Reviewing: Peter Darling by Austin Chant

TW: Transphobia, deadnaming, murder, brief mention of suicidal thoughts.

“Who are you?” Hook asked, curling his fingers around the hilt of his sword.

The stranger paused and gave a slow, cold smile.

“I’m the prince of runaways,” he said. “The rightful king of Neverland.”

I loved Peter Pan as a child. I loved fantasy in general, really, I still do. It’s pure escapism, the ability to form and live in your own world where literally anything is possible – at least in your own mind – heavily influenced my desire to write growing up. After all, what could be more wonderful than telling stories forever? The story of Peter Pan has been explored many times on and off screen, from the impish cartoon of my childhood to the grown man rediscovering magic in Hook (which I love dearly), but this is the first time it’s had such an emotional impact for me. That isn’t to say that other versions haven’t inspired an emotional response, just not on the scale of Chant’s creation.

Peter stared at himself in the mirror, registering the terror in his eyes almost before he realized he was afraid. This was exactly what he wanted, and it was unforgivable.

If he stayed, he’d be in an asylum by the next evening. There was only one way out.

In Peter Darling, Peter is torn between two worlds – Neverland, the world where he is King among the other runaways, flying overhead and fighting with pirates, and the world in which he was born: a world in which he must live as Wendy Darling, watching as his brothers are allowed the freedoms to play and dress and be as they wish, and he is told to be a good sister. His family will never understand, Peter is not a character, but he loves them and so he stays. As an adult, however, Peter’s knowledge of who he is and his parent’s desire for him to be the perfect daughter have finally come to a final outcome. Peter must leave if he wants to be free.

“At the back of his mind, he wondered if he really wanted to die, if he’d convinced himself he could fly to make it easier. Would his mother wake to find his body on the lawn, hair cut off, wearing his father’s clothes? Would they take pictures of him for the papers?”

This is a very short book, but Chant’s portrayal of Peter is incredibly complex. He returns to Neverland hungry for a war, a real fight, because he is Peter Pan and he fights pirates – but what once felt like a game is deadly now. Far from the childlike fighting we see in the Disney movie, this is a young man willing to kill and seeing him do so is deeply uncomfortable to read. Peter reawakens his conflict with Captain Hook in a bid to regain control over the Lost Boys who not only appear to have a new leader, but also appear to have made peace with his nemesis in the years he has been away. When he was a child, Peter was a hero and Hook was a villain – but now that doesn’t seem quite as true, the distinctions quite so clear. I love Hook, I always have, he’s what I would be if I was a villain – moustache-twirling, lace bedecked and thoroughly dandyish. He’s great. I mean this description says it all:

Everything about Hook seemed a little frivolous, yet perhaps that was the point of it. He was such a dastardly villain that he could stand to do everything in twice as many ruffles as the next man.

Tell me this man isn’t the fanciest villain ever.

The growth of Pan and Hook’s relationship with one another, their joint realisation that Neverland may not be what they think it is, was fantastic. They are both trapped in different ways, escaping worlds that would not accept them for a world that seeks to mould them into something else. The Prince of the runaways and the dastardly pirate determined to thwart and destroy him. The characters they play have overruled who they are – Peter doesn’t want to kill people, not really, not even pirates. Not even Hook.

Especially not Hook.

He found himself staring up into Hook’s face. Peter had never seen him so close, and the picture wasn’t foul, but fascinating; his eyes were forget-me-not blue, his hair a tangle of black ringlets, his mustache curled like the crest of a wave. His breath washed over Peter’s cheek, and he smelled warm, like spice and salt.

The scenes with Peter’s family were heartbreaking. I try very hard to avoid spoilers in my reviews for those of you who dislike them (I know I’m not a fan of having the plot spoiled for me) but needless to say Peter’s existence as a trans boy in the early 1900s is not an easy one. What were once written off as childhood games are met with anger and threats of asylums as Peter grows older, and the family he loves dearly push him to be something else until his only choice is to abandon them. I mention this partially because the plot does not centre around them, and partially because these scenes of transphobia while not overly violent or long may be deeply upsetting to some. If you’re thinking of reading anything I have read, and have a concern that wasn’t mentioned in the review, please do drop me a message and I will be happy to answer any questions!

“George dear?” Mrs. Darling called, in her honeyed voice. “Wendy’s coming down to say hello to Mr. Martin.”

Mr Darling looked braced for impact when Peter and Mrs. Darling came into the parlor, but when he saw Peter in his dress, he abruptly relaxed. His smile softened as if he had recognized someone he cared about in a stranger’s face.

“There’s my young lady,” he said gruffly. “There’s my beautiful girl.”

There are so many beautiful quotes in this book that I wanted to fill this review with them – you may have noticed. Chant writes beautifully and I will definitely be reading more of his work. My only complaint regarding this book, and what kept it from the potential fifth star, is that it was far too short, I wanted more, and I finished the book far too fast for my liking! Honestly though, I highly recommend it. In a world full of misinformation and hatred regarding trans identities, the importance of own-voices fiction cannot be stated highly enough and this is a beautiful example.

Overall rating: 4 stars out of 5

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