- The Child Thief: A Novel
- Eos, 496 pp.
A Very Dark Version of Peter Pan
In the opening pages of The Child Thief, a young girl cowers as her father moves about their house. She knows that soon he will come to her bedroom and do terrible things to her and there is no one who can stop him now that her mother has committed suicide.
This night, however, the child thief who calls himself “Peter” comes to the house to take her away and take his revenge on the father, knifing him between the ribs. The child thief has golden eyes and pointed ears and is very particular about the kind of children he hunts and claims. He looks for the lost ones, the sad ones, the ones in need of help. He offers them a choice that is not necessarily better than the life they know though, and once they’ve made their choice—there is no going back.
Writer/illustrator Brom has created an intricate mythology in this dark fantasy, a beautiful but deadly wonderland cobbled up from bits and pieces of stories we’ve heard since childhood. The author tells his readers that the genesis of the story came from a paragraph in James Barrie’s original book that horrified him—a throwaway mention that Peter Pan would “thin out” the Lost Boys when the island population got too big.
The implications of that phrase—which Brom returns to frequently—led to the genesis of his own tale, a version of the Peter Pan story that is fantastic and tragic in equal measures. This is not the first time Brom has visited a child’s bedroom in order to extract a dark fairy tale. His novel The Plucker features an abandoned toy (Jack, as in ‘Jack in the Box’) who becomes a hero protecting the very child who abandoned him and the other toys left under his bed. Childhood, it seems, is a very perilous place in the Bromiverse.
That’s certainly true for street kid Nick who has run afoul of an adult predator named Marko. Sold out by another denizen of the streets, Nick is facing a long, agonizing death at the hands of the mobster when Peter comes along and asks if he can join the fun. Nick notices right away that there’s something different about Peter—his pointed ears like Spock and his eyes like gold coins—but the adults don’t seem to notice. Peter relishes the thought of killing Marko, but all Nick wants to do is get away.
Eventually Peter tires of messing with the adults and invites Nick to return with him to the enchanted island where he lives when he’s not roaming the real world. He tells Nick there are fairies there and goblins and trolls but no adults. He also tells Nick that sometimes, everyone fights monsters. Nick thinks his new friend is nuts, but since Marko and his crew invaded the apartment where he’d been living with his grandmother, he has nowhere else to go. He’s also intrigued by the adventure of it all.
Even before they set out through the Mist that protects and hides the island, though, Nick has begun having second thoughts about his new friend who seems all too keen on stealing things and who seems terribly eager to fight. When Nick wants to turn around and go back, he learns that’s no longer and option as Peter reminds the boy that he came with him freely.
Once Nick has arrived on the island—which Peter tells him used to be the Avalon of legend, he’s handed over to the “Devils,” the lost boys who run the place when Peter is gone. His fate is entirely in their hands and they’re not gentle with newcomers. And while he’s undergoing the training that will enable him to survive his upcoming battle with monsters, Peter has returned to the real world to steal more children, more soldiers to fight against the creatures that roam his island.
Writer/illustrator Brom has created two worlds that are realistic in their own ways. The island is full of all kinds of monsters, culled from Nordic and Celtic lore that seems half-familiar. People die fighting these monsters. Children die.
When Peter is roaming the “real world,” his hunting grounds are the most blighted areas of New York. The “real world” sequences are possibly more frightening than the fights between evil creatures, though, because we know the evil creatures are fantasy and people like Marko all too real.
There is a lot of violence here, cruel violence to adults and children alike. The violence here is stylized and fairy-tale but it is also brutal and ugly. There are times when the feral children Peter has “saved” will remind readers of the no-longer-innocent children of Lord of the Flies. (What are the savages of Golding’s novel if not “lost boys?”) Brom draws upon a myriad of sources to create his magic land—everything from nursery rhymes to Arthurian legend.
There are moments of genuine mystery and magic, scenes where we are bedazzled and terrified simultaneously. The walk through the mist, crunching on the bones of those who strayed from the path has a Tolkienian resonance. The bloody battles that Peter leads in the real world echo those in the enchanted world. And the myth of the Horned One, who is Peter’s father, overshadows everything. For Peter is an immortal wild child who may look mostly human but who is decidedly something … other.
The point of view alternates—jumping from Peter to Nick to other characters as the story needs it to—and that tends to dilute the focus. Dividing the protagonist chores between Nick and Peter never quite works. Plus, there’s a whole long section where we get Peter’s “origin” story and the problem with it is that the more we know about Peter, the less magical he seems.
We are interested in the dynamics of the Devils, and especially in Sekue, the beautiful and exotic girl warrior. (There are all kinds of women on the island, including the ethereal “Lady” and her darkly sexual sister.) When we meet the adults—the Captain and the Reverend (depicted as a Puritan, which reminds us of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane), the story takes a turn into a new direction that seems to split off from the main narrative branch.
Even before the Captain announces his intention of saving the children, we know that some of them are beyond saving. There’s a heart-breaking scene where one of the Devils confesses to Nick, telling him the worse thing he ever did and poor Nick really, really doesn’t want to hear it. And by the time Leroy finishes baring his soul, we feel a little sick too. We wonder if Nick will survive this encounter with enchantment because the author is all too willing to kill off characters we have begun to care about.
This is not a bedtime story but nightmare bait, a tale of fathers who want to kill their children and children who murder people who love them. It’s a very dark and edgy tale of children and monsters and some who are both at once.
This novel belongs to a new category of fiction that seems to exist halfway between graphic novels and illustrated stories. In many ways it seems best suited to a readership that can’t really afford it in hardback. (The book retails at $26.99.) This fractured fairy tale might attract some urban fantasy fans but the decidedly “edgy” take on the classic book feels cynical and mechanical and not nearly as much dark fun as it should be.
It may be that Brom’s artwork is the primary draw here but compared to his earlier novels like The Plucker—which had 100 illustrations spread over its 160 pages—this novel has more words than images. There is a lovely section of colored plates in the middle—all the main characters are there with the Lady depicted as an anorexic fairy woman—and the art is so fine that we really do wish Brom had given us a little bit more for our money.