When young Henry York, all but orphaned by his globe-trotting parents, moves to Kansas to live with his Aunt Dotty and Uncle Frank and their three daughters, he finds the rhythms of life there both more transcendent and more natural than those he knew in Boston. Soon, though, he stumbles into an even more mysterious set of rhythms. For in N. D. Wilson’s trilogy, The Books of the 100 Cupboards, Kansas is only one of the worlds that—with their rocks and buildings, plants and insects, animals and weather, histories and mysteries—are just as much characters in the story as its transplanted 12-year-old hero. Kansas, Endor, Badon Hill, Byzanthymum—each land pulses with its own temperament and meaning.
The first book, The 100 Cupboards, is an unhurried account of Henry’s first month in Kansas. Henry is a likeable but unexceptional boy: kind but timid, curious but cautious, principled but untested, and a fervent but unskilled baseball player.
One night shortly after his arrival in Kansas, chunks of plaster fall from the wall of Henry’s attic bedroom, revealing the first of 100 mysterious cupboard doors. He soon realizes that the doors lead to other worlds, whose inhabitants (in contrast to Henry) are both exceptional and badly in need of moral and practical buttressing as they fight a powerful evil. Henry is drawn into the struggle when he unwittingly releases a witch named Nimiane from her tomb, despite receiving a warning, thus accidentally abetting her quest for power. (This apparent nod to C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, in which young Digory effects an analogous escape for the evil queen, Jadis, is one of Wilson’s many allusions, serious and playful, to literary and other cultural referents across the centuries.)
The saga’s pace, complexity, and tension build in Dandelion Fire. Historical links between Henry’s family and the cupboard-connected worlds are revealed. The origins and scope of Niamane’s quest for power become clearer and its effects more palpable. Plus, Henry begins to forge his own connection with the powerful magic that infuses the worlds. Or, more accurately, it forges connections with him.
In The Books of the 100 Cupboards, magic is an impersonal but essentially beneficent force that, like any other power, can be commandeered by the unscrupulous and wielded for evil. Dandelion Fire is full of beguiling characters (including a winning species of one: a raggant) and page-turning intrigue. The episode resolves with satisfying closure, but that nasty witch is still on the loose!
At 482 pages, The Chestnut King is the longest and in some ways the weakest of the three volumes. The narration grows more movie-like in its scene-shifting choppiness, and the plot becomes more difficult to follow even as its pace slows. We are not adequately prepared for the key role that the titular character plays in the entire saga’s resolution. He was not so much as mentioned in the previous two books and his character is not as fully developed as one would hope. All that said, the action in The Chestnut King is engaging, the plot development is logical, and its resolution is both surprising and gratifying. And Henry York, though no longer timid, overly cautious, or untested, is still kind, curious, and principled. He also is still a fervent baseball player.
What of the moral universe in which the worlds of the 100 Cupboards spin? Though the three books contain very little outright mention of religion, as the tale unfolds, subtle clues hint that the framework is fundamentally biblical. A pivotal scene mirrors Moses’ encounter with the burning bush on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3). Henry’s christening near the end of the second volume has salvific implications. Old Testament names crop up at key junctures.
More to the point, Judeo-Christian principles form the book’s moral core. The trilogy’s biblical foundations are thus more overt than, say, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but less so than in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. (Wilson has made his own Christian worldview explicit in essays in the journal Credenda/Agenda, and in his imagination-bending apologetics work, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, and its companion “bookumentary” DVD.)
Wilson’s vision is broad. He has a fertile mind for creating other worlds, fresh characters, and compelling stories within a sound moral realm. Yet, while many characters are good, and the story is sprinkled with light humor, the prominence of evil warrants a word of caution. The 100 Cupboardsseries is marketed to ages nine through twelve. The intensity of some sections, though, especially in the second and third volumes, may be too strong for some on the younger end of that spectrum. Conversely, the story is complex enough to engage readers considerably older than twelve.
Wilson has been questioned about the potent elements of evil in his books. Why so dark? Why so prevalent? “I don’t delve into the gritty details of evil,” he responds (accurately). “But I want the ratio of light to dark on my canvas to match the ratio in the world around us. Shadow is real and cold and frightening, but I see a lot more of the blazing sun.”
This compelling mix of light and shadow is evident in Wilson’s other fiction. Look here for future reviews of his first novel, Leepike Ridge (Yearling/Random House, 2007), and his most recent endeavor, The Dragon’s Tooth (Random House, 2011), the initial installment of the projected five-volume Ashtown Burials series.
First, though, get hold of the three Books of the 100 Cupboards. From the atmospheric 100 Cupboards, through the gripping Dandelion Fire, to the climactic Chestnut King, you’ll find yourself treated to a rich tapestry of winning characters and worlds.
Image copyright Bluefire. Review copies obtained from the reviewer’s personal collection and public library.
Jay Sappington is passionate about encouraging young people to explore the arts. A bioethicist, musician, educator, and former missionary to Africa, he works with special needs youth, and is co-authoring a fantasy novel for young readers. He lives in his native Virginia, near Washington, D.C.