Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review of the Chestnut King by N.D. Wilson

Wilson, N.D. The Chestnut King (100 Cupboards). Random House, 2010.

I read and loved 100 Cupboards back in early 2008, and was lucky enough to get to review Dandelion Fire for School Library Journal in Janury 2009. When I received The Chestnut King last month, however, I was a bit worried. Given the complicated nature of the plot and Henry's numerous far-flung family members, would I remember enough of the first two books - or would I have to re-read the first two?

Happily, The Chestnut King sucked me right into the thick of the action. Within pages, all the details of Henry's Hylfing and Kansas aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, came back to me, along with the horrible peril in which they and their world find themselves, thanks to immortal witch Nimiane.

In the city of Dumarre, Nimiane has used her magic to influence the emperor, who is now thoroughly under her sway, and to imprison one of the emperor's sons in a truly foul manner. Her fingerlings, strong warriors mind-enslaved through fingers implanted at the back of their skulls, search for Henry and his family in order to bring them to Dumarre. Within hours, Henry's family has been broken into pieces - his father Mordecai and uncle Caleb have gone to find the witch, mistakenly thinking her to be in the dead land of Endor, other family members have been captured and put in chains aboard a ship bound for Dumarre, and still others end up in the court of the Chestnut King. Meanwhile, Henry bounces via his cupboards from Kansas to Endor to the Chestnut King's court to Dumarre, always just one step ahead from the fingerlings.

Readers of fantasy fiction will feel familiar with many of the situations Henry faces. A seemingly invincible villain intent bringing unspeakable evil to the world, a final battle between good and evil, unusual alliances, and a young hero who yearns more than anything to just live a normal life - all these are time-honored fantasy traditions. However, they feel fresh and newly important in The Chestnut King, in large part due to the simple yet masterful writing. Take this small moment, when Henry is running for his life from fingerlings and suddenly sees his surroundings with his "shifted" magical vision for a moment, and then must run again.

"Henry turned and looked up the rocky slope, through the roaring life of trees and the mumbling of stone. He wished that he could learn every detail, smell every leaf, slap every boulder, that he could catch more of the thundering waterfall in the small bucket that was his body."

What a wonderful, subtle way to describe Henry's longing to fully absorb, engulf, love, and understand the world and life around him. Other passages are visceral, full of sights, smells, and textures. Particularly horrifying are the descriptions of the wound on Henry's jaw, scored by the witch's blood. It oozes, pulses, flakes, aches with a stony cold - and Henry's special vision can see the gray death threads that twist out of the scar and lead back to the witch. It's completely horrifying, and the reader will understand why Henry's fingers keep going to his jaw like a tongue to a decayed tooth.

Most of the characters, many of whom are down-home folks tinged with greatness, are quirky enough to be memorable yet real enough to be believable. In particular, fierce Henrietta, laconic Uncle Frank, and feisty Frank the Faerie stand out as fascinating folks whom we get to know very well throughout the three books. And of course there is Henry, who starts out as a sheltered and hesitant boy and grows into a person who is a reluctant hero, but all the more forthright and committed for that realization. He is both a dreamer and a person of action, a rare and difficult combination but in this case a successful one.

The end of this book takes us back to Kansas, where it all began for Henry, and where another chapter of his life is clearly about to begin. It's a satisfying end to an outstanding trilogy. Dare I hope that we'll hear more about Henry and his amazing family?

Recommended for all fans of the first two books in the 100 Cupboards series.


  1. I'm unfamiliar with this series but I'll have to check it out for my nieces and nephews. Thanks for your thorough review!

  2. "[T]hey feel fresh and newly important in The Chestnut King"--I just caught this review, but I feel the same way about the books, really bowled over, and this phrase captures it perfectly. Thank you!