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Reviewer: Melissa on April 1, 2014
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Peter is quick, fearless, and mischievous – and like all kids, he loves to play, but the fun and games usually end in blood when he’s involved. His eyes are gold coloured, and his smile will make you a friend for life, but his promised land is distinctly not Neverland. Fourteen-year-old Nick would have died a slow and horrible death by the drug dealers plaguing his family’s life if Peter hadn’t appeared just in the nick of time to save him. Now the charismatic boy with a wild look wants Nick to follow him on a great adventure, to visit a place where magic lives in everything and you never have to grow up. Even though Nick thinks Peter’s promise of faeries and monsters is crazy, he agrees because New York City is no longer safe for him, and he mistakenly believes that there’s nothing else to lose. In Brom’s The Child Thief, however, readers and Nick will learn that there is always more to lose. Accompanying Peter to the gray, ravished island that was once a lush, enchanted – and enchanting – paradise, Nick is unwittingly recruited to fight in an ancient war, where he must learn to fight or will die among the “Devils,” Peter’s tribe of lost and stolen children. What will Peter do to stop the “Flesh-eaters” and save the last of the magic in this dying land of Avalon?
In this retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the classic play about a boy, who never grows up, transforms into an epic tale that’s centuries in the making. Blending Barrie’s original tale and characters with Celtic mythology and historically accurate moments of conflict between “pagan” and Christian followers, Brom increases the scope and raises the stakes of the story all in one fell swoop and demonstrates his incredible skills with world building, offering textual descriptions and detailed drawings that make Avalon and his cast of characters come to life in the reader’s mind. How does he do it? First, he offers a much longer history for Peter, depicting not only how he came to find himself on Avalon, but also retelling his history in our world from the time he was a few months old to the present moment. In addition, besides Peter, many of the character names change, some of their roles in the plot are different, and some characters are omitted completely. For example, Tiger Lily isn’t in the book, but a First Nations character named Sekeu plays a central role in Peter’s group of Devils, including being one of the characters, who trains the “New Blood” to prepare them for fighting. Similarly, the Darling children aren’t part of the story, although there is a moment in the section recounting Peter’s history when he finds, protects, and welcomes a character named Wendelyn into his fold. Brom also shows how the Lost Boys, or in this case, the lost and kidnapped children found their way to Avalon, and what their role is once there.
While the pirates in Barrie’s world are set on revenge because Peter cut off Captain Hook’s hand and fed it to the crocodile, in Brom’s retelling all the adult characters, such as the Flesh-eaters and the Celtic Gods and Goddesses that populate Avalon, and even Peter himself have suspect beliefs and motivations. While Peter and the Gods and Goddesses (at least for the most part) have a long history of conflict with the Flesh-eaters, and do everything they can to save Avalon from the latter group’s destruction of their magical island, Brom complicates this antagonism through Nick – one of the Devil’s New Blood – who has always been critical of Peter’s stories and belief system. Similarly, once he comes closer contact with the Flesh-eaters, Nick easily sees what their motivations are, something which Peter’s crew and the island’s mythological creatures haven’t been able to do in centuries. All of these groups use violent means to meet their ends, including regular graphic depictions of decapitation, amputations of their enemy’s heads and limbs, death, or types of torture to get information that they want for their own reasons. Through Nick, Brom is also able to question the methods through which Peter attempts to make his motivations a reality, giving him a much darker overtone than I’ve ever seen in the Peter Pan story.
Of course, Peter Pan has always been subject to criticism for the way it deals with race, and while I think that Brom is attempting to show a better side to this tale, there are moments worth criticizing. For starters, while at least four of Peter’s Devils are of First Nations, African, or African-American descent, and some like Sekeu and Redbone, are respected leaders among the Devils, not everything is positive. In one case, Nick mentions a black character, but says that he doesn’t remember his name, suggesting that he’s little more than a token character in Brom’s story. While the other three people of colour are named, the only other black character, Abraham, was a slave, and it can be argued that all three of them are merely used as means to the end of showing how far off the mark of a hero Peter really is. Beyond the way the author tackles race, I also had some issues with the way he approached female characters and some of the language used. While I don’t mind coarse language and expected violence during the fight scenes, I didn’t like seeing the c-word at a few points in the novel. Similarly, there were two attempted rape scenes that served no purpose in the plot, other than to show why young women, who feel vulnerable and unable to defend themselves initially, might be tempted to join Peter’s group of loyal followers. While I don’t think either of the scenes was necessary and wish that they’d been omitted, had Brom given one of those characters the opportunity to share her POV, then he might have been able to show how the sexual violence continually affected her in the present. Instead he leaves his reader’s with the suggestion that all women are vulnerable to rape and without a strong saviour type, like Peter, they would still be suffering.
If you’re looking for a vibrant retelling of Peter Pan, then The Child Thief is a good option, but keep in mind that it isn’t above criticism.
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