cutters. The Blue Cutters use their swords to change the personalities and appearance of people or animals that they meet. Why do Blue Cutters change them? This is unclear. How do the Blue Cutters use their swords to make these changes? This is also nebulous - in one instance, the Blue Cutters use their swords to add a tail to an animal that is missing his - how can a sword be used to add a tail if an animal lost his? This is unexplained.

One of the problems with this story is the languid pace. Max and his companions saunter along the trails and the Mysterly River without the slightest sense of urgency - not much tension when our heroes are lazing in the sun or spending a full day swapping stories with Prince Aspen. Nor do the Blue Cutters do much to force the issue- despite the fact that they possess overwhelming numbers and are riding horses, while Max and his companions are on foot. Plus the Blue Cutters have packs of hunting hounds. But still they seem uninclined to take action. Here's a line from page 142: "From less than a hundred feet away, as she'd done for the past two nights, Lady Diana watched them in their peaceful slumber. She'd easily been able to catch up to the slow-moving fugitives, as she knew she could, and trail them for the past three days, without being spotted in turn." Does Lady Diana of the Blue Cutters take immediate action? She does not. Why not waste another 3 days trailing our heroes? Yawn.

Another problem is that Down the Mysterly River is a quest story without a purpose. Max and his band decide to head to Castle of the Wizard Swift. Why? No specific reason, exactly. On page 60, Max said,"I propose that, as our goal, we make our way down to our recently christened Mysterly River and follow it downstream to any settlement we might find. If there are answers to be gotten about our unknown enemies and general situation, we're most likely to find them there." Not exactly a burning quest for Max and his friends, is it?

Yet another problem with Down the Mysterly River is that the Blue Cutters are a committee. There is no specific identifiable villain. Lord Ander is first Blue Cutter we meet, but he soon drops out of the picture. Then Lady Diana steps up as identifiable, despicable, evil Blue Cutter; but in a scene of violence that seems oddly out of place in this book, she too is long gone before the climax. Lord Kelvin is just a figure head, a leader of the Blue Cutter committee, but he has no distinguishing personality nor memorable nasty behavior.

The real problem with this book is that it is a thinly disguised rant against editors. Willingham must have written this book before he became famous for writing the Fables comic books. Willingham must have received a fair number of rejections letters from editors, or perhaps a manuscript of his was altered significantly by a vigorous editor making big changes with his blue pencil (er, sword). It is obvious that writers like Willingham (called Creators or Wizards in this novel) are the good saintly benelovent powers who bring into existence magical whole lands. But writers are opposed by the Blue Cutters (ie: Editors), who use their blue pencils (swords) to cut away interesting characters and change them into bland formulaic beings of their own desire. When Max does reach the Wizard Swift, the last part of the book is nothing but a dull explanation of the "rules" of the land in which Max finds himself. It turns out that the climax of the novel was a brief encounter at the gate of Wizard Swift's castle, everything after that is explanations.

This was quite a disappointing book. It was listed here as one of the best novels of 2011, but I was unimpressed.