Something clever I'll change later

I like fantasy. The end.
Abarat - Clive Barker This review is also available on my blog, Stumptown Books.

It’s been a few days and I’m still unsure what to think of this novel. Clive Barker is not one of my favorite authors, but when I saw the gorgeous hardcover of Abarat on my brother-in-law’s bookshelf, I simply had to pick it up. At first this was only because I couldn’t decipher the damn title on the spine. It’s done in the Illuminati style:


I had a hell of a time figuring out what the title was. I finally found it on Amazon and promptly decided that this is one book that shouldn’t be read on the Kindle. Clive Barker spent 6 years painting the series of pictures that appear in the novels, so the pictures are pretty integral to the story. The physical book itself is wonderful to my brain in that unique way that books have. The cover is a delicious shade of royal purple, the pages are shiny and a pleasure to turn, and the crazy pictures have wonderful color and imagery. My brother-in-law knows that I am not a Clive Barker fan and promptly said that if any book could change my mind, it would be this one. Very well then, I’ll give it a try!


One of my favorite illustrations, a depiction of the big baddie, Christopher Carrion

The entire novel has this surreal “Alice in Wonderland as brought to you by the guy that did Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro” feel to it. Girl goes to crazy new country, is immediately seen as special by basically everyone, doesn’t have to bother much with mundane activities like eating, drinking, or sleeping, and makes a host of new friends along the way. That sounds a lot more cliché than it did while I was reading the book! The adventure is pretty fun, to be honest, although we know that the main character, Candy, is never actually in any danger, as there will always be a crazy coincidence/dues ex machina to save her. That’s how all these young adult fantasy novels seem to go though, and it honestly didn’t bug me very much while I was reading it. It reminded me of today’s other incredibly popular British fantasy writers, Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones. They straddle the line between “young adult novel” and “high fantasy.” It’s a hard line to span successfully, and although I don’t feel like Clive Barker did it as well Gaiman or Jones, those are hard powerhouses to go up against.

The writing and writing tools were pretty juvenile. I’m no writer, and I freely acknowledge that. But I feel like a very common complaint about writing is when feelings are mentioned in the narration in paragraph form, not by the characters themselves. This happens a ton in this novel. Usually it is coupled with odd memories of Candy’s childhood, like literally in the middle of an action scene she’ll start remembering something, a paragraph will go by, and then we’ll be back in the middle of the action. The timing felt incredibly off for the entire book. The first action scene is one of the best of the book, but it took a bizarrely long time for something that in real life would have taken one or two minutes. The bad guy is constantly right behind her but she has plenty of time to have entire conversations before he ever reaches her. It consistently tore me out of the action because the timing just didn’t work for me.

I’m not sure what to make of the weird abusive relationship Candy has with her father. It is mentioned a few times in the beginning as maybe a reason that she got fed up with her current life, but it felt forced and detached. Abusive relationships, whether it’s parental, spousal, whatever, are one thing that always turns on the waterworks for me. I find it so depressing that people have to go through that every day. Candy obviously hates her dad and we’re given a few anecdotes of him slapping her or her mom, but it felt so out of place every time, I would recoil in horror from the book. Now, this may be exactly what was supposed to happen, so that we know that Candy has found a better place in the Abarat, or why she will always fight against Carrion so that he doesn’t subjugate the islands the same way her dad dominated her. I don’t know, but it felt out of place. Here’s a quote from page 282 that had me in open mouthed horror (emphasis mine):

…she heard the sound of Wolfswinkel’s stick whistling through the air and landing on Malingo’s back. She winced. A second stroke came quickly after the first, then a third, and a fourth and a fifth. Between the blows she heard the soft sound of Malingo’s sobs. She understood those heart wracking tears; she’d shed them herself, when her father was done with her. Tears of relief that it was all finished, for now. And tears of fear that it would happen again when she least expected it. Her father hadn’t used a stick to strike her, but he’d had his own ways to cause pain.

Woah wait WHAT? I may be reading into this but the first and ONLY thought in my head after reading that last sentence was "Holy crap sexual abuse not cool." I simply have no idea what to make of that, and I was just starting to really get into the book at this point too.

I’m still pretty curious as to where he is going with the story. Although I didn’t know this when I picked up Abarat, it is planned to be a five book series, with number four slated for 2014. It’s going to be a while before the whole series is finished, but I will definitely be picking up two and three soon.

Edit: I just thumbed through a trade paperback edition of this book. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK IN PAPERBACK. It will not have the pictures, and as he wrote and illustrated this book together, it would be criminal not to have both media next to each other.

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