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Enchanted Isles

Reviewed by Bill Sheehan
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page BW13

ABARAT: Days of Magic, Nights of War

By Clive Barker. Joanna Cotler. 489 pp. $24.99


Text adaptation by Peter Abrahams; illustrations by Alan Dingman; paper engineering by Kees Moerbeek

Simon & Schuster. Unpaged. $24.95

For more than 20 years, renaissance man Clive Barker has successfully juggled careers as artist, playwright, novelist and filmmaker. (He does not, as far as I know, sing grand opera, but he could be practicing in secret.) Artist and novelist work hand in hand in Barker's latest project, an ongoing epic fantasy entitled The Abarat Quartet. Though ostensibly aimed at younger readers, the first two volumes of the quartet effortlessly cross the imaginary border between adult and YA fiction and should find an audience in a variety of age groups.

The first installment, Abarat, introduced Candy Quackenbush, teenage resident of Chickentown, Minn., "the most boring town in the country." Candy's boredom ends when a chance encounter on the prairie outside Chickentown leads to the miraculous appearance of an ocean -- the Sea of Izabella -- that connects the American Midwest with a magical archipelago called the Abarat. Accompanied by John Mischief and his seven brothers (all of whom share the same body) and pursued by the murderous Mendelson Shape, Candy crosses that impossible ocean and finds herself stranded in an equally impossible world.

The Abarat consists of 25 islands, one for each hour of the day and one that exists in "a Time Out of Time." In volume one, Candy travels from island to island, making friends and occasional enemies, encountering a hallucinatory variety of species and cultures, and rapidly adapting to a world that feels deeply -- and inexplicably -- familiar. Along the way, she meets two ambitious men with very different plans for the Abarat's future. One is Rojo Pixler, an entrepreneur who understands the primal power of advertising. The other is Christopher Carrion, the Lord of Midnight, who dreams of ruling an Abarat covered in absolute, eternal darkness.

In volume two, Days of Magic, Nights of War, Barker puts the Pixler thread on hold, focusing instead on Carrion, whose demented dreams of empire (and growing obsession with Candy) dominate the plot. Just as Candy feels strangely at home in the Abarat, so does Carrion feel strangely connected to Candy. He dispatches a number of lethal underlings to find her and bring her to him, while simultaneously pursuing a larger goal: consolidating his power in the islands. The ensuing narrative encompasses dreams, betrayals, tragic personal histories, secret agendas and unexpected revelations to tell the tale of an imperiled world of wonders, a world beset by "murder and bad magic" and by the corrupt ambitions of powerful men.

These are among the classic elements of epic fantasy, and Barker deploys them with energy and an infectious enthusiasm, adding a number of original flourishes in the process. His heroine is a likable, credible figure who grows and changes under the pressure of events. Her presence provides the chaotic narrative with a stable human center. But it is the Abarat itself -- a protean creation overflowing with grotesque, beautiful visions -- that most engages Barker's febrile imagination. The 25 islands allow him to create an array of colorful landscapes and populate them with a gallery of creatures that are utterly sui generis. The Abarat Quartet is shaping up to be, among other things, Barker's bestiary. No other writer -- and no other artist -- could have conceived or created it.

It is impossible to review these volumes without remarking on their accompanying artwork. For the first two installments, Barker has created hundreds of full-color paintings -- some of them large, multi-page portraits, some of them quick, vividly detailed sketches -- that add an extra dimension to the text. Whatever the subject -- a storm at sea, a floating city, a whimsical street scene -- he illuminates his characters and places from the inside out, making them a vital and vibrant element of the narrative. It all adds up to a seamless fusion of words and images, a sensory barrage that reflects its creator's peculiar sensibility on every page. If Barker can sustain the same level of invention through two more volumes, the result could be a lasting contribution to the literature of imaginary lands.

An unusual new version of Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon also fuses words and pictures but in a vastly different fashion. King, whose work has been adapted for virtually every medium known to man, has now provided the source material for a children's pop-up book -- and a pretty good one at that.

King's novel tells the story of a young girl, Trisha McFarland, who strays from the path while hiking with her family on the Appalachian Trail and spends several grueling days lost in the woods. The harsh realities of that primordial setting -- swarming insects, snakes, a constant sense of impending, possibly supernatural menace -- make this tale a perfect candidate for the special effects typically found in a pop-up book. Alan Dingman has faithfully illustrated the story, while the text, shrewdly adapted for this stringent format by Peter Abrahams, retains the bite and flavor of the original. All in all, this latest incarnation of a minor King gem offers numerous pleasures and some genuinely creepy moments. It would make an ideal gift for the serious King fan and for the adventurous young reader with a taste for stories that have real -- and very sharp -- teeth. •

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree," a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, and the editor of the recent anthology "Night Visions 11."

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