Readers of classic children's literature (in particular, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) might enjoy their own gleams of recognition as they enter yet another of Barker's well-conceived worlds of fantasy. Barker, who has written and directed such horror films as Hellraiser and Candyman, has come quite a way since the literary days of his gore-filled Books of Blood. More than anything, he's able to sustain a much longer narrative. His latest is actually the first in a four-part series, and this volume alone is already 400 pages long.
Barker also has the magic touch when it comes to creating a universe complete with its own mythos. As do the worlds of 1991's Imajica, the Abarat has its own gods, political rivalries, class divisions, philosophies and what appears to be a Bible (the Testaments of Pottishak). There is even a different star system. As Candy discovers, "Even the darkness between those stars -- the darkness of space itself -- was not like space as she saw it from her bedroom window. There were subtle colors pulsing through it: shades of deepest purple and rich royal blue, moving like tides across the sky, ready to be swum or sailed."
As in a previous work, 1992's The Thief of Always, Barker gives his young protagonist glimmers of maturity and strength. These qualities, along with the determination not to go back to Chickentown, keep Candy motivated as she encounters characters who are only too happy to sacrifice her to their own selfish desires. While the main character is a teenager, it would be presumptuous to dismiss this as a mere children's book. Barker's colorful writing makes Abarat much more than that.
Barker shows his grasp of the cultural imagination with a world audiences can relate to, while adding details that tantalize the reader with glimpses of this alien dimension. The Abarat consists of 25 islands that embody the 24 hours of the day along with an extra island that holds the "Time Out of Time." This leaves Barker plenty of room to maneuver settings, character and storyline, and the author takes full advantage. One of Barker's most enviable gifts has always been his ability to draw an in-depth portrait of another world and still leave enough unknowns for readers to pick up where he leaves off and explore on their own. In Abarat, there is a telling scene that again places Candy in a position reminiscent of the reader's:
"[S]he saw glimpses of extraordinary things. At first the images moved past her so fast she could make only the most rudimentary sense of them ... But as her eyes grew accustomed to the way the shoal of pictures were flowing past her, she in her turn became more able to snatch hold of one for a few moments; like a hot coin, caught in the palm of her hand, that she had time to turn over and examine on both sides before the discomfort obliged her to let it go."
Reverberating against Barker's magnificent verbal imagery are the hundred or so illustrations (in the form of oil paintings) that go along with the story. All are in full color, by Barker himself, created before the story was even written. Most are bold and expressive, closely paralleling the narrative, and Barker is adept in not letting either component of the story overshadow the other. But there's more to these paintings than just their decorative appeal. One painting in particular shows Candy in the midst of an endless background of chickens. It is, at first glance, probably the least interesting illustration in the entire book. To make matters worse, Barker repeats details of the painting several times throughout the novel, almost to the point of irritating the reader. But then it becomes apparent how much more so Candy, the Chickentown native, must also be tired of all those chickens. Thus, the reader's journey of discovery parallels Candy's own.
Abarat offers a fresh escape from everyday existence. As Candy finds, there are some old friends in new guises waiting in welcome, and plenty of time for everyone to explore. A word of caution: readers should be aware that as part of a series, this book starts a lot of sub-plots that remain unresolved. Those with patient souls and good memories will probably be fine with that. As for me, I'll be waiting until the entire series has been published before sitting down and reading it in one session.