Imagine a world where which is a giant archipelago of islands, each one in a different time zone – every island is perpetually set at a particular hour of the day or night. Twenty-five islands in all – the 25th, Odom’s Spire, being a mysterious pinnacle of rock which drives those who land there mad. The archipelago is the Abarat and the boundaries between it and our own world, which the Abaratians call the Hereafter are not easily, but very occasionally, breached.
Once such breach occurs at the very start of this story, when young Candy Quackenbush, resident of Chickentown, Minnesota, unhappy at home and bored and frustrated at school, walks out of class one day and carries straight on out of town and into the open prairie. Unexpectedly she finds a lighthouse, and stranger still, a man with antlers on which there are extra heads. Strange as he may seem, he is nothing to the terrifying creature who is pursuing him, and Candy is suddenly caught up in a life and death struggle which transports her into the Abarat, adrift in the Sea of Izabella.
Candy finds the Abarat to be a place of wonder and enchantment:
Everywhere she looked there was something to amaze. Besides the citizens there were countless animals in the city, wild and domesticated. White-faced monkeys, like troupes of clowns, were on the roofs baring their bottoms to passersby. Beasts the size of chinchillas but resembling golden lions ran back and forth along the power cables looped between the house, while a snake, pure white but for its turquoise eyes, wove cunningly between the feet of the crowd, chattering like an excited parrot.Despite its anarchic magic, however, all is not perfect in the archipelago. On the Midnight isle of Gorgossium, Christopher Carrion, nightmare ruler of a monstrous army of stitchlings, is already taking an interest in Candy, and she will need all her ingenuity and courage to evade his servants, each one more horrifying than the last. All she can do is try to keep ahead of them, moving from island to island, meeting and being aided by new friends along the way.
Across two books (so far) and several islands, Abarat and its sequel are necessarily episodic, but the writing is vivid, the action fast and Barker isn’t afraid to be ruthless with his characters. Not everyone you grow to like will survive. The episodic nature does mean, though, that there is not always a great deal of characterisation. Candy develops as the story progresses, but perhaps without quite the roundedness that we expect from such an experienced writer. Similarly, there are edge-of-the-seat moments, but it’s never really frightening. Compared to the recently-reviewed The Secret Ministry of Frost, these two volumes are positively cosy, yet they are aimed at essentially the same audience. This isn’t necessarily a complaint – I can imagine young Harry Potter fans loving Abarat – but Barker in adult mode can be truly scary, and I couldn’t help thinking that just a touch more of the gruesome could give Abarat an edge, and would be lapped up by its young audience. Kids do love to be scared and, after all, think of the dementors in HP. They scare me!
Having said that, Abarat 2: Days of Magic, Nights of War is perceptibly darker than the first book, and I suspect that is part of a trend. In it, Candy starts to learn more about why she has been drawn to the Abarat and we discover the full horror of Christopher Carrion’s plans for Candy and the archipelago. We also meet Carrion’s vicious and hideous grandmother, Mater Motley, creator of the stitchling army.
When I finished Abarat 2 I wasn’t clear whether there was going to be a third – the story clearly wasn’t finished, but it was published in 2004, and I wondered if Barker had lost interest, though I found it hard to imagine that he could, he was clearly fond of his young heroine. A bit of research on the interwebs brought up his wonderful website, The Beautiful Moment, encompassing both Abarat and his much earlier – and splendid – The Thief of Always. Here I discovered that, far from losing interest in Abarat, it would appear that Barker has been too busy painting his characters to write about them, and that three more volumes are planned to complete the story. Abarat 3: Absolute Midnight may be out later this year. The paintings are wonderful and I wish I could reproduce some of them here, they are full of imagination and glowing colours, every bit as magical as the books. I hope that one day a complete set might be accompanied by full-colour illustrations. Here's a taste in the original cover.
I hope I have persuaded you about this series: they are like a cross between The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (something of an oddity in the Narnia series) and China Miéville’s The Scar, and I really can’t pay a much higher compliment, they are both books I love. In Candy’s adventures Barker finds something which is missing in many novels which have a journey at their centre, a sense of new wonders unfolding before the eyes, of anticipation and delight. For this reason alone, they are worth a read.
Read for the Once Upon a Time 4 challenge.