Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War
Joanna Cotler Books / Harper Collins
US First Edition Hardcover
Publication Date: 09-21-2004
493 Pages; $24.99
Date Reviewed: 09-21-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004
Purity is the enemy of entertainment. Yet it's often difficult to recognize what constitutes the impurities that make any form of fiction entertaining. A science fiction novel, for example, may be brought to life by a carefully crafted romance. A complex mystery might be sparked by a particularly clever science-fictional concept. The single element of fantasy within an otherwise ultra-realistic literary work might seem utterly unnecessary until one carefully contemplates its removal. More than a few high adventures have been rescued from boredom by the inclusion of spots of low humor. And few monolithic slabs of anything -- science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery or literary fiction -- have gained the affections of the general reading public.
It's the impurities within a work that can truly bring it to life. And those impurities themselves can take on a greater life for the contrast they find. Clive Barker's latest novel, 'Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War' provides an excellent example of the power of impurity. As does the first novel in this fantastically inventive series, 'Days of Magic, Nights of War' showcases Barker's fertile imagination. The narrative is filled with feats of fantastic imagination, creatures, settings and imagery so colorful that the tints seem to bleed off the pages and into the hands holding the novel. But it's the darkness running through the narrative that gives it power, and the horror within that makes the spark of life burn so brightly in this fantasy. Almost incidentally, it's also some of the best horror that Barker has yet created, even --perhaps especially -- when readers realize that it harkens back to imagery found in his earliest work.
Before readers have a chance to consider any of these nuances, they'll have to confront the heft of the novel itself. And by heft, I mean the sheer weight of it. Lift up this book and you'll think that perhaps they've published it with lead-lined covers. But the fact of the matter is that like 'Abarat', 'Days of Magic, Nights of War' has been produced with no expense spared, and that's an important part of the work itself. This time around, there are more than 125 paintings, and the book is nearly 500 pages long. But don't let the weightiness of this book deter you. In fact all that gravity makes the book lighter, faster and far more powerful.
Like its predecessor, 'Days of Magic, Nights of War' is remarkably easy to read, without seeming compromised in any way whatsoever. I have to admit that I was skeptical. I felt like someone expected to move a huge piece of concrete, only to find out that it's cleverly disguised cinematic Styrofoam. This novel reads like lightning and is much more fun than being struck by lightning, even though it's just about as unusual as being struck by lightning. No doubt the paintings help relieve some of the weight, but it's also without doubt that Barker has become a remarkably talented writer. He leavens the story with humor, with high imagination and characters the reader absolutely loves, from lovable and sweet Candy Quackenbush to the despicable Mater Motley. One of the most identifiable reasons that this book is so enjoyable is that readers look forward to spending time with any of the characters.
But at the heart of this novel is a wonderfully tortured soul, Christopher Carrion. Carrion is surely despicable, and capable of great evil. In an early set piece, we find Carrion hatching monsters the likes of which we haven't seen since the very first story in 'The Books of Blood', 'The Midnight Meat Train'. I'll never forget the "City Fathers", and they have a worthy successor in this novel. What's interesting is that in that scene, and other scenes of horror and wonder, Barker achieves the same level of disturbing but visionary power that he achieved in his much-more adult-oriented fiction without any of adult-only trappings. The darkness in Barker is not lost when you remove the explicit nature of his earlier works. Indeed, in some places this novel is actually rather darker than his full-bore horror, and that's surely down contrasts that the richly imagined world of Abarat provides.
Of course, Carrion has two sides and that's what makes him such an entrancing creation. For all of his darkness, there's a doubt and vulnerability that, while it never redeems his evil, does make it all the more powerful. Of course, every evil needs a foil. Candy Quackenbush provides that foil for Carrion, not because she's a sunny, positive type, but because she's a relentlessly realistic character from our relentless real world. Her doubts and her limitations keep Abarat real, even in its most outlandish extremes.
Barker also makes a very wise decision to return to Chickentown, Candy's home in our world. The mundane nature of suburban Middle American and its inhabitants comes a refreshing tonic to the ever-exotic Abarat. With nine-headed this and two-headed that, a few levelheaded suburbanites and hardheaded pragmatists manage to seem positively glamorous. In fact, they help to buttress the glamour that Barker himself is creating with this elaborate fantasy.
Barker deftly avoids one of the main traps of serial fantasy by providing a narrative that offers a sense of closure and completeness while managing to leave things clearly unfinished. The end of this novel then, leaves the reader with the same feeling of satisfying impurities that the mixed genres do. Some aspects of the narrative are nicely rounded out, so much so that although the series is clearly incomplete, the novel itself feels quite complete. Of course, Candy's journey is clearly not over, but readers won't feel as if they're peering out over an abyss when they turn the last page. Like Candy, readers will feel at home, welcomed. Ready to explore further into the dark heart of Barker's complex creation.