Abarat: Absolute Midnight
If Stephen King is the king of literary horror, then Clive Barker is undoubtedly its dark prince. While Kingís brand of horror takes classic genre tropes and steeps them in contemporary Americana, Barkerís brand of fiction takes a more fantastical approach. In Kingís fiction, the horror lurks in your back yard; in Barkerís your backyard is a gateway to an entirely different world of horrors. The Abarat series, Barkerís ambitious multimedia project, is the perfect example of this approach. Abarat details the adventures of Candy Quackenbush, an average teenager living in the prosaic burg of Chickentown, Minnesota who stumbles, seemingly by chance, on the world of the Abarat. The Abarat exists in another dimension and consists of a chain of twenty five islands with each representing a single hour of the day, with the twenty fifth island being the home of the sorceresses of the Fantomaya Ė watchers and guardians of all history and time.
In a unique kind of literary pre-visualization, the multi-talented Barker paints the events of the books before he sits down to write them. The paintings are then reproduced to illustrate the early printings of the novels. The result is a wildly imaginative and richly detailed fantasy world that serves as a stimulating visual as well as a narrative experience.
After the dramatic flooding of Chickentown at the end of book two, the waters of the Abaratian Sea of Izabella have receded leaving both our world and the Abarat changed forever. On the island of Yebba Dim Day, the Abaratian High Council summons Candy before them. The council is split on whether to hold Candy responsible for the merging of the two worlds and what actions to take. While the hung council resolves nothing within itself, the debate causes Candy to seek out the witch Lagunna Munn to help free the spirit of Princess Boa, who is trapped inside her. The ritual is successful but Candy learns, to her horror, that the Princess whom romantic stories had been written about is actually a dark and twisted soul who helped make Christopher Carrion the bitter, evil person he became. After a battle the nearly kills Candy and deprives Munn of one of her sons, the incorporeal Boa seeks out Christopher, from who she wishes to learn the magic needed to create a new body for her to occupy.
The evil sorceress, and Grandmother to Christopher Carrion, Mater Motley is intent on re-forging the Abarat as her own personal empire. She releases the Sacbrood from their prison in the Pyramids of Xuxu, thereby initiating ďAbsolute Midnight.Ē The insectile sacbrood blot out the sky by combining their carapaces to form domes over the islands of the Abarat. Not content with simply blotting out the sky, Motley rounds all up that oppose her, including Candy and her travelling companions Malingo the geshrat, the multi-headed John Brothers as well as new love interest Gazza. Their salvation from this fate will come from the most unlikely place imaginable: son of Motley and father to Christopher, the blinded, scarred Zephario Carrion. The third book ends with a literal cliffhanger that will leave you dying for more.
The first Abarat book was, to my disappointment, a bit of a slog to work through. Although it was a well imagined world the story was too episodic and lacking in a strong narrative through line from beginning to end to really compel me to keep turning the pages. Candy avoided some of the clichťs of the spunky teenaged heroine but never really came into sharp focus as a character. The book was most concerned with establishing the world of Abarat and its inhabitants, which is understandable as it was conceived from the beginning to be a multi-part series. It still didnít make it as enjoyable a read as Iíd anticipated.
The second book starts off far stronger. Having already firmly established the world of Abarat, Barker plunges us head first into the tale. We learn the purpose of the mysterious key that set the whole series in motion (though the reveal was a bit more mundane than I had imagined) and you can see things set up in part one finally paying off in the second book. Book two suffers from the same grind midway through, though. The arc of the first two books seems to be a reverse bell curve, with exciting beginnings and endings connected by slow mid-sections. Separating Malingo and Candy was not a wise idea; the two make a likable duo and having Malingo explain new Abarat sights lore provides an easy and credible way to deliver exposition and background to the audience unobtrusively. Days of Magic bounces back for a brisk finish, culminating in a couple new revelations that are maybe foreshadowed a bit too much; what should be a huge surprise comes off rather matter-of-fact.
