I've always admired works that subvert and twist the classic fairy tale. In The Child Thief, a darker retelling of JM Barrie's beloved Peter Pan, Brom reminds us that the dark elements are already present in the original story. His task is to lay that darkness bare while bringing the story into the twenty-first century. Here, Peter is still stealing kids away but he's now in the New World, choosing instead to lure young teens from abusive families, bullying, and other violent situations in downtown New York. Fourteen-year old Nick is only the latest in this centuries-old game, a boy running away from druggies and dealers who are guaranteed to kill him on sight. The story alternates between Peter and Nick, giving readers a chance to understand the cost and the dangers that come with living in their version of Neverland. The story also adds Celtic and Welsh legends into the retelling, providing a well-anchored backdrop to the more fantastic elements.
As with many fractured fairy tales, it is easy to twist and turn the charismatic Peter into the bad guy. But Brom doesn't do simple role reversal here. I think his characterization of Peter is intuitive and nuanced, and for the most part it gives us a fair understanding of what spurs a boy like Peter on. The Child Thief is rife with moral ambiguity. Brom's Peter is an excellent character, an unreliable narrator perhaps, but that only serves to strengthen the Peter Pan mythos. As a reader, I was convincingly drawn into his struggles and his beliefs. Nick serves as a good foil for Peter, as he sees the world of Avalon with more trustworthy eyes.
Brom does his best work with horror; he certainly makes this nightmarish realm come alive. The gore is satisfying, and Brom's accompanying artwork does a great job of complementing the story.
The story is not without its stumbles. I found the narrative clunky at parts. Not only does the perspective shift between Peter and Nick (that doesn't sound like a bad thing), but it also presents us with Peter's flashbacks. There's the Peter hoping to steal another boy into Neverland (an extraneous element, I feel), a Peter and his life in the world of men, and a Peter in Avalon. The story moves back and forth between all these elements before it settles into the more comfortable Peter-Nick narrations, but at that point it has already taken up a lot of the book.
In this world, however, it seems that the moral ambiguity doesn't extend to Christianity. The fire-and-brimstone antagonists were rather tired and very one-dimensional, doing nothing at all to further The Child Thief's subverted themes. It seems like the takeaway was anyone who trumpets his own goodness is evil; everyone else deserves our understanding. It was this uneven treatment that kept me from fully enjoying the book especially when it makes well-drawn characters lose their edge and revert to their respective roles in the battle between good and evil, old and new, pagan and Christianity. Of course, it could just be the Catholic schoolgirl in me talking; don't let that stop you from picking up a copy of this book and coming to your own deliciously dark conclusions.