Friday 30 December 2011

Abarat by Clive Barker

I recall Clive Barker first hitting the headlines in the late 1980s with his dark fantasy novel Weaveworld, which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1988. I also read some other books by him over the next few years, although Weaveworld is the only one I've kept to read again sometime. Since then I've not kept up with his writing career (something which happens all too often, I find) but when I spotted Abarat (first published 2002) while browsing through one of those cheap multiple-buy bookshops, I added it to the pile after a cursory glance at the back cover. Which goes to show the hazards of such a casual approach as I found a couple of surprises when I came to read the book.

The heroine of Abarat is Candy Quakenbush, a girl from the depressingly boring Minnesota town of Chickentown. She runs away to escape her life there and finds herself in a strange alternative universe, the Islands of the Abarat, set in the Sea of Izabella. There is one island for every hour of the day and night; the island at Noon basks in continuous midday sun, while the one at Midnight, on the opposite side of the circular archipelago, never sees daylight. There is also a mysterious island at the Twenty-Fifth Hour, set in the centre. The islands vary greatly in their form (one consisting of a giant sculpture of a head) and in their inhabitants, many of whom are far from human. Magic works there but so does technology, and there is a growing tension between the two as a struggle develops for domination of the Islands.

As a rare visitor from the fabled Hereafter (the name given to our world), Candy is immediately of great interest to the competing powers and finds herself in a series of hazardous adventures as she tries to escape capture and find her own way in this strange world. On the way, she makes friends with an assorted collection of peculiar individuals and has to grow up in a hurry, aided by surreptitious assistance from some of the inhabitants.

I mentioned at the start that I had a couple of surprises when I read the book. The first you may already have guessed from the plot summary - Abarat is aimed at young adults. This makes it the third time recently that I have unexpectedly discovered this on reading a novel set in a parallel universe, the others being China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, and Polikarpus & King's Down Town (see my review index). Perhaps this kind of plot sells particularly well to young adults? The other surprise is that this novel is only the first of a series, with two sequels to date and another one reportedly planned.

Abarat was nominated for the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers, won second place in the 2003 Locus Poll for the Best Young Adult Novel and was picked as one of its Best Books for Young Adults by The American Library Association. My own feelings towards the story were rather more lukewarm. It was sufficiently entertaining and well-written to keep me reading to the end (something which can't be taken for granted these days) but it didn't strike me as especially notable. Perhaps I've just read too many good stories of this kind recently. If you enjoy this sort of story it's worth looking up, but I'm in no hurry to seek out the sequels. I should add that one of the major appeals of the original hardback was apparently a large number of colour illustrations by the author (who is also an artist) which maybe helped to account for its warm reception, but these were omitted from my paperback edition.

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