The sequel prequel
Authors give themselves a problem when they decide to return to add more to a fantasy sequence they have previously considered finished. It happens quite often - and I don't think it is always just a desire to capitalise on earlier success. I suspect writers sometimes miss their characters and worlds just as much as their more avid readers do. But when a story has already been conclusively rounded off; when the world has already been saved from ultimate evil; when, as it were, the One Ring has finally been cast into the Crack of Doom, what can happen next that isn't anticlimactic?
Of course some writers adopt the 'Return of Sherlock Holmes' approach, claim that the 'Reichenbach Falls' didn't happen the way you thought, and just carry on, regardless of how contrived it feels. Fortunately few reputable authors are so blatant. A much more common and acceptable solution is to keep the same world but move characters on a generation, so that new young protagonists can face fresh challenges. However the solution that a remarkable number have come up with is to make their sequel in fact a prequel; to fill in missing back story, rather than continue beyond what is already a pretty conclusive end. This is the approach which N. D. Wilson has adopted in his recent addition to the 100 Cupboards sequence, which he wrote between 2007 and 2010.
Up with the best
The Cupboards trilogy (100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, The Chestnut King) is a 'classic' of children's fantasy, if one can use the term for something written as recently as 7-10 years ago. Let's, perhaps, settle instead for the charming oxymoron 'contemporary classic'.
With so much larger a market, combined with a particular transatlantic appetite for the genre, the US publishes far more children's fantasy than does the UK. It can, therefore, sometimes be difficult to sieve out the nuggets. However the best of American writing for children is amongst the finest writing for children in English. Period. And this fantasy trilogy is certainly well up there.
These books of N. D. Wilson's offer a highly original take on the well-established idea of the 'portal fantasy', the 'wardrobe' door that leads to another world. This is primarily because his numerous cupboards offer so many such portals, with a multiverse of fantasy worlds behind them. Even though all 99 potential worlds* are not actually exploited, the many that are, and the interconnections between them, give the story real interest. Even greater perhaps is the interest in the relationships of protagonist, Henry, and his 'family' to the worlds beyond the cupboards.
The books have many strengths. Not least is a delightfully dry humour which permeates, especially in the 'real world' sections of the story. Added to this is the author's wonderful skill with language, where words and phrases are often used quite magically to conjure images of people and places and to evoke effecting thoughts and reactions. This language is never 'fancy' but rather communicates directly and powerfully with the reader. It is truly masterful. Another strength lies in the way N. D. Wilson eschews heavy up-front exposition, but rather lets the story unfold in the telling. He allows the reader to piece together what is happening, often echoing protagonist, Henry's own gradual realisation of the import and implication of his situation. In fact the human story is often as interesting and engaging as the high excitement and action of the fantasy world encounters, and that too is an important part of the tale's fascinating hold. Not, of course, that there aren't chills and thrills galore in the unfolding fantasy itself, which grows from small beginnings to earth-shattering climax.
Seek them out
The Washington Post is quoted as saying this is a 'must-read series'. I do not always agree with book cover hype, but on this occasion I emphatically do. Fans, for example, of the early Narnia stories, will love these cupboarded worlds, It is also a series which many parents and teachers will, I'm sure, feel comfortable to share or recommend. Despite its witches and nightmares, it is a sequence that is, at heart, homely and wholesome. Further, it achieves this without being preachy in the way that, say, the later Narnia books are. It is hard to understand why 100 Cupboards has never been published in the UK. True, the narrative is grounded in very specific US culture and customs, but, after so much exposure to American movies and TV, most young readers will relate to this readily enough. Even where they don't, there is both stimulus and enjoyment in teasing out occasional,culturally unfamiliar references. It is an important part of learning to live in a global society.
Seek these books out. It is not too hard. Whilst I am a strong advocate of patronising local (preferably independent) bookshops whenever possible, we should be grateful to the Internet for giving us easier access to such titles.
And what happened before?
In the light of all this it was with both excitement and nervousness that I opened The Door Before. Would it complement and extend, or just detract from the fine and essentially complete trilogy that already exists?
