At long last, my review of Peter Darling, by Austin Chant. Fair warning: Peter Pan and the idea of Captain Hook as a love interest are important enough to me that this review has turned into a post on a recipe blog–in other words, there’s going to be a preamble 😛 If this is too much for you, skip to the words “imagine, therefore, my delight.” (Now imagine Hook saying these words. OK, bye.)
Some years ago, fantasy erotica writer Tof Eklund and I discussed the thematic differences between the original J.M. Barrie Peter Pan and multiple movie versions. The novel’s focus is on youth, whereas the movie versions become a fascinating meta-analysis of make-believe itself. After all, Neverland is concocted out of children’s play. At the time the book is set in its real-world scenes, English children were fascinated by pirates and by the environments their parents’ friends had colonized –Neverland seems like a casserole of Caribbean and African plants and animals. A 1960’s Neverland might be an alien planet, for example, because kids had moved on.
The most distilled example of this is Captain Hook himself. In at least two live-action versions, the same actor (for example, Cyril Richard or Jason Isaacs) portrays both the children’s father Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. What purpose can this serve other than to emphasize the fact that the children are only playing pretend, or that their imaginary villains are inspired by an intmidating figure from their real life? Darling is, after all, a strict and distant figure.
Tof had a fabulous way of summing up the Darling-Hook connection: “Daddy in a hat.” After all, if Cyril Richard goes from being their father to a fearsome pirate captain just by putting on an anachronistic hat with a huge feather, then that pirate captain allows them to explore the thrill of interacting with a villain without actually being dangerous. It’s just a hat.
I cribbed this line, with a dedication to Tof and their family, in my short story “The Generous Princess” (Tales from Perach), because the princess’s wizard grandfather-figure is playing Haman in the Purimspiel. He becomes, therefore, “Zayde in a hat”, which as one of her moms explains to her makes him a safe way to interact with the idea of bad guys. In fact, this line is a microcosm of my entire philosophy in creating the wizard in the first place: what we like about appealing villains isn’t their villainy, most of the time, but their swagger, smirk, and distinctively weird clothing.
Imagine, therefore, my delight when I discovered that not only was there to be a Pan/Hook novel out there, but that author Austin Chant feels the same way about villains that I do, including the clothing fascination! His Hook is definitely a snappy dresser. In fact, one of the most endearing things about him is that part of the treasure he seeks includes particularly unusual and awesome things to wear instead of just gold. It’s not even played as camp or frivolous. He’s completely macho, while coveting fancy boots.
I have to admit when I hear “Pan/Hook slash!” the first place my mind goes is very surface-level and very physical. What I got instead was something I wound up liking a lot more: Chant gets inside the minds of the characters and really explores who they are to each other, which changes and evolves by the chapter.
Pan/Hook slash, to be good and not to be insulting to the reader–who is presumably there because they like the original mischievous smartass vs. blustery villain dynamic and doesn’t want to be shortchanged–has to start with that dynamic. Chant doesn’t disappoint. We get an opening skirmish that has all the teasing and violence you’d expect from these two.
But soon the novel starts to ask whether the Boys Vs. Pirates setup of the island is even fair — imagine a Disney princess starting to question the idea of idealizing monarchy in fairy-tales — and with each interaction, Hook and Pan draw closer together, even if only by millimeters. Most of the book is slow burn, despite any early attraction, because of the antagonistic nature of their history. The friendship sort of grows in a “you dipshit”-becomes-“my dipshit” sort of way.
“Pan,” Hook said. “You saved my life.”
“I had to,” he said finally. “If you’d died there, I wouldn’t have been the one to defeat you.”
Hook gave a low chuckle. “Your obsession is flattering, Pan. And I share it.”
“Is that not what they call it,” Hook said, “when two men can think of nothing but each other?”
I was amazed at the way Chant took the very meta-nature of the Peter Pan story and wrapped it into a fancy bow in ways I never before imagined. This is a story about Peter Pan, but it’s also a story about Peter Pan, if you follow me.
Since Peter is transmasculine, I found myself dreading the inevitable “reveal”, and was pleasantly surprised to discover there wasn’t one. At all. Austin Chant actually wrote one, originally in an early draft, before realizing like many of us do that when it’s your book, you don’t have to include the parts you don’t like. There’s a piece of writing advice that says that those parts you skim or skip when reading? Don’t write those parts. This, as Austin points out in his amazing blog post about why he didn’t include a coming-out scene, goes double for scenes that aren’t just boring but actually make you unhappy. As he puts it:
Maybe the coming out scenes I kept writing were uncomfortable because cramming them in only served to entertain the idea of Hook rejecting Peter. I was putting Peter’s trans status on the table as something that had to be addressed and scrutinized before his relationship could proceed, as if they couldn’t be together if I didn’t include that scene.
Fair warning that there is deadnaming, misgendering, and even suicidal ideation in Peter’s flashbacks to his life in the Darling household, but these sections are brief and clearly demarkated so you can read them with your mental armor on, if you need it. Plus, this book is a trans man writing a trans man’s experiences, so he’s allowed to write that down. Peter Darling has the sweetest of happy endings — I think they’re even up an apple tree or something old-fashioned like that — so don’t worry, the sunlight is waiting after the storm.