Imagine if all the legendary story characters were living secretly in New York -- and they weren't quite fairy tale material?
In short, Prince Charming is a thrice-divorced lech, the Big Bad Wolf is now a werewolf cop, Snow White is an embittered government manager, and some very peculiar other residents crashing in a modern city. "Fables Volume 1: Legends in Exile" does an excellent job smoothly introducing the world of Bill Willingham's series, even as he spins up a pretty solid little murder mystery.
The daily business of the hard-nosed Snow White (a Fable government official whom everyone comes to with complaints) is interrupted when Bigby Wolf brings her some ghastly news: her estranged, wild-child sister Rose Red has been murdered, and there's no sign of her except for buckets of blood all over her apartment. The most obvious suspect is Jack, whom Snow White helps interrogate when she isn't dealing with her womanizing, impoverished aristocrat ex, Prince Charming.
But some of the details about Rose Red's death don't add up -- and as Bigby investigates further into the people who knew her well, he begins finding aspects of her life hidden from everybody. Not to mention an irate fiancee who wants revenge on Jack. As the Remembrance Day approaches, Bigby puts together the clues to a very bizarre case where not everything is what it seems -- and not everyone is doing what they claim.
Bill Willingham is an expert in taking beloved characters from legends, fairy tales and nursery rhymes... and then turning our perceptions of them on their heads (example: Beast and Beauty's marital troubles cause his curse to reassert itself). He's also created a pretty unique fantasy concept -- the Fables and their magic have been driven out of their fantastical homeland, and live as secret refugees in the middle of New York City. It's actually a pretty cool idea.
If it were nothing but a "cool idea" gimmick, "Fables" might be a fun read but not a great one. However, Willingham has a knack for weaving together action-packed, gritty plots with a touch of sex, plenty of splattered gore, and plenty of quirky twists (Pinocchio is angry about being a "real boy" who never grows up). And even as he carefully introduces the characters and their situations, he also spins up a solid murder mystery that intertwines with the other subplots like ivy vines on a stone wall -- splatters of blood, a padlock, a strange betrothal contract, and a missing body all take part.
And Willingham's cast is as large as the number of beloved free-domain characters allows... well, at least the well-known ones. The inhabitants of fairy tales and folk legends loom especially large in the story -- the hard-nosed, no-nonsense Snow White; the bickering Beauty and her Beast hubby; the flirtatious much-married Prince Charming (who spends much of the story seducing waitresses and selling unusable property); the grizzled cop Bigby Wolf; supposedly reformed serial killer Bluebeard; a rather embittered Cinderella, and so on. Despite the vast cast of characters, Willingham juggles them adeptly and gives each character a distinct personality.
Bill Willingham started off the Fables series on a strong footing with "Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile," which combines a quirky fantasy concept with a solid murder mystery. Definitely a good read.