Published by: Less Than Three Press
Genre: LGBTQIA+ Fantasy Romance
Reviewed by: Sara and Alex
What to Expect: A clever, own-voices retelling of a classic with realized queer characters that gets better with every read.
Plot: Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.
But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.
1. Sara Beth [StB] and Alex de Morra [AdM] — you have just read the new release Peter Darling by Austin Chant. Before we go in depth, what was your first take?
StB: For me, this is a deeply creative and profoundly moving spin on the original tale. Thoroughly captivating from its roguish start to the perfectly sweet finish. When I was done, heart in my throat, I turned back to the dedication, because I realized that in its own way, it captured Chant’s message right from the start. When you read this, did you anticipate how you would be able to follow the dedication’s message throughout the story itself? Or did you see something different?
“This book is for every villain who ever inspired a queer awakening, and for every queer child who ever saw a piece of themself in the enemy.”
AdM: I first approached this as sweet, fluffy goodness. It was me and my kindle with my dog and a blanket. I ripped through this story in no time at all. It was lovely and a very easy read. At the end, I thought to myself, “Aw.” But…BUT…when I started talking to people about it, I realized there was a lot more here to explore.
StB: Same. I haven’t read this author before, and I was impressed with how shrewdly this story was layered. When I read this dedication, I didn’t realize how many variations on the enemy I would uncover. At times, Peter is his own worst enemy, not even realizing it. Most of us don’t recognize when that’s happening.It’s a very human thing. But the idea of who the actual enemy is in this book isn’t so obvious.
AdM: That definitely came through. My first conscious appreciation of the story included the trans hero. Not just that, it was one whose main conflict in the story wasn’t about being trans — nor did it get in the way of a happy ending or play a role in whether Peter would be loved. It just WAS. These days, there are so many queer books and, in my experience, internal homophobia and the coming out experience still plays such an important role in the plot. I love that this book has assumed the reader can move beyond this and, as someone who identifies as queer, it’s more than refreshing, it’s healing. It was so nice, I didn’t even notice I felt that way until I talked about it.
StB: I didn’t realize I felt that way, either, until this conversation.You’re completely right – it’s refreshing. So many parts of this book are. It’s not just a retelling of a classic, it’s a complete rethinking of it as well, one that was unexpected and incredibly moving.
2. Like Wicked for Wizard of Oz and Wide Sargasso Sea for Jane Eyre, Peter Darling is a retelling of a classic story. Similarly, the author Austin Chant got his start writing fanfiction, places queer and trans characters at the center of fantasy stories, and takes his inspiration from things missing in “collective storytelling”. How does play out for you as a reader?
AdM: So…potentially an unpopular opinion but I LOVE that this reads like fanfiction. I write fanfiction; I read fanfiction, I love fanfiction, lots of authors I love got their start with fanfiction. And here’s what’s so great about it. Start with a world everyone knows, yeah? Then geek out over it (we totally did) and focus on the characters. That’s where the magic is. I this case, this book is all about a new Peter. He’s ten years older (an adult!) having come back after being introduced as Wendy to a potential suitor. There are new ramifications to being a boy in the Darlings’ world. And at a time before hormones and surgery and open discussion, the options available are daunting. It’s an intriguing place to start a retelling.
StB: I have no idea why that would be an unpopular opinion, but I have heard people criticize fan fiction the same way they criticize romance, which is ridiculous. Fan fiction is the breeding ground for great talent, and I’m on board with it. Anyway, when I think about the options presented to Wendy by her family, which were really no kind of options at all, I completely understand why Neverland was not only an attractive escape, both as a child an adult, but a necessary one. So many of Wendy’s choice, as well as Peter’s/Pan’s were made in a bid for self-preservation. From my standpoint as a queer reader who experienced a similar drive growing up, this was totally relatable.
AdM: So…I need to talk about my “duh” moment. Pan. Yes, Pan, Pan, Peter Pan but also the demigod Pan. How did I never make that connection? So, if Peter Pan was a modern retelling of Pan back in the day and now Peter Darling is a retelling of that story…oh, my god…mind blown! Everything about Pan’s dominion of being free and natural, his epic sexuality (which was missed in Barrie’s version…and we see the first glimpses in this one), his creativity wrapped up in his essential wickedness.
StB: So clever. So, so, so clever. This is why I love this book.
AdM: Then there’s the part that is so different from other retellings. In Wicked, the main character becomes Elspeth, the not-so-wicked witch. In Wide Sargasso Sea, we meet Mrs. Rochester before she’s a Rochester and illness sets in. In this case, Peter remains the main character but instead of seeing him from Wendy’s POV, we see it from…er…Wendy’s POV. From an outsider’s perspective, Wendy has always been a ‘she’ but now we know better – he’s Peter. And he’s not the same Peter with baby teeth who would never grow old. He’s got an adult Peter body but returns with Peter’s so-ten-years-ago outdated mindset. Adults are not supposed to come back to Neverland. They just aren’t! I love it when an author messes with my mind like this.
