Fantasy artist Brom has long been known for bringing beautiful nightmares to life on book covers, but with "The Child Thief" ($26.99, Eos), he turns his attention to the pages between those covers.
The book retells the story of Peter Pan in a way that it hasn't been told before. Brom, whose full name is Gerald Brom, writes in the afterword of the book that he was inspired by a few phrases from J.M. Barrie's original tale -- not the sanitized Disney version -- that he found somewhat disturbing. He takes those ideas and runs with them to create a Peter Pan that is, at the same time, very true to the original character, yet completely different. The Peter here is cunning, brave, glib and often heroic, but he's far from the carefree lad that never wants to grow up. Instead, he's a tortured character, driven by his desire to save Avalon (his version of Never, Neverland) from the invading "flesh-eaters," led by The Captain (no Hook here), and haunted by the methods that battle requires.
The story begins with Nick, a New York City teenager who is on the run from the drug dealers that his mother has rented space to in their home. Tired of their torment of his family, he has stolen their stash of drugs, with the intent to sell them for the cash to run away. Now, they've caught up to him. But someone else is watching. When the dealers pounce, Peter is there to save the boy and quickly wins his trust, convincing Nick to come through the mists surrounding Avalon to the fort where Peter and his friends live. The promises sound good, but soon after entering the treacherous mist filled with ghosts and monsters, Nick realizes that those promises weren't quite true.
Nick is exactly the sort of child that Peter looks for and has been stealing from our world for centuries -- lost, abused children with nowhere to go and nothing to lose. He's given them a place where they feel they're wanted and they belong, turning them into his "Devils" to fight a war that started long before any of them were born.
As you might have already guessed from the name of Brom's Never Neverland, he mixes and matches mythologies to create this new version of Peter Pan. He draws heavily from the legends of King Arthur, as well as Celtic and Norse traditions and even European and American history for a fascinating and sometimes horrifying landscape. He also uses these legends to offer an interesting back-story for the boy who refuses to grow up that's a bit different from what you might expect.
"The Child Thief" is a book that often leaves the reader with mixed emotions. There's certainly no black and white here. While there are times when you want to cheer for Peter, there's also a bit of revulsion for his selfish and violent actions. Likewise, the "flesh eaters" are painted as the evil destroyers by Peter in the early going of the book, but we soon find out that there's much more to their story than he's sharing, including a bit of a gut punch near the end that I won't reveal here. The Captain, like Peter, is a study in shadow and light. He's an easy character to dislike -- brutal and ruthless -- but with qualities that are, at times, quite admirable.
It should go without saying at this point, but don't pick up this book to read with the kiddies. While it is based on a childhood favorite, this telling is for adults only. If you're looking for a family tale, you're much better off with the original or, perhaps, Peter David's "Tigerheart" if you're looking for a different take.
If, on the other hand, you don't mind a more disturbing vision of Peter Pan, Brom delivers a fascinating and entrancing version, trading paints for words to create a tale as dark, twisted and stunning as his artwork.