Abarat - Clive Barker
Say you're a successful horror author, famous for dark S&M-themed tales of Hell and their successful movie adaptations. You have an idea for a book, but it's just a bit too... well, silly for the mainstream horror shelves. Seems a shame to waste it, so why not make it into a children's book? It can't be that hard to do, surely...?
Like many of my recent reads, Abarat is a hand-me-down from friends clearing out the shelves. And, like many others of similar provenance, there's a reason why the original owners no longer wanted it. This is a patronising, bowdlerised mess of a novel, full of clichés and bland characters, with no plot to speak of; only the setting stood out as something original, and even that looked rather contrived. I only finished it because it was short, then discovered to my horror that it was just the first book in a series and I didn't even get a complete story out of it.
Candy Quackenbush of Chickentown, Minnesota, walks out of school because the grown-ups are being so unfair, and finds herself flung into the magical world of the Abarat. This is the interesting idea - the Abarat is an archipelago where each island is a different hour of the day, and it is populated by all kinds of zany and wacky creatures. Of course, the island of Midnight is ruled by your standard cackling cartoon villain, Christopher Carrion, who wishes to bring about perpetual night, but is still cowed by his much scarier grandmother. There is also a more modern type of bad guy ruling the island of 3am - Rojo Pixler, the technocrat who wishes to control the world in the name of Progress. You can see where this is going. If, in later books, Candy does not align herself with Carrion against Pixler then I will be very surprised.
The "story" largely consists of Candy getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, and getting into trouble again, which is usually a sign that the author hasn't spent much time on the plot. She visits a few of the islands (doubtless the rest will come into later episodes) and is helped by various creatures, who believe she may (of course) have some super powers or destiny that can save the islands. There is also a more intriguing side-plot involving Candy's original Abarat friend John Mischief, on the trail of a legendary dragon-killer, but this is rather hampered by the unlikely physical appearance of Mischief himself - apparently he has antlers, on the prongs of which are the heads of his brothers, which each have their own personality. I could never get this mental image to work.
Some of the ideas are entertainingly surreal, especially the darker parts, but these are often ruined by the impression that they've been deliberately toned down for the younger audience, like a film badly overdubbed with "muddy funster" where the swearwords ought to be. I will give marks for the logo, which impressively looks the same upside-down, but other than that, it's pretty bloody awful.