StB: It was definitely a surprise for me, the adult in Neverland thing. But it made sense in the context of the overarching theme we talked about earlier – the idea of Wendy using Neverland to create a reality for his true self, Peter Pan (who is Peter and Pan, just to be confusing). The struggles Wendy faced as the child who fled to Neverland didn’t disappear as he grew, and so his escape remained the same. Wait. Did we talk about that yet? If we didn’t we should, and if we did, point made.
AdM: That’s the next question. Shall we move on?
StB: Hm. Yes, let’s talk about truth while we are already on the subject of reality 🙂
3. The Fairie Queen says “Not all truths are yours. Some things are just true. [location 2077]” But Neverland is famously a place that exists based on the creation of the minds of children. It is a place where memories morph, children can fly, the impossible happens. What’s the connection between identifying those things that are unquestionably true and finding those truths in a place that is made-up?
StB: You start. You are a way better starter.
AdM: (sends StB hugs and scoops out more ice cream) I have so many feelings about having to move to an imaginary place in order to be your true self. Not to make this about me (totally making this about me), that’s the point of a pen name. It’s about living behind a facade in a way that makes it possible to talk about true things without it having to interfere with one’s ability to get a paycheck. I mean just think of current dangers associated with getting doxxed. There’s a whole closet discussion that can be had here. Seriously, I could write pages. But there is a progression, isn’t there? First, play in the closet then come out. Or not. Why? Because the truth is dangerous!
StB: I think that is something that every part of Wendy, Peter Pan, and James Hook all intimately understand: how dangerous the truth is, especially if we aren’t ready to embrace it and everything it brings. The Queen is also the one who acknowledges that Peter’s imagination is wide and powerful, therefore the influence his desires and moods play on Neverland itself are always present. He uses that almost to the bitter end to protect himself not from the truth of who he is, because in all his incarnations he has never denied that, but to protect himself from what it would mean to live in reality as his true self.
AdM: So, on one hand, we get to see Neverland as a sandbox. It exists to try things that aren’t possible in the real world without someone sustaining permanent damage. BUT. There’s a point at which you so wisely said “shit just got real.” Even in the imaginary world, there can be consequences.
StB: Yep. Exactly. I can see why Peter is so resistant and scared to leave Neverland, even with James, when he has memories like that to live with. And that brings us to memory – another huge theme. In Neverland, truth is also based on memory, and in a place where memory is basically sacrificed for the comfort of living in a dream, everything is very liquid. Even so, there are limits. Which brings us back to the Queen’s statement – no matter what Peter wants, some truths can’t be changed. They just are.
AdM: Exactly, so Pan ’s given some conditions from the Queen that he’s not had to deal with before. And he’s pressed to start recognizing that things he’s arrogantly attributed to his past escapades were, in fact, things that were true in the real world before coming here. Just because the original memory has been forgotten and a story made up in its place doesn’t change the fact of what was or wasn’t. So, this gets fun. Now we have to wonder, wait…did that happen here or is it real? Slowly, these are revealed and it’s wonderful. And OH…speaking of wonderful, can we talk about Hook’s wardrobe? So fine…
StB: **clapping hands** oh yes! The description of the merboots…I mean. That is talent. Seriously.
AdM: Hook’s obsession with clothes is the first clue into seeing him as a sensual person. It’s lovely and telling to see how he moves more and more into a three-dimensional, realized character as the story progresses.
StB: It was a great device to showcase his evolution, for sure. It also made me wish merpeople were real, and that maybe I could murder one and make boots out of them. I think that says bad things about me. Anyway. What else?
AdM: So you know, I almost choked on my pistachio ice cream. I could have died. I hope you feel bad.
StB: I do and I don’t. So conflicted. Maybe that’s a good place to end. You choking and me considering merperson murder. I mean – if these reactions aren’t ringing endorsements to read this book, I’m not sure what would be.
AdM: We can’t end here. We have more villainy discuss. Let’s press on.
4. Neverland is the epitome of a free and wild place. As such, the dangers there, the wars and villainy that play out, are meant to be a game. Adults who have lived, have felt sadness, have become weary aren’t allowed to come back. Peter Darling turns this on its head in two ways. The first is that Peter (the boy who would never grow old) has come back. The second is that he comes back to Neverland as an adult. How is this kosher?
AdM: Since you’re in such an evil merperson murderer, co-reviewer choker, and all around baddie, why don’t you start?
StB: Can we talk about what a total meany Peter Pan starts out as? I mean – I wasn’t expecting that. If there is a villain in this story, at least in the beginning, it sure isn’t Hook.
AdM: Oh, we HAVE to talk about that. In Barrie’s book, Peter Pan is a jerk for sure. He’s selfish and cruel, he culls through the Lost Boys just because he can, but he’s loved despite it all. Growing up, I did not like Peter Pan for just this reason. He wasn’t my kind of boy; he was the bully on the playground. To make it worse, he was the one that all the adults loved and believed as well.