In stark contrast, the third novel hits the ground running and consistently retains its fevered pace. Carrion is nowhere to be found in the first third of the book but Absolute Midnight doesnít lack for villains or conflict. Mater Motley, a relatively minor character in the first two books, becomes the main heavy and sheís a great villain. Books are only as good as their antagonists and Candy has a doozy to contend with in Motley. With her army of murderous stitchlings she is malevolence personified. Carrion, on the other hand, in being stripped of his power and left for dead becomes a far more complex character. Neither truly good or bad, weíre given insight into the horrible things done to him, first by Motley and later by Boa, that helped shape the person he became. Barker makes Carrion into a complex and sympathetic character without making excuses for the horrible acts heís committed.
Thereís a late addition of the ever-swelling cast of characters; a romantic interest for Candy that feels abrupt and forced. Thereís also an 11th hour dramatic, and heartbreaking, exit for an old friend. I was actually quite surprised by how affected I was by this scene. Up until that point, if youíd asked me, I probably would have said I didnít care one way or the other about the character. This particular characterís exit from the book was so unexpected, sudden and shocking in its graphicness and cruelty that it really upset me. You know a book has its hooks in you when you get genuinely angry when unfair things happen to the characters.
Barker has a tendency throw new locales and characters at the reader with a minimum of description, or development, so the prose in these passages tend to devolve into long strings of borderline nonsensical jargon, such as the squabbling council in Chapter 3. The paintings in the hardcover book are meant to fill in the blanks, but the later paperback version likely will not reproduce the paintings. If you donít read a version that reproduces the paintings, youíre literally missing out on half the story.
Thereís a none-too-subtle satire of corporate branding, especially with regards to multinational corporations in the guise of The Commexo Kid, both cherubic and clown-like, who is introduced at length in the first two books. Barker also takes a stab at organized religion but his japes are too broad and blunt to have much bite and the plotline, like so many in this series, is left to be resolved in a forthcoming book (or books).
Still, minor nitpicks aside, itís difficult not to be impressed by Barkerís seeming preternatural prescience: scenes of the Wormwood doing naval battle with the Lud Limbo suggest Ted Rossio and Terry Elliott have been denying Barker due credit on the Pirates of the Carribean movies. On a more serious note, the scenes of flood-ravaged Chickentown and the ensuing aftermath read far more harrowing in light of recent disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese earthquake.
Iíve been a big fan of Clive Barkerís for a while so itís been interesting to watch the progression of his career and how his literary preoccupations have shifted. I much prefer Barkerís shorter works to his longer one and his horror to his fantasy. Although all his work has been tinged with fantastical elements the closer his works inches to full on fantasy, the more mixed my reaction to it becomes. I was very slow to warm to the Abarat books and toyed with abandoning them altogether. I like traditional, high fantasy just fine, but Barkerís brand of fantasy tends to me leave me cold more often than not. It was then, to my great surprise, that I found myself totally engrossed in this third installment. Absolute Midnight is the best book in the Abarat series yet, and a promissory note of hopefully even greater things yet to come.
By the third book in a series that creates its own world and populates it, youíre either all in or all out. I was on the fence with the first two Abarat novels but the third has finally won me over. I canít help but admire Barkerís seemingly boundless imagination and his genius for word craft is as evident as ever (itís always amusing to see a master wordsmith like Barker use colloquialisms like ďpukeĒ). The fact that the Abarat books eschew gore or the twisted sexuality thatís one of Barkerís hallmarks yet still manage to get under the readerís skin speaks to his skill as a horror writer: heís able to disturb you with genuinely unsettling ideas. Few modern writers can boast such a skill.
With Absolute Midnight, Abarat has become a series that finally can take its place among the great literary works of fantasy like Baumís Oz stories, or Lewisí Alice in Wonderland. I look forward to returning to the islands and hope Iím able to do so sooner, rather than later. Fans of the series should not hesitate to pick up this book and will find much to love within its pages. The uninitiated should probably test the waters of the Izabella with the more compact, and explanatory, first novel. The journey is slow going at first but winds up being a voyage well worth taking.
i read the first, and felt the same way - i recall feeling like there wasn't much of a plot, and as a result, found it a little boring, despite all the fantastical elements. i haven't read the second one - i decided to wait until the series is done, then read them in one go. but the copies i have are the trade paperback versions, which are the same size as the hardcovers, and are fully illustrated, and beautiful books. i'll wait till this one hits trade paperback, so my set remains consistent. can't wait to, at the least, look at all the wonderful paintings in this one!
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