Monday, January 26, 2009


I wish I could remember how Clive Barker's Abarat, Book 2 ended up on my bookshelf, but I don’t. And it’s weird that I somehow had the second book in the series, but not the first. I’m glad I did though, because it made me go back and buy the first one and now that I’ve read it, I love it so, so much.

Entertainment Weekly called Abarat “a blend of Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” I see where they’re going with that – it’s about a young girl who gets transported from our world to another, fantastical one – but I think that does a disservice to Abarat. Alice in Wonderland is a (pardon the adjective) wonderful book about the playfulness and innocence of childhood. Wardrobe is a magical story with a theological message. Abarat is also wonderful and magical, but it’s so different in tone and purpose from those other two books that… well, I don’t know if you’d be disappointed to find that it’s not really like them at all, but you’d certainly be surprised.

It’s closer to Alice. In fact, other than the “real-world character transported to fantasy-world” angle, there’s not much that Abarat has in common with the Narnia books at all. The Narnia stories are traditional fantasy. Lewis inhabits his stories with dwarfs and unicorns and fauns and other well-known mythological creatures. Barker, like Lewis Carroll, chooses to go his own way, though Barker’s creations are infinitely stranger and more imaginative than Carroll’s talking animals and game paraphernalia.

Barker’s background, of course, is in horror. And though Abarat is in no way a horror book, it’s certainly peopled with creatures from the same imagination that spawned Hellraiser. The first person from the Abarat that our heroine meets is a man named Jack Mischief who has antlers on this head. And at the tip of every antler is another, tiny head; one of Jack’s “brothers,” all named Jack, but with different last names like Serpent and Moot. It gets weirder from there.

Candy Quackenbush is the main character. She’s a high school girl from the unbearably boring community of Chickentown, Minnesota. While doing a paper on her town for school, Candy decides to dig a little deeper than just copying down facts about the town’s all-important chicken industry, and she’s able to learn that there was in fact a tragedy in the town’s history. Her teacher doesn’t want to hear about that though and after an ugly confrontation about it in front of the entire class, Candy leaves school and just starts walking… all the way out of town and into the surrounding prairie.

That’s where she finds an old lighthouse-type structure and meets Jack Mischief. Jack has come to our world from the Abarat, a magical land that he says used to have commerce with our world. The lighthouse, he claims, was built to guide travelers between the two worlds. Unfortunately, Jack’s not the only one who’s come over. He’s stolen some kind of key and has been pursued to our world by a spindly creature called Mendelson Shape.

Jack gives the key to Candy and tries to escape back to the Abarat, but Candy doesn’t let him abandon her. Monumentally frustrated with her life in Chickentown, Candy makes Jack take her with him. Shape follows, determined to get the key back for his master, a horrifying man named Christopher Carrion.

The Abarat is an archipelago of twenty-five islands: one for every hour of the day, plus a mysterious, twenty-fifth island inhabited by unknown beings and surrounded by an impenetrable fog. Christopher Carrion lives at the island of Midnight with his ancient grandmother, an unpleasant, but powerful woman who spends her nights stitching together an army of makeshift bag-men filled with mud. Carrion himself is a tall, dark creature with a high, transparent, liquid-filled collar into which he releases his own nightmares to swim around and caress the lower half of his face. There are no elves and dwarfs in the Abarat.

Candy and Jack are soon separated after arriving in the Abarat. The story follows them both as they have unrelated (for now) adventures. Jack is hired by a crew of people looking for a missing friend who was intimately connected to an important event in Abaratian history and will likely prove vital to the islands’ future. Candy has to fend for herself as best she can in this strange, but wonderful new world that begins to feel more like home for her than Chickentown ever did.

She’s relentlessly pursued by Carrion’s minions (even before he learns that she likely has the key) making friends and enemies along the way. And though she hops from island to island, the book never feels episodic. It’s just the scenery that changes; the story stays consistent, always noticeably moving forward towards something, even when we can’t tell for sure what it’s heading to.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been this entranced by a novel. Especially one over 400 pages long. Seriously, I’ve been reading the wrong books while this one has been sitting out there waiting for me to discover it. Barker’s weird, wonderful Abarat and the creatures that inhabit it are unlike any fantasy setting I’ve ever visited. And as strange a place as it is, he describes all of it without pretension or conscientiously flowery language. It’s an easy, fast-moving read, made even easier by Candy.

She’s delightful company. Partly because of her adventuresome spirit, partly because she seems to have some mysterious history with the place, but mostly because she so hates the world she left behind, Candy quickly embraces the Abarat and spares us the disbelief and longing for home that often accompanies these kinds of stories. She charges joyfully into the adventure (not that she’s never scared for her life, because she is) and takes you with her.

Five out of five stitched-together mud-men.


Siskoid said...

Consider me intrigued!

I'd read a lot of Barker if the books weren't so blamed long... I have so many unread books, it always seems like a waste to get into a brick for the better part of a summer (when I do most of my reading).

P.S. Word verification was a French swear word.

Michael May said...

I am SUCH a slow reader, but this went very quickly for me. I get frustrated with books that take me an hour to read 20 pages. I could knock out 20 pages of Abarat in about 15 minutes.

I hope you decide to read it. I'd love to hear what you think if you do.


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