Thursday, September 6, 2012

Abarat (Clive Barker)

(The Abarat series, Book 1)
Clive Barker
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Candy Quackenbush lives in the most boring town in Minnesota - the encyclopedias in the library even confirm it. Aside from being the top producer of chicken meat, Chickentown holds no other points of interest... and Candy has one more day to finish her class assignment of finding ten "interesting" things about the place. She hates this place, just as she hates her life, living in this nowhere town with an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother too cowed to defend her own offspring. There must be more to look forward to than an eternity of this!
After failing her assignment, Candy finally snaps. She runs out on school, on home, on the town itself, heading into the trackless prairie grasses - and straight into the path of a very peculiar fellow. John Mischief is eight brothers in one, with seven little heads atop antlers sprouting from his skull. Through him, Candy finds herself pulled into a strange and magical world, the archipelago of Abarat. She always wanted to leave dreary old Chickentown behind her, but Abarat is no Wonderland. Danger lurks behind every wonder, and some of the attention she attracts could well be the death of her.

REVIEW: When modern galleries feature bizarre items in their displays, such as urinals or trash cans, people often ask: is it really art? Its presence in an art gallery would appear to qualify it as art, even if often it seems unrecognizable as such. Likewise, as I read Abarat, I found myself constantly wondering if it was really a story; the fact that it appears to be printed on paper and bound inside a cover would appear to qualify it as one, though at several points it seemed unrecognizable as such.
With more surreality than Alice in Wonderland but none of the whimsical turns of phrase, Abarat presents a bland heroine who wanders from one bizarre situation to the next, meeting all manner of improbable beings with little more than an occasional hint of wonder. Unlike Alice, she doesn't even have the excuse of being in a dream; she's wide awake the whole time, yet seems largely unfazed by a man with little heads living on his antlers or fishlike creatures playing cards on a rolling ocean. (There is an explanation for some of her accepting behavior, but it felt entirely unsatisfactory and, frankly, like a cop-out.) You would think that a modern kid would be a little more incredulous, or a little more cynical, pointing out the ridiculous impracticalities she witnesses in her journeys, but Candy just drifts through it all, so happy to be out of Chickentown that she hardly gives any of it a second thought. The plot drifts with her, only barely establishing a greater mytharc about impending threats to the islands of the Arabat... a mytharc that's left entirely unresolved by the end, save a mention that I'd reached the conclusion of the "first" book. Apparently, that revelation was supposed to excuse the wandering nature of the plot: I wasn't reading a whole story, but merely an introduction. If I'd known that I wouldn't even be rewarded with a conclusion, I wouldn't have bothered slogging through to the bitter end. That cost this book the half-star that its admittedly-imaginative setting almost earned it.
Much like that peculiar modern art that leaves me scratching my head more often than not, I can only say about Abarat that I may not know art, but I know what I like... and what I don't like.

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