Clive Barker: Abarat

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Abarat

Author: Clive Barker
Publisher: Joanna Coulter
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Abarat

Author: Clive Barker
Publisher: Joanna Coulter

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Clive Barker's increasingly baroque fantasy tales rarely have just two sides: The antagonists are as haunted and embattled as the protagonists, if not more so. This makes Barker's novels highly unpredictable, and they often wander far afield from his genre's typical dark-versus-light duality. That's particularly true of Abarat, the first in a series of young-adult-targeted novels about a magical realm where Night and Day are at war, but the nightmare-sodden Lord of Midnight has more competitors for the bad-guy role than he has victims. Barker has cited C.S. Lewis' Narnia books and Walt Disney's Fantasia as inspirations, but Abarat more resembles a malicious, demonic version of Alice In Wonderland: a somewhat shapeless but memorably lunatic fairy tale in which a self-possessed young girl encounters a variety of colorful creatures, and generally treats them like naughty children who have no right to be so rude to her. The book opens as its protagonist, Candy Quackenbush, is booted from her high-school classroom by a malevolent teacher who wouldn't seem out of place in one of Roald Dahl's children's books. But instead of reporting to the principal's office as ordered, Candy wanders away from her small Minnesota town, and soon runs into an eight-headed man who's being pursued by a gangly, half-clothed monster with swords erupting from its back. Candy is drawn into their conflict, and voluntarily ends up adrift between the 25 islands of Abarat. Barker revels in the descriptions of the elaborate wonders Candy meets there; some of the sights, like the scaly people squatting on the ocean's surface, playing cards atop a square-headed fish, are strongly reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, but without his wordplay or his staccato, dreamlike pace. Barker takes pains to make his phantasmagoria as concrete and tangible as possible, with elaborate details, grotesque touches, and a wealth of bright images–the author created more than 350 paintings to illustrate his latest world, and many are reproduced over the 400 pages of the series' hefty first installment. Fans of Barker's other novel for younger audiences, The Thief Of Always, will likely enjoy Abarat, while readers who prefer the twisted sex and gore of his emphatically adult books like Coldheart Canyon may find it a bit too lightweight. But for those without preconceptions and Barker-related expectations, Abarat is a pleasant diversion, a novel with the unabashed eagerness of a good children's book and the mythopoeic depth of an adult novel. Barker pre-sold Abarat's film and merchandising rights to Disney, and a marketing tsunami seems likely to result if the series is popular. Fortunately, his new world seems detailed enough to support a full-scale multimedia exploration, and interesting enough to warrant it.

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