Boy, was I wrong! These are not cute books; in fact, they're not even upbeat, although they have some funny moments. However, they are wonderfully original, well-written, complex fantasy. I read 100 Cupboards a few weeks back and immediately went looking for the other two books. Fortunately, the third and final book in Wilson's trilogy came out a couple of months ago, just in time for me to read all three and review them here in a batch. (Note: There will be some spoilers for the first two books, but I'll try not to get carried away.)
Henry York is shy and overprotected, at least till he goes to stay with his uncle and aunt in a small town in Kansas, also named Henry. Dotty and Frank Willis at first seem like just another farm couple with their three daughters, Penny, Henrietta, and Anastasia. Henry's own parents, world travelers who usually park him in boarding school, have disappeared while biking across South America.
Henry is given an attic room, and he's still trying to get used to his new home, especially having girl cousins around, when he hears a weird sound in the wall next to his bed. Eventually he discovers knobs sticking out of the plaster. When he scrapes off more and more of the plaster, he finds cupboard doors of various sizes, made of a variety of materials. His cousin Henrietta catches him at it and wants in on the mystery. Soon Henry is opening the cupboard doors, discovering worlds he wants to explore, along with terrifying spaces. Many of the cupboards are too small to crawl into, adding to the puzzle. At the same time, his Uncle Frank is trying to open up Grandfather's room, which has been locked since the old man died and refuses to budge even for a chainsaw. (And who is the stranger in the purple bathrobe Henry catches coming out of the bathroom one night, but almost immediately forgets?)
Henry begins to make friends and to learn to play baseball for the first time. But even as he comes out of his shell, he and Henrietta bicker over exploring the worlds inside the cupboards, eventually releasing (you guessed it) an unspeakable evil from one of them.
The two nicest things about 100 Cupboards are the characters and the way Wilson unwinds his story. The situation with the cupboards builds slowly, oddly, and ominously, with pleasing suspense. For example, an early discovery is that one of the cupboards opens into the back of somebody's post office box. Another opens into a forest where on one occasion it begins to rain, blowing water and debris into Henry's bedroom.
Henry's efforts to find out what's going on are complicated by Henrietta, who is pigheaded enough to cause ten kinds of trouble. Henrietta isn't one of those cooperative fantasy sidekicks; she's the kind of girl who doesn't see why she should trust anyone's judgment but her own—even after she nearly drowns going into one of the cupboards. Henrietta is both foolhardy and courageous; I must say she grew on me as the series progressed. Throughout the trilogy, Wilson's characters are unpredictable in dimensional ways, just like people in real life. Uncle Frank is another character who turns out to be more than he initially seems, and not just because he's a quirky armchair philosopher.
Even while drawing on traditional fantasy elements like portals and misplaced babies who are heirs to magical powers, Wilson manages to give his book emotional heft and the kinds of twists that will resonate with readers. His prose is also richly crafted, and he has an eye for fresh details. Here's a quick sampling of his descriptive language:
—The bus stopped amid a shower of metallic grunts.
—A mostly white cat sprawled in the yard, looking revolted by something or other.
—He was used to milk with transparent edges, milk that looked a little blue. This milk was more like cream. It was thick, white, and coated the cereal with film as Henry poured. In his mouth, he could feel it clinging to his tongue. His tongue didn't mind.
As the cupboard situation escalates, Henry begins getting letters from the cupboards that address him as the Whimpering Child, ordering him to cease and desist. He also finds letters apparently sent to his grandfather, he of the stubbornly locked door. By the time all is said and done, we learn that nothing is as it seems, and we have been launched into an epic adventure with Henry at its heart.
Henry is about to be sent back to his parents, who have been recovered from South America. But things are different now that he's begun to explore the cupboards, and now that he's released the evil of Endor. Then Henry has a strange encounter with a dandelion, which burns his hand and seems related to a lightning strike, leaving him functionally blind, though the doctors can find nothing wrong.
So begins Book 2 of Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy. The cupboards are supposedly locked, but Henry is sure he will find what he needs if he can only get back in again. And he's certain Henrietta has the key to Grandfather's room. Unfortunately, Henry attracts the attention of a dark magic maker, nearly losing his freedom entirely. And his aunt and uncle and cousins get sucked into one of the cupboard worlds—along with a policeman and Henry's friend Zeke. Now Henry tries to save his family while evading Darius and the even more terrifying Nimiane, undying witch of Endor (hmm, biblical allusion there!). Nimiane is draining the worlds to feed her immortality, leaving nothing but ash behind as her invisible greed begins stripping the countryside of life and hope.
Henrietta has her own adventures as Henry weaves in and out of worlds so fast it will make your head spin, racing to find help. His troubles escalate when Henry is captured by the faeries, a bureaucratic, ruthless lot who turn out to have had something to do with the disappearance of his true father, a Green Man. Even after Henry escapes and discovers his birthright in a city beside the sea, he must help fight off an attack by a wizard army led by Darius, now Nimiane's servant.
The Chestnut King
The wizard Darius has been defeated, but Henry and his family and friends scarcely have time to draw breath before the emperor's soldiers come after them. It turns out Nimiane has gotten her witchy claws on the royal family and is using all of the resources of the empire to capture or kill Henry and his father. She has also gotten at Henry another way—a wound she gave his cheek in Book One is festering and growing, threatening to take him over. It lets the witch talk to Henry in his dreams and know exactly where to find him. Now Nimiane has sent out a crew of magically enslaved servants called fingerlings to hunt him down.
Meanwhile, Henry and Henrietta barely escape being burned to death by the emperor's soldiers and must go on the run, while other family members have been taken prisoner on a slave galley and sent to Nimiane in the imperial capitol. Henry and Henrietta search for his father in Endor, hoping he can save the others. But Henry may have to track down the legendary Chestnut King, leader of an unallied and hidden group of faeron, and strike a deal with him instead.
Nothing comes easily to Henry and his family and friends in the 100 Cupboards trilogy, which is one of the keys to good storytelling. Author N.D. Wilson ratchets up the sorrow and peril all the more in this last book. We do get a bit of comic relief from characters like a faerie named Fat Frank, who betrayed his people in Book 2 to help Henry and is now paying the price. Then there's the Faerie Queen. She may be young and ineffectual, but she happens to be sitting on top of a handy portal. One of my favorite moments is when Henry pops up and asks if she minds if he leads an army through her chambers.
And finally, we get the answers to two important questions: Can Henry defeat an impossibly powerful witch using his strange dandelion magic? Also, can he play baseball?
Wilson's trilogy is both epic and down-to-earth, a seemingly unlikely combination that he balances beautifully. There are a lot of fantasy series floating around out there like so much gray dandelion fluff, and you really don't want all of them landing on your lawn. But this trilogy is bright and golden, standing out from the rest thanks to rich characterization, strong writing, original twists, fantasy horror, unique details, adventure, and flashes of humor. The Chestnut King ends this series with an absolute slam-bang, not to mention a smile. Highly recommended.
Note for Worried Parents: The 100 Cupboards books are fairly dark, with some fantasy horror elements that might distress younger readers. I'd say 11 and up, depending on the child.
Update: Based on the Amazon customer reviews, some readers are finding Christian themes in the 100 Cupboards books. I saw a couple of biblical allusions, one of which is mentioned above, but I also found allusions to mythology, philosophy, and literature (e.g., the witch's name reads as a variation of the Niniane, the woman who brought about Merlin's downfall in the Arthurian legends). Frankly, I feel that most fantasy books have a religious connection in the sense that they're about the age-old battle between good and evil.