As the second post in my blitz, I am reviewing The Chestnut King, by N. D. Wilson. I realize that N. D. Wilson really deserves three posts all to himself, since The Chestnut King is the third and final book of a trilogy, but one short post is all I can afford. I dislike giving lukewarm reviews, so I almost decided to pretend I had never read this book and just ignore it entirely. If you have already read and enjoyed The Chestnut King, consider yourself warned: you will not like this post.
The first book of the series, 100 Cupboards, was a fun read–albeit, kind of on the scary side, especially for its intended audience of 9-12 year olds. Wilson expands on C. S. Lewis’s idea of the wood between the worlds–from The Magician’s Nephew–creating a room with 100 cupboards that will each take you into a different fantasy world. The room with 100 cupboards happens to be in an attic room in Henry, Kansas, where it is discovered by a twelve year old boy named–of all things!–Henry. After many fabulous adventures, he runs afoul of the witch of Endor, accidentally leads her back into good old Kansas, and defeats her with the help of his cousins, aunt, and Uncle Frank (who knows more about the strange cupboards than he is willing to let on).
In the next book, Dandelion Fire, Henry discovers that he is actually a changeling and not from our world at all! He is the seventh son of Mordecai, a green man (translation: wizard who uses plants to attack people) who had fought the witch once before and bound her away into the darkness until Henry accidentally let her out in the last book. Henry, his father, and his uncles defeat Darius, a super bad guy who is the servant of the re-vitalized witch of Endor.
I don’t have much to say about this middle book, mostly because I was completely confused while reading it. The mythology of the fantasy world Wilson was trying to create became as elaborate as the Silmarilion, and was conveyed in a much more haphazard fashion. Wilson’s writing style consists of many short, fragmented sentences. To me, this style is most well suited to action scenes, propelling the reader on quickly instead of causing him to linger thoughtfully. Unfortunately, many of the things Wilson is describing with his rapid-pace prose require the reader to slow down and absorb (otherwise he will not understand the backstory or remember who is who).
After reading the second book, I resolved to not even attempt the third. What was the point? But after a few months of recalcitrance (during which I was lured in by a well-filmed book trailer), I ordered it from the library and gave it a go. For the first couple chapters, I felt like I was back in Dandelion Fire, overwhelmed by a barrage of names and past history as Wilson tried to catch readers up on everything that had already happened. But once the action started, I actually began to enjoy the book. After his mother, sisters, and cousins get captured by the Emperor (who is under the thumb of the evil witch), Henry and his father Mordecai set out on separate missions to destroy her. They combat powerful warriors called the “fingerlings” who are controlled by the witch, but are unable to reach the enchantress herself. Henry seeks out the help of the “faren” (fairies who live underground), but in order to secure their armies, he makes a promise to the Chestnut King that once the witch falls he will give up his own happy life and become the new Chestnut King himself.
As expected, the good guys find a way to win in the end, and the only thing left for Henry to do is to keep his promise. But instead of giving up his life to become the Chestnut King, Henry (or rather, his swift-thinking daddy Mordecai), decides that under the terms of the agreement, Henry can pawn off the onerous duty on one of his recently-expelled-from-the-faren buddies named Frank (not to be confused with Henry’s human uncle Frank). Frank gets the benefit of getting to join the fairies once again, and Henry gets to go home with his family. And all of the high drama of the story disappeared, just like that.
The 100 Cupboards trilogy contains many interesting concepts and ideas, but the second and third books fall short of perfect enjoyment through convoluted story telling.