Like most American children, Disney's Peter Pan was a part of my video library (we watched it on VHS, and waiting for the tape to rewind is an exercise in patience that few children these days know). Because my mother was a firm believer in reading, we also had the book, as well - a lovely illustrated edition of J.M. Barrie's classic tale. They're very different stories, though. Even as a child, I remember picking up the book and thinking to myself, "this is wrong" as I flipped through it. That's because 9 times out of 10, you know that all of your favorite characters are going to be safe and sound in the Disney movie (with a few notable exceptions), but in Barrie's book, death was very much present and very much real, and the morality of the characters is far more ambiguous.
Brom wrote THE CHILD THIEF with this initial version of the story in mind. Peter Pan is kind of creepy when you think about him too hard. I mean, he floats around outside nurseries, waiting for the parents to go to sleep before sneaking in and seducing children away and he has a markedly cavalier attitude when it comes to rules and the well being of himself and his lost boys.
THE CHILD THIEF opens in New York. We're introduced to a handful of children who have been forced to grow up before their time, either because of sexual abuse, drugs, crime, or neglect. Peter looks for these children specifically, because these are the children who are willing to leave their old lives behind and risk everything to follow him into the Mist to Avalon. One of these boys is Nick, who is facing persecution from a drug gang because he tried to make off with their stash when he ran away. Peter saves him from a slow and painful death and takes him through the Mist...but "Neverland" isn't like the stories, at all. It's actually incredibly dangerous...and terrifying.
I wasn't really prepared for the sexual and physical violence, the language, and the viciousness of the children and monsters in this story. It reads kind of like LORD OF THE FLIES, in the sense that the children gradually become more and more "wild" as the magic of Avalon infects them and they lose sight of their old lives in their blind following of Peter and his mission. Psychologically, it's very interesting, but it doesn't make for comfortable reading, either. I was expecting something along the lines of Clive Barker's ABARAT, I think - dark and brutal, but also fanciful and charming and morally sound. As convoluted as it can sometimes be, you can still recognize "good" in Barker's work. Here, "good" is much more ambiguous.
Despite all that, I was still mostly on board with Brom's reimagining of Peter Pan. Yes, it was darker and a bit bleaker than I'd anticipated, but it was an interesting story, and the use of Celtic folklore to explain both Peter's origins and the world he came from was inspired. The problem happens in the third act, when THE CHILD THIEF jumps the shark. There's too many things going on at once, with fight scenes that go on for way too long, and then a couple things happen that had me squinting at the book and going, "Wait, did that really happen?" And I started having flashbacks to the first, traumatic time that I watched the Super Mario Bros. movie and found out that the Mushroom Kingdom is actually a dystopian world forcibly torn from ours by the same comet that killed the dinosaurs.
I only paid $1.99 for this ebook, so I'm not as annoyed as I would have been had I paid the full $12.99 for it. For $1.99 it was solidly entertaining. I did enjoy the author's art, too. His style reminded me of the art work you see on old Magic: The Gathering trading cards. I also liked the idea behind the story and the use of Celtic mythology. The story did not live up to my expectations, however, and I thought the pacing and writing quality were both way off, with some passages being beautifully written and others reminiscent of the trashy indie pulp sci-fi serials that go for $0.99 a chapter. Some tighter editing could have made a huge difference. Ultimately, given the choice between ABARAT and CHILD THIEF, I'd pick ABARAT every time, although just between you and me, I like Brom's illustrations better. Maybe the two of them can work together on a new book. I'd definitely buy that...
2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.
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