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Clive Barker
Joanna Cotler Books / Harper Collins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-06-028092-1
Publication Date: 10-01-2002
388 Pages; 24.99
Date Reviewed:03-11-2003
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003

Index:  Fantasy  Horror  General Fiction

Some books arrive with so much advance notice that by the time they are actually published, readers have almost forgotten about them. I'd been hearing about Clive Barker's 'Abarat' so much for so long that I was close to believing that it would never be published. When it was published, I wasn't eager to read it, though I popped down to the bookstore and bought it almost immediately. It was hard to resist a book so thoroughly well-produced and art directed. 388 pages of heavy glossy stock, lots of color paintings, made sure I would at least look at it, something I can't exactly claim I did with other recent Barker books I've bought. It's not that I didn't think Barker is a good writer. It's just that the books were so long, and while buying seemed like a good idea, the actual thought of reading seemed to be something of a chore I could never get round to doing.

However, I'm currently on a quest of my own. I'm not hoping to find a sword, only a cheesy little column about fantasy and it only seemed right that I should read Barker's book of no-blood. Well that assumption turns out o be something of a mistake. There's more than a little blood in 'Abarat', certainly enough to keep its teenage audience fixated. And there are (according to the cover blurb) over 100 paintings that will also keep the kid's eyes on the page and adult eyes as well. But this sunny-looking book was remarkably easy for this adult to read. The more I read it, the more I liked it. What I thought might be a chore turned out to be a pleasure. Clive Barker's 'Abarat' wears its outrageousness on its sleeve, but the pleasure it brings comes from concentrating on the basics of good book production.

Barker's mind is as fertile as a cow field after the rain. 'Abarat' is populated with a bizarre menagerie of creatures, many of which are brought to life in illustrations by the author. The layout of the novel and the generally light colors used in the paintings give this book an airy feel. It's very easy on the eyes and easy to read. Barker's painting style is primitive and simplistic. If he's painting a picture of a monster of a character, it tends to be on the garish side. Some folks may find the style is ugly; I've something of two minds on the subject. However, when Barker opts for painting a beautiful landscape, his command of colors is really evident. In general the illustration lift the book a level beyond the usual illustrations in a children's book. The illustrations and layout serve to make the book a lot more appealing to anyone of any age.

The plot is typical adolescent fantasy. Candy, a dis-empowered teenage girl lives a dismal life in Chickentown. One afternoon, she walks out into a field and before she has a chance to click her heels together and say 'There's no place like home, she's whisked away into the archipelago of Abarat. Barker shamelessly plagiarizes some of the notions from 'The Thief of Always' his other children's book. In that novel, each quarter of the day in the 'House of Always' symbolizes an entire season. Here, an island symbolizes each hour in the day. It's a formula that Barker works well however. He's so utterly in his element here that he seems to shed the drag of expectations and plunge himself into his art.

'Abarat' benefits most from characters that are easy to grasp and easy to like. That's because, from the beginning, it's apparent that Barker likes everybody he's writing about. He's generous to all the characters, even the antagonists in the story. Everybody has an interesting backstory that doesn't annoy, but seems buoyed up by Barker's sunny visions. I expected that it would take a week or more to read this novel, but I zoomed though it a couple of days. As the starter for a series, I thought Barker hit it just right, drawing readers into the action, but not leaving them on such a cliffhanger that they'd be waiting another four years for the next book.

'Abarat' is set to become its own industry, as Disney and Barker wind up for a series, a movie and who knows what else. It's easy to see the appeal of this book to a merchandising giant like Disney. The doll designs are right out here on the cover. Sweep that and any other expectation aside. Enjoy this book for the nice light ride it provides. Hope the next ones are as good, and one hell of a whole lot more timely. This is the start of a series I actually find myself looking forward to.

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