The Child Thief
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Child Thief / 978-0-061-67133-3
I usually save the 'parental warnings' in my reviews until the end, but "The Child Thief", as compelling and fascinating as it is, nonetheless requires some upfront warnings. If you are thinking of buying this novel for a child, perhaps on the grounds that it is a Peter Pan story and therefore child-friendly, be warned that this is an incredibly dark and violent novel. I'm not exaggerating when I say that nine out of every ten pages contains a depiction of rape, child molestation, violence, murder, torture, or several instances of the F-word. I certainly wouldn't say that no child or teenager on earth would be able to appreciate this novel, but I do strongly advise that you read this book yourself, beforehand, to determine whether this level of violence will be disturbing to the intended recipient.
With that out of the way, let me say that I am quick to condemn books that rely on violence, sex, and profanity in an attempt to divert the reader's attention from the fact that there is no actual plot. "The Child Thief" is not one such novel - every incidence of violence within this novel acts in service to the plot, and the end result is an incredibly compelling story that is both a re-imagining of the classic Peter Pan tale, but also remarkably true to the original in many of the details (lest we forget that Barrie's version contained quite a bit of death and murder behind the scenes).
"The Child Thief" is already being compared to novels like Maguire's "Wicked", but the comparison is somewhat flimsy to my mind. Where Maguire took an evil character and re-imagined her as good (or at least 'misunderstood'), Brom has taken a traditionally good character and re-imagined him not as 'evil', but rather as 'complex'. Although Peter Pan is still an enigmatic mystery, as always, Brom has brought a humanity and complexity to the character that will haunt any reader.
Brom has taken the premise that Peter Pan steals children away to Neverland and has expanded the concept to fit within our dark reality. Here, Peter Pan does not steal away babies who fall out of their prams - he steals away children who are victims of abuse, neglect, molestation, and all the other such evils of our world that children should never have to endure. But the Neverland that Peter promises to lead these victimized children to is not an escape in the classic sense - it is supremely dangerous, and no longer in the exciting "but-we-always-escape-in-the-end" kind of danger that the Disneyesque Neverland fostered. The neglected children (here "Devils" instead of "Lost Boys", since girls are just as welcome here) are given a family and an emotionally safe haven, but every moment of their days are spent in training, in the hopes that once they leave the confines of their home they will not die immediately in this hostile world.
Along with the native monsters of Neverland, the pirates and the Captain are here, transformed by the magic of Neverland into monstrous perversions of humanity, yet Brom does not merely rely on a good-versus-evil trite tale, and here is what sets "The Child Thief" apart from the usual "re-imagining a classic character" stories. Every person and entity in "The Child Thief" is a complex character, full of good and evil impulses. The pirates capture, torture, and murder the lost children, yes, but they genuinely do not wish to be in Neverland and hope that their efforts will lead them to an escape of some kind. Peter does rescue lost and frightened children, and most of them are abjectly grateful for it, but he is recruiting children with lies and trickery to serve as cannon fodder for a war that has waged hundreds of years. There is no doubt that Peter loves the children he recruits, yet his love for them does not stop him from using them until their deaths.
Brom has woven a masterful tale here, with both the real world and the Neverland/Albion world realistically rendered, with both the good and the bad. There is not a single character in this novel which could be described as flat or two-dimensional; even the most minor and ancillary characters are vivid, complex, and contain their own unique mix of perspectives and motivations. I would label "The Child Thief" as a masterpiece for this careful characterization alone, but it is worth repeating, again, that this novel is probably the definition of a morally ambiguous novel and I don't think everyone will derive the same enjoyment out of it. For that reason, if I had to compare "The Child Thief" to another contemporary novel, I would compare it to Pullman's "His Dark Materials Trilogy", for I was equally entranced with Pullman's ability to bring moral complexity to his fictional universe, and with his ability to humanize two child-murdering villains as nevertheless loving parents, in spite of their monstrous evil.
In summary, I would deeply recommend "The Child Thief" to anyone who enjoys morally ambiguous tales with complex, three-dimensional characters. If you won't be offended by the incredibly violent and profane nature of the writing, and if you won't be upset by the characterization of a beloved childhood story character as something much less perfect and much more human, then "The Child Thief" is definitely worth looking into.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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