Friday, April 3, 2009

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham; art by Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, and Craig Hamilton

Oy. I did not mean to get sidetracked. I am re-reading A Place Between the Tides by Harry Thurston, one of my favourite books, and I'd hoped to have it finished today or tomorrow. But it just so happened that the first installation of Bill Willingham's Fables crossed my desk... and here I am, finished reading it and ready for more.

I hadn't even heard of this series before reading Nymeth's review of the second book quite a while ago. I made the recommendation, and the library has picked up the first two in the series, Legends in Exile and Animal Farm. They are, however, doing that strange thing where they disperse series to different branches; my branch got Legends in Exile and someone else has Animal Farm. I think the logic is that then more people are likely to know of the series' existence, than if they were all collected at one branch. But I habitually refuse to start a series with the second or third book, and it's pretty frustrating to have to sniff around the catalogue to see if we even have the first books (which we often don't.)


My mistake was in thinking "I'll just read the first page to see what it's like" which turned into "I'll just read the first chapter" and I'm sure you know where it went from there. Legends in Exile is really, really cool. And it grips you right off the top -- once you've started, there's no going back. This is a function of the story. I don't have nearly as much experience with comic book-style art as I do with manga; so the art, I thought, was fine, but it wasn't what made the book for me. I don't really have much basis to compare or contrast with. I wouldn't have picked it up based on the art, because of my own personal taste in art, I think is what I'm trying to say. But the story is a completely different... um, story.

We're in New York City, where many of our favourite fairy-tale, myth and legend characters have ended up after a devastating war back in the Homelands. Fleeing a character called The Adversary, they are exiled to our world -- the world of the mundanes or "mundies" as we're called. They have their own government and their own land, and they do their best to blend in and go about their day-to-day lives without getting noticed. Many familiar faces are here: Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf (Bigby), Bluebeard, King Cole... and we start with Jack (of giant-killing fame) running into Bigby's office reporting a terrible crime. The apartment of Rose Red has been trashed -- there's blood everywhere -- and Rose is nowhere to be found.

It's a classic mystery, and the story is tightly woven and very well done. The narrative is imaginative and the characters believable. I was particularly drawn by the politics and the personality clashes woven throughout the main tale; it's what one might suspect would happen if all the heroes and villains of fairy-tale and legend were thrown together in a desperate struggle to adapt and survive. I was particularly glad to see that Willingham gives a lot more credit to fairy-tale heroines than the fairy-tales themselves do. Snow White is actually pretty scary at points. I wouldn't want to cross her, and none of the other characters seem to want to, either. I think my favourite part in the whole thing was when she brought out the "Vorpal blade of Jabberwocky fame. Kills in one cut, snicker-snack, and all that?"

Although, to be honest, I didn't think her character was quite as well done as some of the others; I think she's meant to seem deeper than she felt to me, but she seemed like a bit of a stereotypical ball-busting "woman in a man's world" kind of character, whereas some of the others (Bigby especially) seemed to have a bit more depth. That could just be a function of the tale focusing pretty exclusively on Bigby. Or the fact that I think Bigby's a superlative character, and I only loved him more after reading the short story by Bill Willingham at the end of the book.

I can't say much without giving things away, but I will say this: throughout this entire story, Willingham and the artists manage to cultivate both a melancholy and an unease that is much larger than the story at hand. Though the current mystery is resolved, there's still a sense that something much larger is happening, something much larger is at stake. I couldn't tell you where exactly that sense of atmosphere comes from, but I am incredibly impressed with it. It's subtle and rich and to be able to portray that atmosphere without beating us over the head with it is very impressive.

The whole thing is rather intense, and I can't quite decide whether I need to get Animal Farm right this minute, or whether I need to take a bit of a break and let myself breathe for a bit. I'm also thinking I'd better get on ordering the next books or I'm going to regret the delay.


Ana S. said...

Haha, yes, Fables does NOT let you only read one chapter. It grabs you and doesn't let go. I'm glad you enjoyed it - the art gets better and better in later volumes, and Snow is developed in some interesting ways. Enjoy the rest of the ride!

Unknown said...

I really should have known better; even at the best of times I'm not really an "only one chapter" kind of girl. I'll definitely be picking up the next ones. I'm glad to hear that Snow White develops more -- I think she has the foundations of a very interesting character.