Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Chestnut King

By N.D. Wilson

Random House Books for Young Readers, 2010

$16.99, ages 9 and up, 496 pages

It's been three years since N.D. Wilson wowed readers with the first installment of The 100 Cupboards trilogy, and as the series comes to a close, I feel as though I've come out of an incredible adventure.

In much the same way that D.M. Cornish's mythical Half-Continent in the Monster Blood Tattoo series seemed so tangible and alive, Wilson's Henry, Kansas, and his worlds of the cupboards, Baden Hill, Hylfing and even Endor feel like places I've entered.

In this last, climactic book about Henry York and the magical cupboards he found hidden in his aunt and uncle's Kansas farmhouse, Henry is no longer the naive, sheltered boy who wonders why he's so disconnected from the parents who raised him in Boston.

Though still a nervous boy prone to throwing up when he's scared, he is now the powerful seventh son in a line of seventh sons, rooted to another world that he's destined to protect.

It's been a year since Henry and cousin Henrietta found seams leading to other worlds through 100 cabinets in the farmhouse attic and their late grandfather's bedroom, and a year since they made the mistake of wandering too far into one and freeing an evil witch-queen from her tomb.

In that time, Henry has made discoveries he never imagined, most importantly that he was born into one of these magical worlds in a seaside town known as Hylfing.

There, behind one of the cupboards, Henry is reunited with his birth mother Hyacinth and sisters Una and Isa, and christened Henry York Macabee just in time to free his legendary birth father, Mordecai Westmore, from a faeren curse and help bring down one of witch-queen's henchmen with a magical arrow.

Now turning 13, Henry has settled into his new life in Hylfing, occasionally sneaking back to Kansas through a cupboard he moved from the farmhouse attic to a shed by his birth parents' home to pitch baseballs to his friend Zeke Johnson, but now he's saddled with an enormous burden.

The witch-queen, Nimiane, whom he released from cupboard number 8 when a mythical creature, a raggant, came looking for him, is leaving a trail of death across the worlds. She wants to devour life from the city of Dumarre, the capitol of his new home, and turn it into a new Endor, an empire of death.

Nimiane, who is blind and sees through a cat she carries, also wants to find Henry, take over his soul and gain strength from his newfound powers.

In the second book, Dandelion Fire, Henry's palm was branded with the magic of dandelion fire, a supernatural power that guards his soul from evil and gives him second sight to escape the witch-queen's trickery, but he was also scarred by Nimiane.

During a confrontation in the farmhouse, Nimiane's blood wormed into his jaw, and now it threatens to spread into his brain and turn Henry into a fingerling, a dead body that does Nimiane's bidding through a finger that sprouts from its head.

The question that keeps us riveted in Book 3 is whether Henry's dandelion fire will be a match for Nimiane's immortality, her "great, grinding death," or whether his mark will be her curse?

Like dandelion weeds, which find life again by broadcasting seeds and multiply quickly, his dandelion fire gains strength from its own renewal -- but as Nimiane feeds off of the living, her power also grows, as does the scar in Henry's jaw that's pulling him to her.

Henry knows his father Mordecai and uncle Caleb entombed the witch-queen once when they were young and might be able to do so again, but this would not save Henry's life. Only when the witch-queen dies will the cold blood in his jaw die as well.

But killing off an undying queen may not even be possible, especially now that the emperor of Dumarre has made a deal with Nimiane.

In exchange for giving his City of the Seas immortality, he is letting the witch-queen hide in his palace and control his fleet in the harbor, as her witch-dogs, wizards, and fingerlings order his imperial soldiers to kill those who oppose her.

And now Mordecai and Uncle Caleb have gone to Endor to search for a way to kill the witch and save Henry's life, and unknowingly left Hylfing vulnerable to soldiers under the witch-queen's control.

Just when Henry is reunited with his brother James, soldiers break into their Hylfing home and haul James away with Uncle Frank, Aunt Dottie, Hyacinth, Isa, cousin Penelope, and wizard friend Monmouth to an imperial ship. Soon after, they burn down their home, entrapping his grandmother, Henrietta and his loyal raggant inside.

Henry's only hope to save his family, his world and himself could rest with The Chestnut King, the ruler of an aloof band of pirate faeries. Mordecai thinks the king, known as Nudd, may know where to find an ancient relic believed to control the witch-queen's immortality, the Blackstar.

But even if Nudd knows where the star is, will he be willing to help? He's already sent his faeren to capture Henry's friend, the rogue faerie Fat Frank, and taken his cousin Anastasia, Una and friend Richard with him. Will he prove to be friend or foe? And if he does agree to help, at what cost?

Though Wilson's descriptions of Endor's history are at times complex, I was completely enthralled in this series and loved every moment.

I was drawn to the inventiveness of Wilson's story, and how skillfully he moved it along, quickly shifting among different characters and their adventures. At times it felt as if the characters barely caught their breath and they were thrown back into danger.

I also liked how genuine the characters felt, the frailty Wilson shows in each of them, as well as the loyalty, boldness and humor.

One of the great lines of the book comes from Zeke after a near-death escape with Henry and Henrietta from fingerlings into Kansas.

Henry is feeling defeated and Henrietta, always a bit brash, is giving him an earful for daring to suggest that he give up.

She rattles off all the ways they could still try to bring down the witch-queen -- poison her, bomb her, burn her -- when Zeke chimes in and suggests they get Frodo to destroy her like he did the Dark Lord in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

"Maybe she has a ring," he says. "All we need is a hobbit and a volcano."

Wilson's humor, often subtle and unexpected, comes through at just the right moments, adding levity during the darkest parts of the book and heightening the euphoria when Henry's family and friends make it through another close call.

I loved the subtle symbolism in the book, the nod to the Wizard of Oz (Henry's uncle name is Frank and his wife Dottie's name is short for Dorothy), the references to baseball, and the care Wilson took to carry through every theme to the end, no matter how secondary it became as the main story advanced, including how life continued in Henry, Kansas, after Henry and his family left.

One of the risks of any series is that over the course of several books a plot can lose its momentum and spark, but Wilson's imagination was always up to the challenge. His story line, so unique and imaginative, never languished over the three books, and I was continually carried away from my own reality.

At times I caught my eyes darting from one line to the next, my hands gripping either side of the book and myself holding my breath as Henry York and his family struggled to escape danger.

I only wish there was another adventure still to come for Henry York, but for now, I'll be content with whatever Wilson sends our way.

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