Bill Willingham (writer) and Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Michael
Allred, Andrew Pepoy (artists),
Sons of Empire (Vertigo, 2007)

In this ninth installment in the ongoing Fables series, Bill Willingham is back in top form, delivering solid character development and intriguing plot in spades. A mix of multi-part and one-shot stories, Sons of Empire introduces new characters and provides insight into the lives of others while driving the over-arching story forward.

The title story spans four chapters, the action alternating between the Homelands (where various powers plot to destroy the Fables -- and humans) and Fabletown. Bridging the two worlds is Hansel, who is sent to Fabletown as Homelands Ambassador, causing quite a stir. Why? Well, Frau Totenkinder must fill Prince Charming in (and thus, readers) on Hansel′s dark and bloody history. The invasion plans come to naught, as Pinocchio, with his knowledge of humans and Fables alike, pokes holes in the Snow Queen's rather brutal plan. But such plotting is far from over, as she and the Adversary continue to discuss options behind the scenes.

Spliced between those chapters are a series of shorts, starting with a day in the life of Rapunzel, whose freedom is constrained by the rapid growth of her hair. ″Porky Pine Pie″ pokes fun at the idea of comely lasses kissing animals who insist they're enchanted princes (a sly nod to the real frog prince, Ambrose, who reverts to froggy form early in the volume -- risking banishment to the farm). And reporter Kevin Thorne makes a reappearance, unwittingly renting rooms to Hansel and his men.

Santa pops up for the first time, for he too is a Fable, and he comes with an intriguing twist: if someone is willing to forgo all gifts for that year, Santa will answer a single question. Snow and Bigby′s son Ambrose (presumably named for the older Fable) draws the short straw among his siblings, but instead of asking their agreed upon question, he asks Santa how he manages to visit everyone in one night. Santa's answer allows for a segue to his visit with the other Ambrose, which hints at a vital role the frog prince will play in the battle to come.

Wrapping up the story part of the collection are the two chapters of ″Father and Son,″ in which Snow, Bigby and their children pay a visit to the North Wind. The title refers to two different parent-child relationships: Bigby and his father and Bigby and his children, as represented by cub narrator Ambrose. The children learn that the Big Bad Wolf is a devoted father, even if he often seems scary. Snow learns that perhaps Bigby isn't entirely wrong about his father. And readers discover what became of Bigby′s other brothers. More importantly, Bigby enlists his father's assistance with Fabletown′s anti-Homelands effort.

Closing out the volume are a series of shorts that answer ″burning questions″ from readers, such as ″What is Frau Totenkinder knitting?″ (you don't want to know!), ″Who was Prince Charming′s first love?″ (oh for childish innocence) and ″Besides Fly, who else has asked questions of the mirror?″ (poor, poor Mirror). These tales are clever and amusing, a charming glimpse into characters both beloved and lesser known.

Sons of Empire is one of the best volumes in this consistently excellent series, highlighting Willingham′s sharp writing, and the talents of a number of artists. Things are clearly building to a head between the Fables and their enemies in the Homelands, but it′s refreshing that Willingham doesn′t neglect the small details (whether lesser known characters, tiny episodes in the lives of others or even the reappearance of magical items) in developing the main plot. Fables remains one of the finest series out there, definitely.

[April Gutierrez]

Bill Willingham′s official Web site is here.