A book review for parents
This fantasy novel is the first book in the "Abarat" series by Clive Barker and is published by HarperCollins Children's Books, a division of HarperCollins.
Abarat is written for kids ages 12 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Candy Quackenbush, a Minnesota high school girl, hates living with her alcoholic father and defeated mother. After a humiliating scene with her history teacher, she cuts classes and wanders onto the prairie. There, she discovers an abandoned lighthouse. Near it she meets an eight-headed man, John Mischief. He and his seven other heads, which are his brothers, ask for Candy's help. He wants her to light the lighthouse while he distracts Mendelson Shape, a nightmarish-looking creature.
Shape quickly realizes what Mischief is doing and pursues Candy. In spite of this, Candy lights it. The light summons a sea that surrounds them. Mischief gives her a key that is absorbed into her mind. These strange happenings intrigue Candy. She doesn't want to return to her boring hometown and wants to remain with Mischief, who has treated her with respect. She persuades him to take her to Abarat, where he lives.
To get there, Candy and Mischief throw themselves into the ebbing sea, and eventually reach Yebba Day Dim, the island where it is always 8 o'clock in the evening. (Each of the 25 islands of Abarat reflects a different hour of the day. The 25th island is a mysterious place where the past, present and future are mixed together.) Mischief and his brothers, who are thieves, abandon Candy at the sight of the island police.
Shape reports to Lord Carrion, a powerful and evil magician. When Carrion hears that Candy is in Abarat, he sends a giant moth to abduct her. Rojo Pixler, a power-hungry merchant who is on a hunt, shoots down the moth. Scared, Candy lands on the moth and runs away from Pixler.
Meanwhile, John Mischief joins the expedition of the Belbelo. A sea dragon demands to eat a young girl onboard. The expedition refuses to sacrifice her and battle the dragon until they mortally wound it. Their ship breaks apart, but they reach land in a small boat. One of the rain-soaked plants of the island heals the near dead Mischief. (This plotline ends here and is unresolved.)
An evil wizard, Wolfswinkel, imprisons an exhausted Candy and removes the key from her mind. He informs one of Carrion's henchmen of her capture. The henchman arrives to take custody of the key and Candy, but she and Malingo, Wolfswinkel's slave, have escaped. Using magic, the Sisters of the Fantomaya draw Candy and Malingo to the 25th island. The three women give Candy glimpses of the past, present and future. They warn her that her future is full of danger and adventure.
The island's keeper sends the Fugit brothers, a pair of monsters, to tear Candy apart. The Sisters of the Fantomaya send a small boat and wind so Candy and Malingo can escape.
Candy credits God with sending the hours of the day. She remembers her uncle's comment that animals display God's sense of humor. When wondering whether Abarat is a dream or something else, Candy quips it may be someplace God designed but has now forgotten. When the giant moth that is carrying her is shot initially, Candy pleads for help. God is implied in her pleadings though she doesn't speak His name. The narrator comments that Candy's cry is useless because her prayers are late. As the giant moth descends, Candy does pray to God, but the story's narrator says her voice cannot be heard in the noise of the fall, and her prayers are ineffective. It is luck that saves Candy.
Candy tells Pixler she wants to say a prayer over the dead Squiller (a squid). Pixler responds that in childhood his sister observed a similar ritual. She buried her pets and wrote shorts prayers for the ceremony. Pixler makes a cross for Squiller's grave. Candy does not address her prayer to God. Instead she thanks Squiller for his companionship. Candy seems to discard her even nominal belief in God as the book nears its end. Running for her life from the Fugit brothers, she does not cry out to God, but to the Sisters of the Fantomaya. They rescue her.
John Mischief speaks of Providence. He tells Candy at the lighthouse that Providence has sent her to him. When the sea dragon threatens Mischief, he calls out to God. Others on deck pray for the dragon to release him, but to whom they pray is unspecified. That God hears or intervenes in this circumstance is subtly dismissed. Geneva, who prays for help from the 91 goddesses, rescues Mischief and slays the dragon.
A number of Abaratians make references to the Devil, equating him with evil.
Candy's alcoholic father is often violent. She remembers an incident when he slapped her several times. She also remembers he repeatedly promised to not hit her anymore and promised her mother that he would end his drinking. He doesn't keep his promises. Candy's mother is resigned to his drinking and her life. She calls her husband names behind his back. Candy's venomous history teacher rudely rejects Candy's research paper and berates her in front of the class. A testy Abaratian policeman gets into a brawl with a recalcitrant citizen.
Lord Carrion, one of Abarat's more formidable magicians and the ruler of one of the islands, enjoys being cruel. He delights in his own nightmarish thoughts. In one particularly gruesome scene, he soothes himself with a walk through a forest where decaying bodies hang from trees. He enjoys tormenting others and mistreats his servants, abusing them verbally and physically, as well as threatening them with death. Carrion yearns to see the return of the Requiax, evil creatures from ages past that presently live in the depths of the Sea of Izabella. He wants to watch them destroy everything. After they are finished, he plans to rebuild the land according to his own visions.