Reading it rapidly blew any concerns right out of the water. In the interim, N. D. Wilson has grown himself from a notable writer into one of very considerable distinction. Indeed , I would not hesitate in saying, one of real greatness. If 100 Cupboards is a classic children's fantasy, then The Door Before is children's literature of the finest calibre.
As a book it is strange, disturbing, enigmatic. Its masterly language is crafted and controlled, but buzzing with originality; it's often poetic, but never flowery. N. D. Wilson has never been an over-emphatic writer, his storylines never crudely explicit. But now he has honed his skill with even greater subtlety. His narrative emerges and grows organically in the readers' understanding. And it is a thrilling, deeply involving process. Small details coalesce into major themes. Heightened senses create and define experiences. Characters are discovered rather than described. It is like Alan Garner (somewhere, perhaps, between Elidor and The Owl Service,)but with, of course, a distinct American accent. It is simply quite magical to read.
As with 100 Cupboards, this is a skilful blend of 'reality' and fantasy, but here seepage of the one into the other rapidly becomes a leak and soon a torrent. Because principal protagonist Hyacinth has special abilities, she, in fact, belongs to both elements and inextricably links them. Their intertwining is soon complex and enthralling. The one dreams the other, precipitating nightmare in every sense. Images are rich and potent at the same time as action is fast and furious.
The human and the inhuman
Here are both wounders and healers. The book's human characters are rich and subtle. Its protagonists are endearing, and also complex. They are, well, human. Hyacinth is not Supergirl, zooming off to do right. She is a little girl, brave and caring, but often lost and confused too.
In contrast the story's stereotypes of evil are boldly archetypal. Eyeless and seeing only through those of her scabby cat, its Witch-Queen of Endor is everything of The White Witch, The Snow Queen, or The Wicked Witch of the West, but with a real presence of putrid evil She is malice personified. The passage where she draws on her (stolen) power to create the tree doors is one of the most gruesomely compelling I have read for a long time. Her dependence upon the life force she sucks out of others provides the most potent of images. The fungus 'gollums' are the epitome of manipulated menace, and her other minions, wolves, wizards, blade-slaves and ravens add terror to the marauding host. This is fantasy at is classic best, reinvented through the pen and imagination of a very fine writer. Like Tolkien, he presents an image of ultimate evil without actually defining it, so that it can represent whatever a reader sees it as. Like Pullman, he sometimes draws on Biblical symbolism, but as an image rather than a precept. Powerfully, Hyacinth becomes Moses cast adrift on the Nile in a rush basket, abandoned, only so that she can later return as saviour of her people. Other potent archetypes are drawn in too, not least the morally ambiguous Green Man, a power of nature that is both regeneration and destruction.
Then there are the trees. Cupboards and doors are made of wood. Wood is from trees, trees with their ability to 'wrap,the years around them in ringed layers.' They 'stretch branches into cousin futures, plunging roots into sister pasts, binding every leaf into one story, the only story. the story that began. the story that cannot end, because it can never stop growing.' Trees are the very heart of the mystery here.
A door, a metaphor
100 Cupboards treats with the ultimate defeat of evil. The Door Before is about its unleashing on the world, about the opening of doors that are best not opened. But it is perhaps not a first ever unleashing, and we know that the binding at this books conclusion is not the last. This is a cataclysm and a resolution that repeats through time, over and over. And there is always a price to be paid. By Hyacinth or by the world of 'The Order'?
Do not read this prequel first. It is a true sequel. Like those few works of fiction which successfully tell their story backwards (Sarah Waters' devastating The Night Watch comes to mind, although it is categorically not a children's book), its greatest power lies not in finding out what happens, but in already knowing what will follow. Here it holds a consolation, but also a warning. What is ultimate? The end of each tree ring does not define the girth of a growing trunk. This one can never stop growing. So the story cannot end.
In fantasy in reality; in fiction, in life; all worlds are one world.
And anyway, it is always good to save the best until last.
That said, with a writer this fine, his other books must be of great interest too. So I have every intention of adding his trilogy The Ashtown Burials to my reading pile as soon as I can. And come on UK publishers. Our children deserve more ready access to as fine, important (and hugely enjoyable) works of children's literature as these.
Note: *Not 100? No. Read the books.