The 100 Cupboards Series by N.D. Wilson:
100 Cupboards 296 pages, 2007;
Dandelion Fire 466 pages, 2009;
The Chestnut King 512 pages, 2010
Like every other homeschooler, I’m a big fan of fantasy. Tolkien and Lewis (in that order, thank-you-very-much) are the kings of the genre, and everyone else does their level best to write something that will remind us of their genius. Few succeed, and with the bar set so high, who can blame them? Thus, I’m always both excited and skeptical when I pick up a fantasy series and find myself wondering how close they’ll come to the goal. But before I give you my thoughts about the merits of Wilson’s work let me offer a brief (and hopefully spoiler free) summary of this trilogy.
The 100 Cupboards trilogy begins with a boy named Henry who goes to live with his Aunt, Uncle, and cousins, in a small town named, wait for it…Henry, Kansas. Henry (the boy, not the town) is a sheltered misfit whose parent’s troubled marriage has left him with little clue of what normal human relationships look like. It’s only as he finds a secret wall of magical cupboards in his attic bedroom that things begin to change. Book one focuses on the discovery and function of these cupboards. Here we’re introduced to some of the main characters (including the villain) and the basics of the magic is explained. The book ends dramatically, and a bit suddenly.
In book two, Dandelion Fire, Henry gains some magical powers of his own and finds the world to which he actually belongs. The action picks up considerably and a host of new characters and cultures are introduced. The characters we knew already develop and grow as the peril around them grows as well. We learn much more about the magic of the 100 Cupboards world and though longer than the first book, I found the second a much faster (and more engaging) read.
In book three, The Chestnut King, Henry steps ever increasingly into the forefront as he matures and grows in his power and character. This book is the most epic (in the technical sense, not the college frat boy sense) of the three, and the dialogue, action, and characters build steadily throughout the book. Though it weighs in at a not insignificant 512 pages you’ll probably find yourself going through this volume in a matter of days.
It’s a challenge giving a review without spoilers, but hopefully that meager description gives you some sense of what to expect from the 100 Cupboards series.
So the big question is: how did Wilson do? Is this one more series in a long line of authors vainly aspiring to be the next Tolkien or Lewis? Yes and no. Wilson can write well, and he does a masterful job of drawing on various sources (from the obvious ones like Tolkien and Lewis, to classical sources of ancient Greece and Rome, medieval epic literature like Spenser’s Faerie Queen, and classic Americana tales) without falling into mere imitation. He’s read widely, and that comes through. His dialogue can be strong and vivid, if sometimes a bit uneven. His characters are interesting and memorable, although some are left disappointingly undeveloped. His world is rich and the magic is one of the best conceived and most richly imaginative I’ve seen outside of the masters. I felt that things got better as the series progressed, but if I hadn’t had friends tell me how good the series was I don’t know if I would have continued past the first book. I found a number of times when Wilson would lose me in the midst of the action and I was left having to scramble across the page trying to find which turn I missed. Let me encourage you, though, to stick with it. This is quite the ride and well worth your time. Not a perfect series, but most definitely a good one. Wilson gives us a strong contribution to the fantasy genre and succeeds well in his goal of bringing magic to America. Perhaps my own thoughts will be more refined once I’ve had the chance to read the series again, but all in all, this is a good one for the nightstand.