Review by Rakuen Growlithe
The Adventures of Peter Gray (Written Dreams Publishing, $16.99) is the first novel by Nathan Hopp. It's told from the perspective of the titular Peter Gray, a young wolf living on the streets of an alternate history New York City in 1899. The Adventures of Peter Gray invites us to experience the city through the eyes of one who loves it and see how both it and Peter's life changes over the year.
I want to start off with the biggest weakness of this book [as a product]: the blurb. The problem with it is that it sets up misplaced expectations and reading then becomes frustrating when those expectations aren't met. The first paragraph of the blurb is fine, but then it makes the whole book sound like it's about Peter's quest for a family and the Newsies' strike. The Newsies' strike is introduced and finished in fewer than 30 pages; the book has 240.
Ignore the blurb and appreciate the book for what it is: a collection of adventures of a young, orphaned wolf in the big city. There is an overall arc to Peter's story, but it develops slowly and organically while many smaller incidents build up to the climax. It's a good structure that works, making the whole book very suitable for quickly picking up and reading without having to worry about forgetting what happened last time.
Nearly all the chapters are self-contained. We meet new characters that stay with us but each chapter has a distinct story. Maybe it's Peter having a picnic with his friends, maybe it's a time when he deals with bullies, or maybe he goes to visit the Statue of Liberty. The various adventures are entertaining and reminiscent of the carefree days as a child. However, that carefree feeling is tempered by the reality that Peter is an orphan, homeless, and broke.
Setting the story in New York City was perhaps not the best idea. I understand why Nathan Hopp did it: the stories he's telling are based on real events, there are actual historical figures, and it gives us a familiar world. I found that familiarity to work against it. When I played Breath of Fire as a child, it was easy to accept the world. This guy is a dragon, there's a human, he's a were-tiger, and that's a walking onion. That's just how it is. When Kyell Gold's Dangerous Spirits series uses normal geography but replaces humans with furries, it's still fairly easy to accept. What I find difficult to accept is a world where furries (called Furren in this book) exist in the real world, alongside humans in the historical past. It's disorienting for me because instead of a blank slate that the world fills, I am constantly unsure whether what I know remains true. This is best exemplified by Bromley, a minor character who happens to be an eight-year-old German Shepherd. German Shepherds are a breed of dog that was created by humans, so how does that work in this world? This is the disorienting part of not knowing what is still true and what is not. Historically it doesn't work either. Bromley is a German Shepherd, eight years old and living in New York City in 1899. The German Shepherd breed only began in 1899 and would've taken time to be established in Germany before moving to New York.
Of course, that doesn't take away from the development of good characters. Everyone feels and acts like an individual, and it's nice to see them all grow and develop over the year which the book spans. It's especially good to see the development of Gavin who we were introduced to as a bully but whom Peter later befriends. Considering the polarization that we see in the world today, I think it is really good to have characters that show that people can change and that it is possible for enemies to become friends. Other characters, like the fennec Ms. Lesser, show that there is often more to people than we can see.
These are not the only themes explored: the book has the Newsies standing up for their rights, many examinations of discrimination, community, and poverty. I think if we empathize with Peter, it should stimulate us to ask questions about our own lives. As I was reading the book, with everyone knowing that Peter was living out on the streets, sleeping in barrels and struggling for food, I wondered why they didn't help him. Why didn't they give him a bed to sleep in? But would I take in someone off the street, even if I talked to him every day? Almost certainly not. Perhaps in that way, one might wonder what that reveals about us. If our lives were a book, what would a reader think of our choices?
The last topic I want to touch on is motivation. While the main story aspects have clear motivation, I don't always see that for the world at large. For example, why even have furry characters here? It's seldom brought up, and I don't recall it playing a major role. It doesn't even add much diversity to the world as fennecs, raccoons, humans, wolves, foxes and mice all appear to be roughly the same size with the same capabilities.
Species don't seem to correspond to any particular human race or caste, and this can lessen the impact of certain scenes. We see a certain amount of hatred directed at a gay fox and mouse couple but given the date and an encounter elsewhere in the story, it's unclear if the hatred is due to them being gay or them being a mixed-species couple. I think more evidence leans towards it being homophobia, but it's slightly ambiguous. Similarly, we see discrimination against humans, but we are not given any understanding of why. While hatred and discrimination in the real world are almost always based on half truths or whole lies, there is some sort of motivation. Religion, fear of the unknown, fear of losing jobs, and so on. There doesn't seem to be any cause, whether real or imagined, for the anti-human prejudice in the story.
The story is written in the first-person from the perspective of Peter Gray. You would think that we would know his motivations well, but they are also seldom explored. This is a huge contrast to Fallout Equestria and some of its spin-offs where we get a constant window into the main characters thoughts. We follow Peter Gray but we don't really know him; there's a vague sense of detachment. Why doesn't he steal? Is it his religion? And, despite his claims, we know he does try to steal small things, so why does he do that? How does he justify himself? We are always left unsure.
These are mostly minor flaws. As I said previously, The Adventures of Peter Gray is a good book. It's set up well, easy-to-read, and the short, self-contained chapters make it very convenient to pick up when you only have a short time. The characters are all unique and the themes are handled well without being preachy. As I went through it, I found myself increasingly invested in the outcome and wanting to see more. The ending, although quite cliche, was suitably emotional. I think it is a very strong first novel for Nathan Hopp, and I can definitely recommend it as a good read.