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Bill Willingham – Down the Mysterly River

October 15, 2012

113. Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham (2011)

Read By: Dick Hill
Length: 8h 33m (336 pages)

Genre: Mid-grade Fantasy Adventure

Started: 28 September 2008
Finished: 10 October 2012

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I love the worlds Willingham creates.

A strange forest with
talking animals? Sounds like
a normal Thursday.

Summary: Max wakes up in a strange forest, with no memory of where he is or how he got there. He’s wearing his boy scout uniform, but he doesn’t remember going camping, and he doesn’t have any of his gear with him. And before he can figure out what’s going on – and Max is good at solving mysteries – things get even weirder: he runs into a talking badger named Vanderbrock, who thinks they may be in the afterlife. But whether its the afterlife or not, it is a world full of dangers, most particularly the blue cutters – a group of humans whose wield swords of great and terrible power. Max, Vanderbrock, McTavish the cat, and Walden the bear must somehow avoid the cutters and journey together to the sanctuary of the wizard Swift, where they might at long last be safe.

Review: There are a number of books the ending of a book completely changes my opinion of the whole. Usually when this happens I’m somewhat indifferent to the bulk of the book, only to have the ending put things in a completely new perspective and casts the entirety in a much more positive light. Unfortunately, the opposite was the case with Down the Mysterly River.

To explain, I was enjoying the main part of the book quite a bit. It’s mid-grade, but didn’t feel overly juvenile, and I was perfectly happy with a straight-up fantasy adventure story. The characters are well-done and have some depth to them, the adventures are exciting, the dangers posed by the Cutters were palpably scary, there were enough touches of humor to keep me charmed, and the underlying mystery of what’s really going on in this world was humming away neatly in the background. Everything you could want, basically.

But then we get to the ending, and the explanation of what’s really going on, and to be honest, it sort of soured me on the rest of the book. Not so much the explanation itself – I didn’t figure it out ahead of time, but it fit with the rest of the story, and was an interesting thing to build a mystery around. My problem was more that the solution was delivered in a big rush of exposition, and the characters don’t really do anything with it, and then the book just ends. And while that “everything you thought you knew was wrong, the end” approach works just fine (or even exceptionally well) in some cases (Atonement is the primary example that’s coming to mind, although I’m sure there’s more), it didn’t fit in with the tone of kid’s adventure book very well, and let things feeling somewhat unfinished and thus unsatisfying.

So I’m left with a bit of a dilemma. The bulk of the book was good, a lot of fun, and Dick Hill did a nice job with the narration; he was really wonderful with the voices, especially for the various animal characters. But, on the other hand, the ending kind of left me feeling like “Oh. Well.” about the entire book, even the parts that I was enjoying while I was listening to them. I think I would have a more positive opinion if the big revelation had been followed by another third of the story, instead of right at the end. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: My reaction to the structure of the story and the denoument may be idiosyncratic, so fantasy readers who are interested in a fun adventure story should keep this one in mind. Also, it’s entirely possible that I’m overly jaded, so the things that bothered me may not bother a reader in the target audience at all, and I can see kids of both sexes loving the world that Willingham creates.

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First Line: Max the Wolf was a wolf in exactly the same way that foothills are made up of real feet and a tiger shark is part tiger, which is to say, not at all.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2012 7:40 am

    I’ve never really learned to enjoy fantasy – maybe I should start with some middle grade stuff.

    • October 17, 2012 11:32 am

      Kathy – I think the key might be finding the type of fantasy that’s similar enough to a genre or style you do enjoy, and then branching out from there.

  2. October 15, 2012 8:02 pm

    I like an “everything you thought you knew was wrong, the end” kind of ending, properly deployed, but it’s tricky to carry off without making the reader feel cheated. I loved it in Atonement (the only thing I liked about that book practically), and Barbara Vine did it beautifully in one of her books. But I’m not surprised Bill Willingham didn’t succeed with it. I like him but he is not notable for his subtle ingenious plotting. :p

    • October 17, 2012 11:39 am

      Jenny – I think the difference in Atonement was that the ending was not an answer to a question the characters (and the readers) had been asking all along, and so the fact that it was right at the end was okay. In this case, though, it was the central mystery of the book, and the answer was just kind of laid out there matter-of-factly and that’s it, no real reaction, the end. A big disconnect between the mystery and the adventure story, maybe, was my problem.

  3. October 17, 2012 10:23 am

    I didn’t mind the ending – I was actually really pleased that Willingham pulled one over on me the entire time (I like things that are hard to figure out!), and I agree that most of the book will suit adventure fantasy fans to a T.

    Thanks for sharing your review!

    • October 17, 2012 11:40 am

      Cecelia – I didn’t mind the content of the ending – I too liked the fact that he’d pulled one over on me, as you put it. But as I said, I just didn’t think the style of the exposition-heavy ending fit with the rest of the book, and it left me kind of dissatisfied.

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