Clive Barker, Abarat (HarperCollins, 2002)

Now, I've worked with chickens before. In small numbers, they're cute little beasts -- they gambol and peck and scratch and are generally hilarious bundles of feathers. I love 'em. But truth be told, chickens in abundance are another matter. Candy Quackenbush, the somewhat disenchanted heroine of Clive Barker's first book in the four book Abarat series, lives smack in the middle of Chickentown, USA. And, well, life in Chickentown stinks. Literally. In addition to the smell of a billion feathered fowl, Candy despairs of her dull, sad and sometimes brutal family and her beaten-down town. On a whim, she decides to see if there's a single interesting thing she can find to write a report on for a class project. Lo! There is something interesting, and mysterious, about Chickentown (thank goodness) that has naught to do with fowl, but her small-minded teacher gives Candy an 'F' for her work. Furious, Candy abandons school for the long plains outside the town, and there her bizarre adventures truly begin.

There is a lighthouse on the outskirts of Chickentown, which is certainly bizarre, given that Chickentown is in Minnesota. It is near this lighthouse that Candy encounters a strange chap named John Mischief, who has a cadre of brothers living on antlers that sprout out of his head. Yeah, that's pretty weird. Despite his appearance, however, Candy feels an immediate kinship with Mischief. With his help, and the fear of one Mendhelson Shape (who is, you guessed it, pretty weird...and scary) on their tails, Candy summons the Sea of Izabella to the plains outside Chickentown and whisks them both away to the Abarat, a magical archipelago where each island is one hour of the day. In the Abarat, Candy is off to a whirlwind of adventures. At first, it all seems a bit like one big (weird) sightseeing tour. But beneath what would ordinarily be the average tour around a surreal and otherworldly archipelago fraught with giant magical moths, talking cats, and card-playing fish creatures who resemble sea-horses, there lies an undercurrent of destiny.

Turns out, Candy is the first person to visit the Abarat from the Hereafter (the term Abaratians use for our world) in a long time, and there's something very special about this fact that she's only just beginning to understand. But lest you think it's all fishbowl hats and Grish fritters, Candy soon finds herself on the run from Otto Houlihan the Criss-Cross Man, henchman of Lord of Midnight himself, Christopher Carrion, who breathes nightmares for sustenance. In the meantime, slick marketer Rojo Pixler dreams of ridding the Abarat of its magic forever, and there are many in the Abarat that shudder at the thought. And then there's the Requiax, the enemies of life, who are "wicked beyond words." While Candy eludes her enemies and rounds up a handful of wonderful friends (including the charming, sweet, and considerably orange geshrat named Malingo), prophecy and revolution swirl about in the briny air. Yes, it definitely seems Candy has a bigger purpose in Abarat than she might think, one involving three mysterious, powerful women with an agenda, one that could change the course of one whole, beautiful, magical (let's not forget weird) and terrifying world.

Inspired by hundreds of original paintings which took Barker 6 years to create, Abarat veritably hums with rich, colorful imagery. Over 100 painting illustrate the first book alone, and the result is a gorgeously designed book that entertains the eye as well as the mind. Where Barker's artwork lacks in artistic sophistication, it makes up for in stunning, saturated color and sometimes quirky, sometimes creepy, always fascinating detail. Even the heft of the book is impressive, as every illustration is in full color. For love of book design alone, this is a series you will want to collect and preserve.

Happily, the story is every bit as engaging as its cover promises. Barker has succeeded in creating a wholly original world here, complete with mythologies and complexities yet to be revealed in the next three books of the Abarat series. Barker's attention to detail pays off beautifully, as the reader is treated to snippets of Abaratian poetry and song, culture and cuisine. As each island in the Abarat is one hour of the day, each holds its own character and mystery -- readers can only hold their breath in anticipation of what wonders await as Candy lands on each island. Candy herself is a mild but very likeable heroine, just a bit spunky, just a bit bewildered. She is the perfect Alice for a new Wonderland. And, of course, the veritable cornucopia of strange and delightful denizens of the Abarat boggles the mind. Barker's dry humor sparkles throughout the book, and lends a needed jaunty air to a book otherwise filled with danger and a delightful creepiness. This is, after all, Clive Barker and not some sweet-minded YA author of happy rabbit tales. Barker knows creepy, and there's plenty of it.

There is a rich sense of the archetypal and deeply mythic in Abarat as well, mostly centered around the three women Diamanda, Mespa and Jeophi, who live on the island of the Twenty-Fifth Hour, and Abraham Hollow, the Keeper of Time Out of Time. Throughout the absurd and remarkable creatures and events of the story runs a sense of purpose and meaning that makes Abarat more than just a good yarn. This is a book that appeals to a sense of the quirky, the lovely, the scary and the sublime.

There are three more books to come in The Books of Abarat quartet, all illustrated with Barker's luminous oil paintings. I, for one, cannot wait to find out what happens next in Candy Quackenbush's personal odyssey. For sure, it has little to do with chickens, and a great deal to do with magic.

[Sara Sutterfield Winn]