Aiden Thomas, author of last year’s massive hit Cemetery Boys, returns with their sophomore effort, Lost in the Never Woods, a modern sequel to the classic Peter Pan story.
Here’s the summary…
When children go missing in the small coastal town of Astoria, people look to Wendy for answers.
It’s been five years since Wendy and her two brothers went missing in the woods, but when the town’s children start to disappear, the questions surrounding her brothers’ mysterious circumstances are brought back into light. Attempting to flee her past, Wendy almost runs over an unconscious boy lying in the middle of the road, and gets pulled into the mystery haunting the town.
Peter, a boy she thought lived only in her stories, claims that if they don’t do something, the missing children will meet the same fate as her brothers. In order to find them and rescue the missing kids, Wendy must confront what’s waiting for her in the woods.
Like everyone else, I’m firmly planted in the “Aiden Thomas is a virtuoso” category thanks to their stunning debut, last year’s Cemetery Boys. So, of course the eyes of the reading world would be on their sophomore effort hoping they could manufacture genius once again.
Did Aiden succeed?
Lost in the Never Woods is a moody contemporary sequel to the definitive Peter Pan story most of us know fairly well thanks to several iterations of the now classic tale. And what surprised me the most was even though I’ve historically acted with indifference towards this tale, I found myself emotionally committed to Aiden’s story well before its conclusion. But in truth, it has less to do with the winks and nods to its source material and more to do with their go at a real-world trauma-induced venture.
In what is common for this type of storytelling, the real-world aesthetics juxtapose the fantasy elements, creating tension among the characters as they struggle to comprehend between what is real, and what is make believe. Even Wendy Darling, who is struggling with a bout of amnesia, spends a fair amount of time questioning her own sanity. These personable moments of self-doubt early on make for some of the better passages where her states of delirium and certainty haven’t quite found each other yet. It’s when they do that the mystery really begins to unfold and the “adventure” aspect of the book takes hold. Unfortunately that’s also where the book begins to get away from you, leaving behind what I feel makes this book a worthwhile examination of the human condition.
Some will find the first two acts slow, waiting for the “a-ha” moments to kick in, but for me, that’s the good stuff. This is the type of strong character building we saw in Cemetery Boys, only trouble is, Aiden seems to abandon it, instead building towards a not-so-shocking climax. Because once they decide to make this book more about the town’s disturbingly lukewarm reaction to serial abduction, rather than the examination of its core characters and how they interact with each other, I started to lose interest.
As the reader, we understand that what Wendy is experiencing is real, that Peter Pan is real, that Neverland is real, but those around Wendy think otherwise. They believe that her irrationality and erratic behavior are trauma-induced but at that same time don’t do much about it. And this painfully close to the mark look at reconciliation, grief, loss, and guilt has so many threadbare moments that just barely miss the mark; the underpinnings of Lost in the Never Woods becomes more of a “what could have been” for me.
This is an admirable effort by Aiden, because when you tackle weighty issues using a fairy-tale aesthetic, you’re attempting to do something the classics failed to. We know that “happily ever after” isn’t always the case and this book does attempt to look at how people deal with pain, just not in a substantive enough way. Finding that balance is a tricky endeavor for any writer and I kind of feel this book would have thrived had it leaned a little less young, and a little more adult. Because at some point, all the stick in the mud content that I was enjoying takes a backseat to sugary moments between the two leads, predictable motivations by unrealistic law enforcement types, and an ending you could see coming from a mile away. But I can’t help but appreciate the effort they make in getting us to that point.
The trauma in question, mentioned in the summary, affects not only Wendy but her family as well, in what should absolutely be profound and meaningful ways, so I’m not sure I get people’s adverse reaction to her parents grief. Her mother in particular comes furnished with a backstory that should’ve gotten at least a chapter all to itself; she’s a strong character and deserved it. Without this added bit of exposition, she comes across unsympathetically and alien where she should’ve been Wendy’s hero, not Peter Pan. Especially when certain things about her past come to light, that should’ve been THE moment in the book, particularly for Wendy, but is mostly glanced over.
Because her past does have meaningful story connections that are critical to the plot, so this is a bit of a dropped ball on their part. Likewise, the father, dealing with things in his own way, is reduced to a morose, petulant, mumbling machine who again doesn’t garner any sympathy, only confusion. I would say the parents represented the pinnacle of what’s most frustrating for me about this book. This ISN’T Neverland, that’s supposed to be the point, right?
Speaking of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, this might not be the Peter Pan you immediately think of when you hear the name, but this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Peter Pan adventure either. But not to worry, Thomas stays true to the essence the character, or as much as can be expected given the cynical nature of this real-world setting, and as such, I’ll admit to falling for his whimsical nature and exuberance. So don’t blame Wendy for inherently doing the same, and quickly, although with her it’s much more profound, as the book does tinker with a romantic scheme. But kudos to Thomas for keeping things in check as far as their courting is concerned, in a book that centers on child abduction and other dark themes, a wise decision.
There is a definite predictability to this book which I’m sure was meant to soften some of the plots harder edges. Anytime you’re dealing with a decisively terrifying premise such as child abduction, tempering the darkness with a little obviousness isn’t always a bad thing. And is a welcome distraction along with instilling confidence that, no matter what, the dark shadows will be defeated; this is a tremendous bit of reassurance in a story that skews evil.
Concerning the fabled leader of the Lost Boys, Aiden does a nice job injecting a lot of familiar Peter Pan lore and mythology into the story. Unending youth, flying (floating really), threat detection, ability to alter perception, easing the suffering of children who passed on to the other side, and more all appear throughout the book. That last point in particular is something you should definitely look out for as the book’s closest thing to a deus ex machina. And in those sparse moments when Wendy starts to regain her memory and pixie dust begins to fall, you’ll recognize this book as the fairytale is was perhaps inspired to be.
The bottom line is, Lost in the Never Woods is an atmospheric and modern take on the continuing story of Peter Pan. Thanks to Aiden’s ability as a writer, it establishes strong voices early on with thoughtful character work, moody world building, and an intriguing enough mystery that gives us more of that quality storytelling we saw in Cemetery Boys.
One last thing, please, don’t go into this expecting a follow-up to Cemetery Boys, this is not that, so lower your expectations. And not to devalue this book in any way, but Aiden can surely be forgiven for not following up one masterpiece with another, that’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to this book either.
To learn more information and find out what Aiden is up to, visit Aiden-Thomas.com.
Lost in the Never Woods is on sale now, click HERE to order a copy today!