The Chestnut King by ND Wilson, 482 pp, RL 4
THE CHESTNUT KING is now in paperback!
My review of ND Wilson's The Chesnut King marks a first for me. This is the first time that I have reviewed a trilogy or series of books and devoted an individual review to each book. While I wrote about all three of Cornelia Funke's Inkworld books, it was in one review. I have devoted individual reviews to the first two books in Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams' breathtaking series that begins with Tunnels, follows with Deeper and continues on with Free Fall and, to be released in the UK in May of 2010 and who knows when in the States, Closer, although I didn't intend to. I have so many books, old and new, in my to-be-read pile that, even if I make time to follow a series, I rarely have time to continue reviewing it and, honestly, I figure that once a reader is hooked, s/he is the best person to decide whether or not to read on in a series. But, Deeper was so astonishing that I just had to write about it. You can expect to see reviews of the other books in the series here soon...
But, back to ND Wilson! When I read and reviewed 100 Cupboards in May of 2009, I picked up Dandelion Fire almost immediately after finishing book 1. However, life got in the way and, what was going to be a pleasure read for me got bumped to the bottom of the pile. When I was approached by Random House a couple of months ago with the chance to read and advance copy of The Chesnut King and participate in a blog tour that would include original content written by ND Wilson especially for my blog (to read that piece as well as four other related pieces describing unexplored cupboards click here), I pulled my copy of Dandelion Fire from my pile of to-be-read books faster than you can say Henry, Kansas, or Henry York, for that matter. Aside from the obvious perks, I am truly glad I took the time to read all three books. Besides being extremely well written, Wilson's trilogy is a fairy tale of epic proportions and inherently important for that alone. As the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, a writes, "This is the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human experience - but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets the unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious." This message comes across in a very profound and immediate way in Wilson's telling. The 100 Cupboards, as the trilogy is called, is a very important addition to the genre of fantasy writing and the world of children's books and what I learned while doing research to write my reviews confirms that. This trilogy will be read, re-read and unpacked by lay people and scholars alike as it is layered with metaphors and references to classical literature, Narnia, Middle Earth and the Bible.
In most ways, The Chestnut King is a predictable book 3 in a trilogy. The main character must struggle against all odds to reach the inevitable fight against the force of evil that will play out at the end of the book, followed by a brief but joyful regrouping of the cast of characters and possibly an epilogue. But, what Wilson has done to make his books remarkably unique is to set them firmly on American soil and weave aspects of every day American life throughout the trilogy like I have never seen before. In 100 Cupboards, Henry is sheltered child who has never played sports, let alone exercised without a safety helmet on. By The Chestnut King, he has has learned to play baseball and, with the help of Zeke, his best friend in Henry, Kansas, is working on a wicked fast ball. In addition to this, Henry has discovered his family of origin, located in Hylfing, a city in a parallel world accessible through one (or two) of the 99 cupboards the man Henry thought was his grandfather installed in the attic of his home. In book 2, Henry dismantles the magical mechanism that enables travel through the cupboards in an attempt to save his family from Nimiane, the undying evil unleashed in book 1. When his body undergoes an intensely magical form of puberty, Henry learns that he is a green man, not entirely human and not completely faeren, but possessing the powers of both. When Henry returns to his native Hylfing he takes some of his American life with him - a baseball, hat and mitt. And, it is baseball, among a few other minor things, that gives Henry the skill and strength he needs to defeat Nimiane at the end of the book. While The 100 Cupboards book have strong roots in American soil, Wilson's writing really takes of when he travels to the fantasy worlds behind the cupboards.
At the start of the book, The Chestnut King of the title is a new character in the trilogy and the identity of the king is somewhat mysterious throughout the book, giving the title double meaning. Wilson really pulls out all the stops when it comes to imagination in this book. From the horrific minions of Nimiane, to her hanging garden of a lair and her sickening relatives, every word of Wilson's writing immediately springs to life with a rich visual immediacy. The Chestnut King could have easily be two hundred pages longer and I would have been quite happy, there were so many characters and places that I wanted to linger with. While the action in the book is non-stop (and the repeated woudings of the main characters apace with the other two books) minor characters that I had taken a hopeful interest in are, as is the case with minor characters, I know, relegated to the sidelines. I don't know why, but I fell in love with the wimpy, annoying character of Richard and was hoping that he would have the chance to prove himself somehow in what is, and should be, Henry's story. Which is why I was especially excited when ND Wilson chose Richard (and Anastasia) as the narrator for the exploration of the cupboards that he took on for his recent blog tour. Maybe their story is not over yet! I also had grown fond of the young wizard Monmouth. And, while he pulls off some really spectacular magic in this book, the real action, when Henry is not around, belongs to Mordecai, Caleb and the creepy fingeling with remnants of a heart, Cordain.
Wilson is nothing if not complete in his mythology in The 100 Cupboards books. The origins of the demons, Nimiane, daughter of Nimroth, and their other relations, mad from the power they once wielded, are revealed. The reason for their disappearance and imprisonment is explained in more depth. As Henry unravels this, he realizes that must also find a way to kill someone who cannot die. And, as begun in Dandelion Fire, Wilson's writing about the faeren and their realms continues to be completely entrancing. As Fat Frank's faeren soul slowly drains out of him, he reaches within himself to find the strength to soldier on, as always struggling with the sometimes difficult task of doing what is right, keeping promises and honoring traditions. Fat Frank is as enchanting as any hobbit I have come across and Wilson could have easily written a whole trilogy with him as the central character, as well as the world of the faeren that lies beneath the loamy mounds of ours. These all come together to form a uniquely satisfying reading experience that, like any good meal, will stick with you for years to come.