Clive Barker is often considered to be a visionary. As a master of visual horror, his adult novels combine a mixture of surreal imagery and graphic violence to create frightening and memorable stories. Although his novels are incredibly popular they are often better known for their film adaptions which include such classics as Hellraiser, Candyman and Nightbreed. However, for today’s review, we will be looking at Barker’s first step into young adult fantasy.

Abarat was first published in 2002 and forms the first part of the Abarat Quintet. At the time of writing this review, only two other instalments of the series have been released – Days of Magic, Nights of War (2004) and Absolute Midnight (2011). The release dates of the final two instalments have not yet been announced but have been tentatively titled Kry Rising and The Eternal.

The novel focuses on a teenager named Candy Quackenbush who is growing tired of her abusive father and monotonous life in Chickentown, Minnesota. While walking on the prairie close to her home, she comes across the skeletal remains of what appears to be a lighthouse and meets a strange man who calls himself John Mischief. Mischief has an immense set of antlers growing from the top of his head, each prong ending in the face of one of his brothers, yet the sight of this does not frighten Candy. More terrifying is the man who pursues Mischief; the monstrous Mendelson Shape.

In helping Mischief to escape, Candy manages to activate the lighthouse and brings the sea rushing across the grasslands. Seeing this as a chance to escape her humdrum life, Candy begs Mischief to take her with him and the two of them leap into the water, allowing it to carry them away to the land of Abarat. Swiftly separated from Mischief, Candy begins to explore the islands by herself but her arrival has not gone unnoticed. Visitors from Earth (known to Abaracians as the Hereafter) are rare and a number of people seek to exploit Candy for their own gains – most notably the greedy industrialist Rojo Pixler and Christopher Carrion, the twisted Prince of Midnight…

As a work of imaginative fiction, Abarat truly is second to none. The setting showcases Barker’s incredible ability to conjure surreal imagery, creating a world that combines fantastical science and magic. Abarat is an archipelago in which every island represents an hour of the day, representing this in their appearance and the attitudes of those who live there. The Islands of Day are bathed in light and all the good things that this represents – from the lively seaport of Tazmagor at 9 am to the lush rainforests of the Nonce at 3 pm. The Islands of Night are traditionally at war with these and are primarily controlled by the Carrion family from their home on Gorgossium, the Island of Midnight. I should probably note here that there is a hard-backed edition of this book that contains prints of Barker’s oil paintings. I don’t think that it’s currently in print but I would really recommend purchasing it if you’re fortunate enough to find a copy – the art work of the islands and the creatures that inhabit them is absolutely stunning.

Although these islands contain creatures and objects that are familiar to the reader, they are the same time utterly alien. Abarat is a world where absolutely anything is possible and Barker can use this to tell any story that he wishes. As Candy travels between the islands the reader is placed in the same position that she is, never knowing if an island will be threatening or welcoming until Candy herself becomes aware of this fact. While this grips the reader and quickly engrosses them in Candy’s adventure, it also leads to my primary problem with the novel.

Abarat is a work of art, but it ultimately feels more like a travel guide than a story. There are certainly hints of a greater story, which I expect will be developed in later volumes. It is hinted that Rojo Pixler dreams of animating his companies mascot – the Commexo Kid – and one character hypothesises that he wished to do this in order to create a clone army that will wipe out all magic in the world. Carrion seems to recognise Candy (although he knows he has never met her) and slowly grows obsessed with her due to this fact, but over the course of the novel we never discover why this is. An ethereal key is stolen by Mischief at the start of the novel and is revealed to unlock the Pyramids of Xuxux but we never discover what this means, or what mysteries lie within these pyramids. The novel does not even build to a true climax, instead ending abruptly with a few hints of prophecy – hinting that Candy’s journey is important to the salvation of Abarat – but then tailing off without any satisfactory conclusion.

However, what Abarat lacks in plot it makes up for in imagination. The characters that Candy meets in her journey are incredibly unique and memorable, comprising of a vast menagerie of different species but also people of all kinds of different racial backgrounds and sexual orientations, which is always nice to see in a young adult novel.  My favourites include John Mischief and his brothers and the diminutive wizard Kaspar Wolfswinkle – a dark magician who gains his power from the stack of hats that he wears on his head. The supporting characters receive a surprisingly amount of development within the story, as the trusting Candy is often deluded by their initial behaviour towards her only to discover that they are very different once she has gotten to know them.

Although Candy never encounters him in person, I felt that Christopher Carrion was probably the most interesting secondary character in the novel. Although he never really does anything to anyone in the course of the story beyond sending his minions after Candy, his villainous nature is always felt through the way that the other characters fear him. Yet, from what we see of Carrion as the story progresses, he is far more than your typical Dark Lord. Beyond his monstrous appearance, Carrion was once a human who loved and cared for things. Through the hints we get, it’s clear that his current condition is a combined product of an abusive childhood (making him an interesting counterpart for the kind hearted, yet similarly abused Candy) and a broken heart. Of all the characters in the story, I am most interested to see what will become of Carrion in later volumes.

As a lead, Candy is also particularly strong. Although she lacks any kind of physical strength or magic, she is portrayed as being confident, brave and (most importantly) optimistic. It is a mistake made by many authors that a strong female must be an Amazonian style character – strong, cold and aggressive – or an acid-tongued Mary-Sue that all of the boys faun over. Candy shows that you need neither of these to make strong heroine. You just need to write a girl who is believable and yet still suffers from human frailty like everyone else does. Candy has doubts. She feels fear and loneliness just like anyone in her position would. Yet she perseveres through this because she genuinely wants to survive and help her friends do the same in any way that she can. I truly love Candy and would love to see more characters of this type in young adult literature.

So, to summarise, I think that everyone should read Abarat. I have read it several times now and it remains one of my all-time favourite fantasy novels. It is imaginative and original and contains some very memorable characters. Although I won’t argue that it is a perfect novel, it does sow the seeds for an epic plot ready for them to bear fruit in the subsequent sequels.

Abarat can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Days of Magic, Nights of War | Arkham Reviews
  2. Trackback: The Book of Kindly Deaths | Arkham Reviews

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