Carrion resents his grandmother and calls her names. She is an evil sorceress, who once sewed his lips together because he said "love" in her presence. She makes hideous, servile and sometimes violent creatures that Carrion rules. Wolfswinkel, another magician, lies, asks Candy to poison the tarrie-cats, drinks heavily and beats his slave. Rojo Pixler, a very wealthy businessman, is trying to gain complete control of the islands and the lives of its citizens.
The Sisters of the Fantomaya have magical powers, but they willfully break the law and bring Candy to the island of the 25th hour. John Mischief, who respects Candy, leads her to believe that her life has a purpose, but he is a notorious thief. The captain and the other members of the Belbelo protect and refuse to give up a young girl to the dragon. Samuel Klepp, the publisher of Klepp's Almenak, presents himself to Candy as a person committed to the truth. But preceding the excerpts from Klepp's Almenak, which are found at the end of the story, the narrator states that Klepp's work is error-ridden and that Klepp intentionally mixes truth and dreams.
Other Belief Systems
The novel uses Christian terminology — blessed, born again, miracles, etc. — but the words do not reflect the Christian experience. For example, miracle is a synonym for magic, and Candy muses that her coming to Abarat is the source of her rebirth.
In Abarat, there are many books on magic, and the practice of it takes many forms. Magicians conjure flying crafts known as glyphs. They create subservient and often hideous creatures, which they then rule over. Lord Carrion, Wolfswinkel and Carrion's grandmother use magic to create beings. Carrion can exert Darth Vader-like physical power over others. He can also question the dead. Some Abaratian magicians can raise the dead. Wolfswinkel can bring images from a person's mind to life, and he can become invisible. The book hints that Candy may have magical powers that will become more evident in future books. In this book, she wills the ball to drop into the lighthouse cup, and the glyph responds to her commands. Candy learns near the end of the book that some Abaratians are wondering if she could be their savior.
The story does not make clear all of its special properties, but light is a force of some kind in the Abaratian world. Mischief says light is a game. The lamp of the lighthouse is an inverted pyramid that balances on its point. A cup rests on the pyramid's top. When Candy throws the ball into the cup, the pyramid rotates and emits streams of light. The light summons the sea. The light also strengthens Candy. The key that Candy agrees to keep also emits light, and Mischief says that as its keeper, she is helping the Abaratians remain free. When the light stops shining because John Mischief shoots the ball out of the cup, the sea ebbs.
While light is valued as a good thing, darkness is also valued. A tarrie-cat tells Candy that without dark you cannot know light. The difficulty arises when darkness oversteps itself. Then it must be corrected. He further states that it is just as worthy to follow a dark path as a light one.
In Abarat, bone-casters attempt to predict the future, and Malingo says Abaratians believe in astrology. Carrion believes in fate. Abaratians also believe the Sea of Izabella which surrounds the islands has power and a will of her own. The monsoon-soaked plants on one of the islands heal Mischief who is near death.
Some of Abarat's inhabitants successfully worship deities. Diamanda calls on the Lady Moon for assistance and is given help. Geneva is victorious in her fight with the dragon after she prays to the 91 goddesses.
To Abaratians, Minnesota is a mythic place that they call the Hereafter. Some of them speak of it as if it were heaven. They are in awe of Candy when they learn that she has come from the Hereafter. Abaratian preachers used to say that in the Hereafter angels took the dead to eternal places of light. One of the stitchlings, a creation of Carrion's grandmother, while rejecting these imaginings of the preachers, still hopes that somewhere there is a place where creatures like him may be healed and made whole. However not every Abaratian speaks well of the Hereafter. One of John Mischief's brothers calls the Hereafter a wretched place. Klepp repeats his great-grandfather's belief that the place corrupts people.
Candy suggests that Atlantis, El Dorado and Avalon are real places not just myths.
Shape curses but in a language Candy doesn't know. Other Abaratian characters profane the names of their gods. Candy, her father, one of the Mischief brothers, Wolfswinkel and the sea dragon say d — n or a form of it. Candy takes the name of the Lord in vain. Her teacher says Good Lord. Another of the Mischief brothers uses d--nable as an adjective. The text says Candy curses Wolfswinkel. The actual words are not written out. Geneva uses b--tard as an adjective.
There are many violent conflicts in the novel. They are vividly described and prolonged. For example, as Candy attempts to light the lighthouse, the threatening and nightmarish Shape pursues her. To stop her from journeying to Abarat, he attempts to kill her, ripping her blouse with his sharp claws and strangling her to the point of unconsciousness. His face is full of pleasure as he does this. As the giant moth carries Candy, Shape, who is riding it, toys with her. He orders the moth to drop her and then catch her just in time. Soon the moth is shot and begins a harrowing descent with Shape and Candy still onboard.
In another prolonged and vivid incident, the group on the Belbelo battles a hungry, not-to-be-denied dragon. During the fierce, blood-chilling fight, John Mischief must be rescued from the dragon's mouth. He is badly bitten and near death. Geneva mortally wounds the dragon. The ship sinks, and the sailors crowd into the lifeboat. The dragon returns and swallows one of the men alive. The dragon's eyes are blown out, and it dies. The water turns red with the dragon's blood.
