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The Reviews :: Abarat
Reviewed by Ché Monro

Abarat begins with a ghost story in the most boring town in the world - Chickentown Minnesota, with a population of 36,793, the largest producer of chicken meat in the state. This may seem like an unpromising start for a fantasy novel, but soon the teenage heroine, Candy Quackenbush has been swept away into the fantastic world of the Abarat, twenty-five islands set in the mysterious sea of Izabella. Each island is stranger than the last, each representing an hour of the day, as well as the Spire of Odom, which lies outside the realm of time and possibility.

Even stranger than the landscape are the multifarious inhabitants of the Abarat, from talking fish and binocular squid to feathered pirates, freaks, magicians, businessmen, mothers, mystics, seers, fishermen, adventurers, gods and demons. Soon Candy is running for her life from Mendelson Shape, a grotesque, fleshless spider-like being with a cruciform of swords embedded in his back. It is the servant of the melancholy and terrible Christopher Carrion, Lord of Midnight. Candy’s companion is the notorious thief John Mischief, a being with eight heads, the ruling head and it's seven argumentative brothers, which sprout on stalks like antlers from his skull. They travel across the sea to the island of Yebba Dim Day at the Hour of Twilight while Pux the Sea Skipper teaches her to sing a new song:

O woe is me!
O woe is me!
I used to have a Hamster Tree!
But it was eaten by a newt,
And now I have no cuddly fruit!
O woe is me!
O woe is me!
I used to have a Hamster Tree!

And this is just the start of Candy Quackenbush's adventures.

Abarat is a rare thing on today's bookshelf - a book that feels as if it was written and developed at a leisurely pace, a gem of a novel in which each facet has been polished until it shines. It's a rich, psychedelic road movie of a book, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or The Neverending Story. It's an overwhelming, engrossing immersion of an experience, a real trip. The text is complemented and enhanced by the lavish full color illustrations - gorgeous paintings of the locations and characters in the story which make Abarat a visual treat. Elfwood artists are commended to this novel not only for the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of the pictures, but also because they show a refreshing change of style for fantasy illustration. It’s a move away from the realism of many artists towards the strong primitivism of Picasso, and the mad riot of color and texture of Van Gough.

There's something to be learned here - how style and inspiration and artistic energy can mix and leap like lightening into the content of the fantastic illustration and feed back into text and story. Or that's as close as I can come to expressing how this art makes me feel. This novel shows that Barker is an artist as well as a writer, and it's refreshing, dazzling art which exactly suits his story and demonstrates how a writer can illustrate their own work so perfectly.

If this book has a flaw, it is that the plot is slightly weak - more of a phantasmagoric travelogue than a resolved and complete story on it's own. This is understandable and forgivable for a book that is the first volume of a series, especially one which packs so much imagination and spectacle into 400 odd pages. Yet, it is notable that Barker provides no real trace of plot resolution here - any resolution that is to be found comes more from an emotional or energetic level than from the plot. It's a credit to Barker's skill and maturity as a novelist that he gets away with this as well as he does - in spite of any flaws this is a very well written novel.

This book in its hardcover form would make an excellent gift for lovers of the fantastic of any age. If you can't afford to buy it, then do what I did and seek it out in your local library. Highly recommended.

I enjoyed this, what else can I try?

I recommend Clive Barker's previous works, particularly Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show. If you like Barker then you'll probably enjoy the novels of Tim Powers, especially The Stress of Her Regard and The Anubis Gates, or perhaps Last Call. The works of Lewis Carroll are suggested: Alice in Wonderland, also Through the Looking-Glass and The Hunting of the Snark. Also noted is The Neverending Story of Michael Ende, but that is another tale and will be told at another time. More enterprising readers might find some similarities reflected in works such as Gormanghast by Mervyn Peake, Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, or The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.

What is there like this in Elfwood?

Well.... There is The Squonk by Adz which echoes something of the melancholy and surreal nature of Abarat or Wonderland. Here is a picture of another Squonk by Elfwood artist Betsy 'Silvernyte' Johnson. Highly recommended are The Faery Jar and The Sycamerette's Tale by Emily Lynn McDurman.



Rating:
Author: Clive Barker

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