REVIEW: Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

108. Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
Publication: Starscape (September 13, 2011), ARC Paperback, ?pp / ISBN 0765327929
Genre: MG Fantasy

Read: September 3-4, 2011
Source: BEA 2011

Summary from Amazon:

Max “the Wolf” is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat)—all of whom talk—and who are as clueless as Max.

Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world…


At this point, three-and-a-bit-more months after BEA, I’d pretty much forgotten what Down the Mysterly River was about. I knew it was an MG fantasy, and I knew what sort of fantasy things BW does with his Fables series1. For all that I’m familiar with the genre and with BW’s stuff, it’s a little bit silly how thrown I was by the first couple of chapters.

A boy detective with a cutsie nickname? A talking badger? A mad barn cat with a vaguely Scottish name? It was like a weird mix of Redwall and Encyclopedia Brown, and I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it.

Then the Cutters were introduced, and from then on I was hooked. I also started getting a little smarter re:what was actually being done, here: BW was writing metafiction about children’s fantasy stories! Awesome!

Also, everyone was totally dead, and that was both terrifying and thrilling.

I will admit that the end was a bit…not hokey, but a bit overly sentimental, I guess. BW was really hammering home the “lesson” of the book, and it came off pretty over-the-top. Plus, instead of letting answers to things develop naturally like they had in the rest of the book, it was just full of all these infodumps. It felt like the set-up to a second book, honestly, and since there’s apparently going to be a sequel that’s probably why.

Photo of author Bill Willingham
The author

I suppose also I don’t entirely agree with the lesson of the book. Cutters, on the whole, are bad. Cutters are people who literally cut out what they don’t like about a character and remake them into something entirely different from how they started out. In the book, the people they cut are turned into cliched, boring, almost horrific parodies of what they were like originally. It’s a terrible thing, being cut, and I definitely didn’t like it when characters in Down the Mysterly River got cut.

On the other hand, I don’t agree with what Mysterly seemed to be saying: that ALL cuts are bad, because they change the original shape of a character to suit a certain group of people 2. But what if those cuts were, well, good? I mean, take Caliban from The Tempest, for instance. In his original shape he’s basically a savage monster who no self-respecting person would like. But in Caliban’s Hour he’s been “cut” into a different shape– he’s not a monster, he’s a person who (in his eyes) had been betrayed by the people he loved. Isn’t this second version of Caliban “better” in a way? More of a fully-fledged person with layers and hopes and dreams and stuff? Or am I just saying that because, like the Cutters, I have an idea of what constitutes “good” characters and will accept whatever changes will bring that “goodness” to light?

Or maybe the point of the Cutters isn’t that they cut characters into different shapes, but that they also erase the original shape the characters had been in. Maybe changes can be good when you can also track those changes, like in a Word document or something. The original is still there, but the changes have been layered on top to make it something else. If you don’t like the changes, you can always Undo Edit and get back to the original3. In Down the Mysterly River, however, people tend not to remember that there was an original version…which is bad. It’s just a mess, isn’t it?

Anyway, despite that whole muddled mess up there re:cutting and what it means, and despite the lackluster ending sequence and its many infodumps, I did enjoy reading Down the Mysterly River. Up until that ending sequence it was pretty amazing, actually! It had adventure, heartbreak, friendship, danger and action and it’s overall a really good read. If you like MG books with more bite in them than usual, I think you’d like this book.


I wish the moral of the story had been a little less confusing, but it was a ripping good yarn nevertheless.


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Other reviews

Good Books and Good Wine: “I felt Down The Mysterly River had great values for younger readers. Bill Willingham weaves a tale of courage, loyalty, and friendship. Readers see main character Max ‘The Wolf’ doing the right thing instead of the easy thing.” “Some readers may dislike the metafictional conclusion to the story, and how some of the plotlines are left open-ended. (Though a sequel has already been announced, so have no fear that this is the end). Also, the story may be too violent in content for some of the younger readers to whom the style and characters would directly appeal.”

The Book Smugglers: “All of a sudden, in its final pages, the book became less of a story and more of a pamphlet when for about 30 pages or so there comes one very long-winded , info-dumpy, speech when all the mysteries were explained to Max by another character they meet. It substituted magic with something else which I would call…preaching. This had a completely different tone from the rest of the book. The ending felt far too rushed, it felt too much like a cop-out and although it didn’t really ruin the entire book for me, it certainly adds to this overall feeling of dissatisfaction.”


An example of a bad cut would be this monstrosity by Orson Scott Card.


  1. You can download the first issue for free at Vertigo’s website, by the way!
  2. Don’t forget also that BW’s done a lot of “cutting” in his Fables series to suit himself, too.
  3. Which you can also do with the Cutters, actually. If you break the sword that did the cuts the changes reverse themselves. This just makes the whole Cutter thing even more muddy, in my opinion.

7 thoughts on “REVIEW: Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham”

  1. I’m not surprised about the overpunching of the message by Willingham. I love the Fables series but it’s painted with broadish strokes most of the time. Still fun! But broad fun.

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