Wolfswinkel's extraction of the key from Candy's mind is so painful that she slips into unconsciousness. Wolfswinkel beats Malingo with his staff and threatens to beat Candy. He conjures a two-headed, 5-foot long maggot with sharp teeth and orders it to kill Malingo. It tries, but fails.
In a bizarre sequence, Candy fights off a mire, a vicious creature whose body of mud begins to fall apart. Later she barely escapes the relentless Fugit brothers with their grotesque clock-like faces.
Candy remembers an incident where her father slapped her several times. The scene with Candy and her teacher, while not physical, is emotionally violent. The teacher's relentless verbal attack on Candy borders on the sadistic. There are many other instances of graphic violence. Often those scenes are infused with cruelty.
There are a number of scenes that might be described as horror. A few examples follow. Carrion wanders through a forest where dead bodies still hang from the trees. Birds are feeding on the decaying bodies and speak as if they were the people who were hanged. Carrion enjoys watching his blinded mechanical spies destroy themselves. A servant of Carrion's pounds mummified corpses into dust. Hungry, the same servant eats the raw entrails of a large crab. Coming to Abarat, Candy watches a vlitter, a human/bat creature, swoop down and devour a fish that cries out like a dog and is the size of a baby. The ocean creatures, whom Candy encounters on her way to Abarat, admit they occasionally eat sailors, but promise they will not eat her because she is important.
John Mischief kisses the palm of Candy's hand. He also kisses her hand and bows as he prepares to leave. He hugs her and kisses her on the cheek, expressing his gratitude to Candy for helping him secure his freedom. Lumeric, a famous magician of Abarat, is both male and female.
ALA Best Book for Young Adults, 2003; Bram Stoker Award Nominee, Work for Younger Reader, 2002; and others
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What kinds of problems does Candy have with her history teacher?
Does she handle the situation wisely?
How is her teacher unfair or unkind?
How should those in authority behave?
- What is censorship?
How does Candy feel about book burnings?
What books are not allowed in your school library?
If you don't feel a book is worthy of reading, what should you do about it?
Who should have the power to censor books?
Who shouldn't have the power to censor books?
- Who does Candy say she will not forgive?
How does not forgiving her father hurt her?
If she forgives her father, does it mean that she has to pretend that he is perfect?
How can you forgive someone who continues to treat you poorly?
If she forgives her father, does she have to continue to be abused?
- Where does Candy go with Samuel Klepp?
How does he help her?
Where does Candy go with Wolfswinkel?
How does he hurt her?
How do you know when it's OK to trust a stranger?
- Lord Carrion's grandmother stitched his lips together for a day when he spoke the word love in her presence. And he may have been abused in other ways.
How does Carrion now treat others?
Does someone who has been mistreated have to become a person who mistreats others?
How can God help such a person?
Who can find a way to use the evil done to someone for good?
- What are John Mischief and his brothers?
How is thievery presented in this book?
Do thieves lead glamorous, exciting lives in the real world?
When you look up to thieves, who do you forget to care about?
How do the actions of thieves affect others?
- How does Candy feel misunderstood by her parents?
Do your friends' parents understand them?
What do you wish I understood about you?
- What are some of Candy's admirable qualities?
How does she behave in the face of Shape's onslaught?
What does she recognize about Malingo, despite his ugly appearance?
What do you like best about her?
What are some of her flaws?
- How do you know that Candy is going to be someone special, someone important, in this new world?
How do you feel when you go someplace new?
Will your life change for the better in a new place?
What kinds of things could happen that would make good life changes?
What kinds of things could happen that would make your life worse in a new place?
How can you make positive changes no matter where you are right now?
- What is Candy's relationship with God?
What does she know about Him?
Thinking outside the book, where is God when people like Candy suffer?
Would Candy's life in her hometown and with her family be different if she had a vibrant relationship with God?
Do you think God can help people who are in difficulties like Candy?
Do you know anyone whom God has helped or is helping overcome a difficult situation?
In the early pages of the book, Candy and John Mischief show a belief, albeit small, in the reality of God. As the story progresses it is made clear to the reader that neither Candy's nor Mischief's pleas for God's intervention are answered by Him. The reader is told at one point that luck saves Candy, and the reader is shown that the goddesses intervene on Mischief's behalf. Toward the end of the book when all seems lost, Candy does not cry out to God for rescue. Instead she prays to the Sisters of the Fantomaya, and they rescue her.
When Candy first arrives in Abarat, the author hints that in time she will encounter different religions, different perceptions about good and evil, and different understandings about reality. Seeds of various philosophies are planted throughout the present storyline, but not developed in this book. It may be that these philosophies will be explored in greater depth in future books. For example, both Candy and Wolfswinkel think Candy has been in Abarat before. This may be a set-up for an explanation of reincarnation in future books.
A number of scenes in Abarat depict cruelty and the pleasure its perpetrators derive from tormenting others.
The inside back cover of the paperback version of Abarat, Book 1, mentions that the author, Clive Barker, and his partner, David Armstrong, live in California and have a daughter.
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.