Clive Barker,
(HarperCollins, 2002)

No one will ever accuse Clive Barker of having no imagination. As wild as it is, it is just as vivid -- and that is what makes Barker such a remarkable writer and illustrator. Abarat may be his wildest creation yet, and he brings this striking world to life in both writing and art, as the book is filled with some 100 color illustrations (reportedly drawn over the course of four years). You won't find any Cenobites here, though, as Abarat is a work of dark fantasy written primarily for a young adult audience -- this is not horror. The protagonist, Candy Quackenbush, is a pre-teen girl who dreams of escaping her exceedingly boring hometown (Chickentown, Minnesota), where she finds little happiness at home because of an alcoholic father and a mother who seems quite defeated by life. There's really nothing special about her -- not in this world, anyway.

Then Candy meets an extraordinary individual named John Mischief -- actually, he's more than an individual because he has nine brothers, all of whom live on the horns of his head. The next thing she knows, Candy is running from a horribly malformed man named Mendelson Shape, hoping to reach a dilapidated lighthouse and light the light. The last thing you would expect to find in the plains of Minnesota is a lighthouse, of course, but it marks the beginning of a story of high strangeness indeed.

Candy succeeds in calling the Sea of Izabella, and its waters take her away from her own boring world to the fanciful world of the Abarat. Abarat is an archipelago made up of islands, each of which is a different hour of the day. For example, there's Yebba Dim Day (Eight O'Clock in the Evening), which appears in the form of a gigantic head; Babilonium (Six O'Clock in the Evening), where all sorts of entertainments flourish; Gorgossium, the Island of Midnight, a dark island ruled over by the morbidly dangerous Christopher Carrion; and the most mysterious island of all, Twenty-Fifth Hour, where everything that was, is, or shall be can be found (but those who come back leave their sanity behind). It's almost impossible to describe the inhabitants of Abarat, so I won't even attempt to give a general description -- each is wholly unique.

Parted from Mischief early on, Candy is forced to find her way largely on her own, although she meets up with a number of unforgettable characters along her way. As a rare visitor from the Hereafter (the regular world), she attracts a lot of attention. Most of it comes from Christopher Carrion, who wants the girl for his own dark purposes -- even before he learns she also carries the mysteriously important Key of Efreet. He has magic at his command, but Candy proves an elusive prey -- which is not to say that Candy doesn't find herself in perpetual danger. There's something special about her, though, and it's not just her ability to win friends or somehow slip through her enemies' fingers at the last minute. As her stay in Abarat progresses, she begins to feel as if she somehow belongs there, that somehow she might have been there before. This novel is really a tale of self-discovery on Candy's part. Signs indicate that she will have a major role to play in Abarat's future, a future threatened by the dark designs of Christopher Carrion as well as the elaborate plans of entrepreneur Rojo Pixler, who wants to stamp out the magic of the world and coalesce power in the hands of himself and his ubiquitous marketing creation, the Commexo Kid.

Abarat is a wonderful story, but it is Barker's illustrations that really make it something special. The hardcover edition is a truly handsome piece of work, with its glossy white pages and plethora of intriguing color illustrations -- I doubt the paperback version can recreate these wonders at all successfully. It's important to note that this is just the first of a four-book series. Abarat is a book of questions, with answers to be filled in later; its ending is really just the beginning of the whole story. Clearly, Barker fans have much to look forward to.

by Daniel Jolley
22 October 2005

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