In the opening scene of "Abarat: Absolute Midnight," the third installment in Clive Barker's lavish fantasy adventure series, a blind man is alone in his island home, intuiting the messages transmitted by tarot cards. The cards foretell that a war is coming, one that will remake the land — an archipelago of 25 islands, each of which stands at a given hour of the day and one mysterious island that represents "time out of time."
This conflict also will align the fortunes of the Card-Reader with the unlikely heroine of the story, one Candy Quackenbush from Chickentown, Minn., the resourceful young woman at the center of Barker's expansive tale.
Like Dorothy or Alice before her, 16-year-old Candy is an innocent plucked from the mundanity of her everyday life and thrust into a mystical place filled with untold wonders and horrors. Barker acknowledges his heroine's literary lineage, but he also crafts a wonderfully contemporary girl who is brave, resourceful, loyal and willing to sacrifice herself for the betterment of the world.
Even when the possibility of first love turns up for Candy, her priorities don't change — a wonderful, refreshing surprise in an era when too many depictions of young women center on their mooning over some supernatural suitor or another.
Candy first tripped on the existence of the Abarat nearly 10 years ago, when novelist Barker began his exploration of his vast exotic dream world with the first book in his young adult series. Best known for his extensive catalog of fantastic and horror fiction, Barker had explored writing for younger readers before, but "Abarat" represents something greater for the author: With each book, he's completed roughly 100 large-scale oil paintings that are reproduced within the novels themselves.
Not that Barker needs them to make real his imagined wonders. As he tells the story of Candy's quest — here, she continues on her path from frustrated teenager living with an abusive, drunken father to valiant young female warrior — he catalogs a seemingly limitless array of creatures and landscapes in lavish detail. They spring to vibrant life on the page, the words, like an Abaratian spell, effectively summoning the inhabitants of this neighboring dimension.
With a bloody, brutal war as its centerpiece, "Absolute Midnight" becomes a vividly rendered and incredibly dark saga centered on Candy and her friends, who include the geshrat Malingo and master thief John Mischief, and her foes, specifically the villainous Mater Motley, a powerful sorceress who intends to extinguish every trace of light from the world.
Darkness, of course, is Barker's forte, and with Motley, he's fashioned a perfectly wicked witch. A grim figure dressed in a gown adorned with crudely sewn rag dolls, the Old Mother commands an army of stitchlings made from the mud of the land of Midnight, also named Gorgossium, and fashioned by a battalion of her seamstresses. Her viciousness knows no boundaries — she famously maimed her grandson, the ghoulish Christopher Carrion, in retaliation for a minor infraction.
When "Absolute Midnight" begins, Mater Motley is recovering from a disastrous trip to the Hereafter — as our world is known there — during which her grandson drowned and her warship the Wormwood splintered apart in the swirling sentient sea of Izabella.
Candy is facing her own woes. She's been summoned to the Great Head of the Yebba Dim Day to give a report before the Council of the Hours about the events that transpired when Mater Motley pursued her to Chickentown, and she's in desperate need of a sundering spell to evict the spirit of the murdered Princess Boa from her body.
Only then can Candy truly embark on her most pressing mission: protecting herself and the denizens of the Abarat from Mater Motley's massive, encroaching darkness. It's this quest that represents the bulk of the 500-plus page narrative (one that's probably much more appropriate for older teens than their younger siblings).
As for Candy's future, only Barker knows what's in the cards, but the author seems committed to spending many more years in the Abarat — he has plans for two additional volumes in the series, with all their attendant oil paintings. The visions are sure to be remarkable.