There are many stories about warped or slightly skewed fairy tales.  This is certainly one of them, but not quite.

The most important difference is of course the quality of writing.  This is my first experience with John Connolly, but it will decidedly not be my last.  He has a eye for imagery and a gentle but persistent grasp on plot.    This man knows how to tell a good story.

The second reason is that the warping of the classic tales in this story are not for political purposes (don’t tell that to the communist 7 dwarfs though).  Or for simply humorous ones (although it is quite humorous at times).  It is for one simple reason: The characters themselves made it that way.  Each of the monsters and magical perversions in this world is someone’s fear, based in the foundation of sometimes horrific children’s tales.  The rulers of this kingdom are stolen children, trapped in a world they don’t know or understand. They make sense of it the best way they can – through the lens of tales they grew up on. 

The main character, David, in trying to escape his own life, gets lost in this no-name world.  Therein he sees the manifestation of all the tales he obsessively read in the wake of his mother’s recent death.  His wounds are fresh and the stories were his salve.  Many of his adventures are of his own making, including a tower with a monster disguised as a sleeping princess (who looks an awful lot like David’s mother).  There is also a silent but powerful cancerous monster eating its way through the forest.  Though David doesn’t know it, his fears about his mother and his life have created part of this world.  Fortunately by defeating the monsters, he also defeats his fears.  As a result he grows more confident and stronger as his makes his way toward the king and the mysterious Book of Lost Things  – his only hope for returning home.

But some of his adversaries are not his nightmares and these he has less control over.  They are not as easily defeated.   Creatures called Loups, half man half wolf beasts were created by the aging and impotent king, who awaits his death.  Longing to be relieved of his power and of his life, his biggest fear is the Crooked Man – his captor.  Both the Crooked Man (a twisted Rumpelstiltskin creature) and the king want David to surrender his soul.  If he takes the crown,  one will be given renewed life and the other will be allowed to pass on.  David, however, will be trapped for eternity.

One of the most powerful moments in the book is when the Loups finally do kill the king.  For a moment they are gleefully triumphant.  They will now rule the kingdom! But as David wisely knows, they were the creation of the king’s fears and without him, they no longer exist.  As they turn to dust, there is nothing but surprise on their faces.

In this culture of fear so many of us are held prisoner in a world of our own making.  It is hard in the day to day chaos to see that we are held captive by fears that we ourselves have brought into being.  But we also have to deal with the fears of others and understand how they shape our world.  It’s no surprise that we often feel adrift in a foreign land and don’t know where the road is going.

Though we may stumble along the way, as David shows us, the point is not to be free of fear, but to face it head on.  For if we have created them, we can also deny them existence.