A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #31:-
Harper Collins hb, 419pp, £17.99
This is the first volume of a proposed four, a new fantasy series based on paintings by the author, with the film rights reputedly sold to Disney for $8m, and it marks a return to the style of Barker’s The Thief of Always, but with the action taking place on a much larger scale. It should appeal both to Barker’s established fan base and to the Harry Potter crowd.
Candy Quackenbush is a young girl living in Chickentown, Minnesota, where nothing ever happens, and not at all satisfied with her lot. Then she meets the thief John Mischief, who has seven separate heads sprouting from his body, and helps him escape from the homicidal Mendelson Shape. The Sea of Izabella is magically summoned and bears them away to the Abarat, an archipelago of twenty five islands, each one representing a different hour of the day, and all dominated by the forbidden Twenty Fifth Hour. Candy feels very much at home in the Abarat, almost as if she belongs, and perhaps she does (there are tantalising hints of past overlaps between the Abarat and our own world), but she becomes involved in a power struggle between opposing factions, including Christopher Carrion, the Lord of Midnight, who wants to plunge all the islands into darkness, and the scientist Rojo Pixler, whose aim is to expunge magic altogether from the Abarat and impose a sterile new order based on science and commerce.
I’ll admit to not being all that taken with Barker’s artwork, which accompanies the text; his draughtsmanship doesn’t quite live up to the epic scope and boldness of his vision. The words though are a different matter entirely, the medium in which Barker’s imagination is best expressed, and never mind all that Renaissance man stuff.
Abarat is a compelling and fast paced story, packed with incident and colour, giving us marvellously oddball and larger than life characters, set pieces pulled from the very latest sfx spectacular, and in the dazzling concept of the Abarat itself a truly novel stage on which Candy and all the others can act out whatever adventures come their way. There is of course much here that will be familiar to Barker devotees from way back; reading between the lines you pick up hints of the Sea of Quiddity, the Iad Uroboros, the Immacolata etc., all wrapped up in a more user friendly format (there’s horror here, but muted, possibly with the YA audience in mind). Barker doesn’t just recycle old material though, but gives us plenty of new wonders, while the different hours of the day concept is an imaginative masterstroke.
The Abarat comes not just with all the fantasy paraphernalia you’d expect, magic and dragons and swordswomen, old tropes into which the author breathes new life, but also with a complicated political and economic framework, just like the real world. Neither does Barker put things in simplistic terms of good and evil. Carrion is a monster, but Barker shows us in part how he came to be that way and makes him not entirely unsympathetic, perhaps even capable of redemption, while Pixler regards himself as a good man, but is every bit as much of a menace because of his prejudice against magic.
Barker seems to have put a cap on his occasional tendency to gigantism and after the recent disappointments of Galilee and Coldheart Canyon is back at doing what he does best, telling an exciting story the way only he can, soaring up to the heights and down into the depths of his own imagination, then coming back to share with us all that he’s seen. As a curtain raiser for a series that could well be an Oz for the new millennium Abarat is pure delight, the best that writing has to offer by way of magic, and I for one am eager to learn what happens next.