StB: Yeah, I feel the canon has been that Peter Pan should be attractive for all of his mischievousness, but this iteration gives us more of Pan and less of Peter, rendering him well…nasty and aggressive and controlling. I disliked him in the original story for all of the reasons you listed above, but I feel that he was intended to be adorable in his precociousness. Here, he is downright cold and manipulative.
AdM: Exactly. He does not care about others. Period. So, this is where I think the Wendy connection gets interesting. In the Barrie story, she’s (note: using the pronoun she because this is how Barrie’s character identifies) the surrogate mom. All she does is care for the Lost Boys. Even the pirates want her to care for them. But as Peter, he couldn’t get far enough from that mindset — so much so that the Lost Boys don’t celebrate when they see him again — they cower! What the author does that’s so clever, I think, is the pendulum swing from Wendy over to Pan and eventually into something else.
StB: Yes, because it really shows us all sides of this person. What’s also interesting to me about this, is how Chant manages to make me really love the little shit not in spite of his bad behavior, but because it’s part of the character as a whole. That’s a difficult thing to pull off. It was never challenging for me to like Hook, James, or James Hook. He had attractive and almost whimsical qualities from start. Peter Pan was more of a question mark for me in the beginning. Like…where was Chant heading with this? But it’s exactly as you described it – a very deliberate and well-planned character arc.
AdM: And THEN we have Ernest. I know you wanted a spin-off. Or, at least a short. Or perhaps a little sumthin-sumthin to reward him for being the real man of the story — unseen by Peter, unappreciated by Hook, rightfully loved by the Lost Boys but not “in that way”. Were you not at least a little bit like…come over here Ernest, let me fix that collar for you…oh, here…you just have a little spot…no, no…don’t move. Because really, he was the counter-character to all that nastiness. Excuse me for a moment while I consider how lovely he was.
StB: **dreamy eyes also ruminating on Ernest’s loveliness** Yes. All of that. A hundred times over – all of it. He was…so loveable. I loved Ernest. I don’t understand his motivations, not really, but I want to know more. So I demand a novella or short of some sort. Can I do that? Is that a thing or no?
AdM: You are as free to demand it as the author is to say “no.” Alas…Ernest wouldn’t play the game! He negotiated peace, a new way of living, he was the new caretaker…OMFG…he took WENDY’s old role! Mind blown — again!
StB: I feel like no matter how many times we chat about this book, there will always be another reveal like that. It really says something about the author’s talent. This is a multi-faceted story populated by complex characters and shrewd plot devices. I feel like Austin Chant is probably like the Lady Gaga of the book world. Or something.Something so awesome but subtle I cannot think of an adequate example.
AdM: Agreed. Austin Chant has done something quite special with Peter Darling. So – should we move on to the inevitable last 2 questions?
StB: Yes. Um. Remind me what those questions are.
AdM: (points down)
StB: Ah, yes. Okay.
5. Was there anything that you didn’t like about the book?
StB: **thinks deeply** Sorry. Yeah, nope. I got nothin.
AdM: Funny thing, if I wrote this before having all of these long, involved discussions, I might have written it off as being some light fluff. That’s on me but I would have done that. I have seen some comments about the age discrepancy (this did not bother me one bit) or the fact that fairie dust fixes everything (yeah, of course…and I want some). That said, I can’t think of anything that I didn’t like about it. It was a sneaky, cheeky little number that turned out to have more to it than I initially gave it credit for.
6. At 164 pages, Peter Darling is a fairly short read. It can be an easy read but there are several avenues to explore this more deeply. Now that we’ve done both, what are the things that you love about this book? What are you going to remember most about it?
StB: I think…the creativity and insight. I read. A lot. You do, too. To find something so fresh and interesting, something I can look at over and over and still find something new to explore – that means a lot to me. I feel like the author understands humanity in a way that is difficult to capture with words, but Chant pulls it off, and there were moments during my reading that I had to stop and really think about what was on the page. This book was a gift really, and I can’t wait to see what else this author has to show us.
AdM: I love how much of a conversation starter this has been. It made me dig into Barrie’s book (which I haven’t touched in ages) and Greek mythology. It made me think about happy endings for queer and trans characters without the need for a painful coming out. It’s one thing to talk about how engrossing a book is but it is something else to say that a book has made me engage with people and reading in a new way. That’s impressive. It’s a great book for a reading group and I hope that others pick this up as an opportunity to start their own conversations.
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra
Sara Beth loves to read, write about what she reads, and really, really loves to talk about what she’s reading. So, she looks forward to many hours of conversation with you all surrounding books, books, and more books. Sara hosts the column Binge Worthy Books and all her reviews can be found here.
Connect via Twitter: @sarathebeth