Abarat

I was at the library a few days ago and I saw a book with the most amazing cover. It's a kind of mosaic of these beautiful paintings in fabulous colors. The subjects in the images are fantastical creatures like a horned man with seven tiny heads branching from the horns. I scooped it up and was astonished to see it was a Clive Barker book I'd somehow totally missed called Abarat and published in 2002. How did I miss it? I don't know. Admittedly 2002 was a very bad year for me, but I did read Cold Heart Canyon, also by Clive Barker, that year so it seems I should have gone straight from that to Abarat. But whatever the reason, I finally have it in my hot little hands and it's fabulous; an amazing adventure story with incredible illustrations.

Candy Quackenbush lives in an awful little town with an awful father and an even more awful teacher. The teacher gives out a simple assignment, find ten facts about the town, called Chickentown. Candy is even more bored than usual when she realizes starts her research. Basically the entire town exists to supply workers to the chicken factory and very little that's not chicken related goes on. Candy's tired and depressed mother suggests Candy may find something interesting if she visits the local hotel, which Candy does.

When Candy presents her report, which is filled with macabre and tragic facts about the last descendent of the founder of the town, who committed suicide in the hotel, her teacher has an absolute freak-out, screaming and throwing Candy's papers on the floor, then demanding Candy clean them up. Oddly the very same thing happened to one of my sons when he was in first grade (except he wasn't writing a report about chickens or suicide) and he did the same sensible thing that Candy does, which is tell the teacher that since the teacher made the mess the teacher should clean it up. Both Candy and my son got into trouble for their actions but their stories veer sharply as my son went to the principle's office while Candy gets so fed up she leaves the school, chased by the teacher.

Candy leaves the school, then the entire town, and ends up in a sea of grass, where she meets the most unusual creature of her life; John Mischief and his seven brothers, who are heads attached to the horns on top of his own head. Mischief is being pursued by a horrible being intent on slaughter and Candy tries to help by racing to the top of an extraordinarily rickety lighthouse and lighting the unusual lamp at the top. When she does something astonishing happens – a sea comes pouring onto the Minnesota plain, enabling Mischief to return home. Candy weighs the thought of going back to her dreary town, filled with even drearier people, against the option of adventure in a new land with Mischief and takes her chances in the sea, beginning a fantastic journey filled with danger and wonders.

I read an article the other day lamenting the lack of originality in publishing. There are too many werewolves, vampires and zombies said the author, completely forgetting that originality doesn't depend on what species a character is but more what a character does and how they react to changing circumstances. For instance the majority of characters in traditional literature are human but I don't think I've ever heard anyone complaining there are too many humans and we need more interesting and rare creatures. Does anyone think The Grapes of Wrath would have been better if the Joads had been gargoyles or banshees instead of humans? I don't think so.

The author of that column should be delighted to read Abarat as Mr. Barker introduces a tremendous variety of species I have never encountered anywhere else. Even the geography of Abarat is very different from other geographies, with various islands each having their own time zone that doesn't change. For instance at the island of Ninnyhammer it's always ten in the evening. (Ninnyhammer is also home to a tribe of orange cats that Mr. Barker has painted for us. This painting is one of my favorites in the book.) While many of the people in the book are unfamiliar in shape, size and ability they're immediately recognizable in their motivations, which are the stuff of great stories; revenge, betrayal, love, jealousy, boredom, petty cruelty, courage and all of the other qualities that make up complex and intriguing characters. I absolutely loved this book from start to finish although I was startled to discover it was book one in a series, something I only figured out when I was about twenty pages from the end and realized there was far too much to wrap up in such a short space. I was hoping that since the book was published in 2002 the entire thing would be out by now but apparently it's still in the works. I'm guessing that's because the paintings, which are such an integral part of the story, take up a lot of time.

You can read an excerpt from Abarat here but to get the full effect of the book you really need to see the glorious pictures. http://www.clivebarker.info/yaabarat1ex.html

One-Paragraph Review

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