Archived Review: Abarat by Clive Barker

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 20, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: *** (3 stars)
Plot: **** (3 stars)
Writing:**** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 11 and up.
Abarat holds a very special place in my heart, it is one of my fifteen favorite books.  This is because there are few books for youngsters quite so magical, so alien, so funny, and so downright freaky-as-all-hell in all the world of fiction. I picked up the first book when I was in middle school and I was quite certain that I was the protagonist, Candy Quackenbush, in my own attempt to escape Chickentown and come across a magical jetty.  It changed my life.  Now, the third book in the series is rumored to be looking at a release date later this year, and I can’t wait to be thrown headfirst into the Sea of Isabella again.

One thing which makes the Abarat books unique is that Barker himself paints the illustrations, which are beautiful in some cases and spine-chillingly horrifying in others, and they capture the spirit of The Islands of the Abarat perfectly. You know you’re imagining the characters and the places exactly the way they were written because you see them in oils on the page, multiple heads and skull shaped islands in all their colorful, nightmarish glory.  Barker is an excellent painter; he can show the mood of an island in just a few colors or he can paint a crowd of monstrous people in every spectrum you could imagine, and the illustrations are so captivating it’s a surprise that the story and the characters and the prose can live up to the high standard they create.   When you all rush out to your local bookstore to buy seven copies of each book, make sure you get the full-color illustrated copies.  Spend the extra money, seduce a rich person if you must, but get the damned illustrations!

Somehow, Clive Barker succeeds in describing a world and its people even more vividly than images can express.  The plot is intricate and the world is complex, (think Cirque Du Soleil meets Inkheart meets HP Lovecraft meets something else twisted and ancient and a little familiar, like you’ve known about The Abarat all along and were waiting with your sextant to see the ocean spread out over the prairie.)  In fact, that strange feeling of familiarity is how the first book starts.

Candy Quackenbush is bored of Chickentown.  This is a fantastic way to begin the book because most teenagers reading the book will sympathise with her; she is neither rich nor particularly unfortunate, her mother calls her “morbid” but isn’t mean, and Chickentown is a grim exaggeration of any American town which thrives on a smelly industry and the crushing of dreams.  Told to do a school project about the history of the town, Candy finds the only interesting person she can think of, her mother’s friend who works at the hotel, and learns a legend about the town’s history involving a mysterious man who sat in a hotel room waiting for the sea to arrive in this landlocked town until he died, leaving behind only a sextant and an unpleasant stain on the wall.  It’s a haunting story, especially for those of us who feel the constant, sinister draw of the sea, and it infects Candy’s mind the way it infects the reader’s.  The next day at school she finds herself drawing a series of close wavy lines all over her workbook, and when asked by her typically-unkind teacher what in the fresh hell she is doing she realizes that she is drawing the sea.  I dare any reader who is still in school to sit in class after reading the first book and not cover every surface with the lines of the sea that Candy draws.  Anyway, the spirit of the ocean and the spirit of adventure enter our intrepid protagonist and she storms out of school after being humiliated by her teacher, and that’s when the adventure really begins.

This same mysterious force which inspired Candy to draw the sea brings her to a vast set of fields outside chicken town, and in a series of events to rival even the best adult fantasy novel, she comes across John Mischief (a red little man with multiple heads, all which have different personalities) and discovers a jetty and lighthouse in the prairie all within a few minutes.  In comes, too, the formidable and terrifying Mendelson Shape who is tall and has crosses sticking out of his back, and the chase which ensues is both wacky and a little traumatizing.  Candy, in an effort to save John Mischief, summons the sea from the lighthouse and the waters of The Sea of Isabella rush over the prairie and Candy is whisked away to the Abarat, where there is an island for every hour of the day, plus one which has no time at all.  In the Abarat there are humanoid people and there are circus-type creatures, there are mechanical insects which spy for the bad guys, there are fish-people who sing songs about hamster trees as they race through the water, there are goddesses and there are very bad men.  Christopher Carrion, the lord of Midnight, wears nightmares in a container around his face while his mother stitches henchmen out of dead bodies.  The descriptions of Carrion’s cruelty and the paintings of the horrors he inflicts will haunt the younger readers, but in a totally worthwhile way which is character building and, in my opinion at least, ensures that they will be fascinating and morbid young adults.  That’s the goal of successful villain-creating anyway, isn’t it?

The plot can get a little complicated, which is one reason I’d suggest that kids wait until they’re in middle school to start the series, and there are villains and heroes on a grander scale than Candy and Christopher Carrion which require a fair bit of thought.  Occasionally the plot falters, especially in the second book when Candy’s importance in the Abarat has to be justified as something more than That-Chick-Who-Got-Caught-Up-In-A-Magical-Mess, but hopefully in the coming sequels this will be cleared up.  The story incorporates modern technology on some islands and good old-fashioned children’s adventure book magic on others, and in Candy’s adventures through the islands people who seem genuine can be evil bastards while truly ugly creatures save the day.  This is not a sweet little story, and the sequel, Days of Magic, Nights of War is even darker.  However, despite all the corruption, the danger, horror, and images which could only be inspired in us lesser folk by a tumbler or two of absinthe, The Abarat will always be better than Chickentown.  I, for one, would do anything to suffer through Candy’s adventures.

What I’m trying to say here is the world Barker created is entirely new and yet familiar, and no matter how hard you try you’ll spend the rest of your life being a little disappointed that you can’t call up the Sea of Isabella in your own, chicken-scented and boring town.

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One thought on “Archived Review: Abarat by Clive Barker

  1. I grew up in a place that was Chicken town in all but name. It too is in Minnesota. I felt Candy’s plight, also like my own. I made Narnia in my closet once. My attempt to escape the eternal boredom of that place.

    I liked this book too, but had a bit of a hard time getting into it, perhaps because I had come to expect something quite different from Clive. Though I do admit a special place in my heart as well. I have not read the second book, but do want to. I suppose you have read all three…

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