Mysterly River opens with Max the Wolf, a young cub scout, wandering in a mysterious forest with no memory of how he got there. We quickly learn that Max the Wolf is an accomplished boy detective of the sort that ripping kids' books are written about, and it seems reasonable to assume that this is going to be a book in that mold.
And then Max meets the talking badger, Banderbrock, who is a fearsome warrior himself, and who believes that he has come to the badger afterlife (he can remember dying). Just as Max and Banderbrock are getting their bearings, they encounter McTavish the Monster, a foul-tempered tomcat who is fleeing from a savage hunter and his baying hounds. The hunter turns on Max and Banderbrock, and they overcome the odds to best him, and they escape him with their lives, now a company of three.
So begins a fast-moving, utterly charming fairy tale about a mysterious land populated by speaking animals and the wicked cutters -- a brotherhood of vicious swordsmen who use their magical blue swords to cut away at their prey, turning them into inoffensive, narratively convenient literary constructs in keeping with whatever the current storytelling vogue demands. Soon, the small company of heroes meets a fourth, TK the bear, and they set off for a sanctuary in the keep of a wizard, where, they are told, they'll be safe from the Cutters, perhaps forever. From then on, it's a roaring adventure story, with twists and turns and mysterious saviors and double-crosses and tragedy and sacrifice and heroism.
And on the way, there's a great lot of stuff about the nature of stories and fables, the lives of characters and the intentions of their creators, and the mysterious workings of creativity.
Though this is very early Willingham, it still stands with his best work, and certainly prefigures the Fables series. If you enjoyed Peter and Max (his recent Fables prose-novel, which is also available as an audiobook masterfully read by Wil Wheaton) this will surely delight you -- and it's a perfect entree to the Fables world for younger readers for whom the more adult material and illustrations of Fables might not yet be appropriate.
Mark Buckingham, an artist on Fables, did a series of internal illustrations for the book. Tor was good enough to provide a complete set (PDF) for your enjoyment (some samples after the jump).