I've never read "Down the Mysterly River" before. But while reading it, I felt as thought I was dipping back into a well-loved childhood classic like "The Hobbit" or the Prydain Chronicles.
And as you would expect from the author of the "Fables" series, it has a lot of talking animals, a resolute Boy Scout who discovers the darker side of the world, some genuinely spooky villains, and a metafictional twist that I honestly saw within the first few chapters. Willingham's powerful, atmospheric writing style and knack for clever whimsy are absolutely stunning.
Boy Scout detective Max "the Wolf" finds himself lost in a strange forest, with no memory of how he got there. Even stranger, he soon runs into talking animals -- warrior badger Banderbrock, mellow bear Walden, and the feral cat McTavish the Monster. Unsure how they got there, the little group travels down the "Mysterly" (named after McTavish's mispronunciation of "mystery") River.
But they are soon attacked by the Blue Cutters, an elite force of warriors whose blue swords are able to change the reality of anything they cut. And they have decided to "save" Max and his friends by making them "better." The little group's frantic attempts to escape the Cutters lead them on a journey across this "mysterly" land, encountering a water dragon, the Eggman, and the one responsible for bringing Max here...
The only real problem with "Down the Mysterly River" is that Willingham hints too heavily about the EPIC PLOT TWIST at the end, and thus I figured it out about two chapters in. But otherwise, this deceptively simple little novel is absolutely enchanting -- solid fantasy, some mildly bloody action with a real feeling of danger, and a whimsical note that never becomes precious (McTavish alone keeps the "talking animal" thing from being twee!).
Willingham was a pretty new writer when he first wrote this, but his writing skill is already visible -- vivid lush descriptions of nature, some delightfully humorous dialogue (mostly from McTavish), and a story peppered with hints about the nature of this world. Is it the afterlife? Is it in need of heroes? Is it some primordial world-between-worlds? And without revealing too much, Willingham's love of metafiction seeps through this novel,
And his characters are absolutely delightful -- Max starts off as a doughty, devoted young Boy Scout/detective, but he discovers that a REAL adventure is a lot bloodier and morally ambiguous than he expected. And the talking animal characters are "Redwall"-class -- Banderbrock is strong, courageous and prickly, while Walden is brave and mellow. And did I mention McTavish is a mean, vicious old bundle of hilarity?
"Down the Mysterly River" has the rare quality of being a children's novel worthy of all ages -- lush writing, bloody adventure and some truly scary villains.