This year is shaping up to be a year of second chances and revisiting of books I have enjoyed in the past. This month is no exception.
Abarat and Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War by Clive Barker
I read the first book of this ongoing series, Abarat, in high school. Recently, I was lucky enough to chance upon first edition hardcover versions of these volumes and decided it was time to revisit the series.
The series takes place in two worlds: Chickentown, Minnesota and the Abarat, a collection of twenty-five islands each representing a different hour of the day and the mysterious twenty-fifth hour. Enter Candy Quakenbush, a relatively normal teenager who just so happens to live in a boring, backwards town known only for its chickens. Soon, however, Candy finds herself swept into the Abarat, where she encounters a motley cast of characters and finds herself a key player in saving the islands from a plunge into darkness.
The most striking aspect of the texts is the brilliant paintings that illustrate Candy, her friends, her enemies, and her adventures. Not only is the reader treated to a rich world of words and descriptions, bu finds herself engrossed in colorful, stunning, and stylized illuminations by Barker. In a way, it reminds me of the illuminated texts of Blake—not only do we have a work of words, but a work where the Barker’s paintings are just as central to the text.
I loved the experience of the first two books and am eagerly awaiting the rest of what is reported to be a five-part series. Barker’s characters are quirky, strange, and entirely unique creatures that seem to stem from dreams and fairy-tales. We have John Mischief, one of Candy’s first friends in the Abarat, who carries his brothers with him on antler’s sprouting from his head. Not to mention, Christopher Carrion, who wears his nightmares in his collar. Such vivid, expressive characters are more than enough to make this of interest to any fan of fantastical works.
My only disappointment with the series lies in the predictable nature of the plot. Very early in the first book, I already knew Candy’s origins and found it tiring when she herself didn’t realize it. That is to say, the foreshadowing and mysteries of this book are very heavy-handed and not in any way subtle. I was very rarely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot and most of the time I could tell you what was going to happen next without having to turn the page. Nevertheless, I found myself falling in love with Barker’s characters, his prose, and his paintings.
King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
This Victorian adventure novel was a welcome change from the modern fantasy and fiction novels I have recently been engrossed in. The Victorians, aside from being well dressed, were masters of language and this beautifully crafted book is just one example. If you want to learn how to write, learn from the Victorians. I can certainly see why this book was one of the best selling of its time.
The premise of the story is that Allan Quartermain, a renowned English hunter in Africa, sets out on a quest with Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good, to find Henry’s brother (who had set out after Solomon’s treasure several years before). Along the way, the three find themselves hunting elephants, embroiled in the wars of natives, and stumbling across an unimaginable treasure.
Of particular interest is the fact that this story is the first to take place in Africa, at a time when explorers were constantly discovering new worlds and cultures. Here, Quartermain and his friends plunge into an unknown, savage land—a place where white men had never before set foot. Throughout the narrative, the reader is privilege to the many thrills and trials the men encounter on their adventures. I have to say, I often found myself holding my breath and feeling an intense urge to hop on the first plane to Africa.
The book was a very smooth read. It is short, just barely over two hundred pages, and the reader isn’t once forced to mire through unnecessary descriptions of setting or dialogue. The narrative moves quickly from one event to the next, rarely stopping for breath, and quickly catapulting the reader towards a tidy ending. King Solomon’s Mines is at once a work of simplicity and eloquence.
What’s on the menu for next month? In keeping with the theme of picking up once abandoned books, I will be reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.