Here’s a series that everyone who loves fantasy should be reading. The 100 Cupboards trilogy, by N.D. Wilson, is my favourite work by one of my favourite living authors. It’s got magic. It’s got epic battles between good and evil. It’s got cute magical creatures that look like mini rhinos. It’s got a terrifying villainess and a powerful young hero who could easily give ol’ Harry a run for his money. It’s beautifully written and has a cast full of unforgettable characters.
And yet, its fandom is like a tiny grain of sand on the infinite shore of geek. I’m hoping for a (good!) movie to boost these books’ popularity, but so far there have only been rumours and vague promises, and I’m still very lonely in my affection for the trilogy.
The 100 Cupboards trilogy begins with a book by the same name. In that book, 12-year-old Henry York goes to spend a summer with his relatives in the town of Henry, Kansas. (Wilson likes the name Henry. And, like many other fantasy writers, he also likes Kansas.) Henry’s there because his parents were kidnapped during a bike tour through South America, and his aunt, uncle, and cousins–the Willises–are the only people who can take him in. Henry is pretty okay with this, because he barely knows his parents and his home life has always been deadly dull. That dullness is cured when he discovers 99 cupboards hidden behind the wall of the guest bedroom where he sleeps. And these are not ordinary storage cupboards. They all lead to different places and times, some pleasant and some…not so much. And once open, they tend to let things through from the other side. Add to this the ancient bedroom that’s been locked for years, the secrets Henry’s uncle Frank is keeping, and the strange dreams Henry begins having about the cupboards…and the Willises’ house is not exactly a quiet vacation spot.
The series continues with Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King, in which Henry and his cousin Henrietta (yeah, again, lots of Henries) explore the cupboards and deal with the faeries, wizards, witches, and family secrets they find on the other side.
Why do I love this series so much? Well, first of all, the universe in which it takes place is fascinating. We don’t get to see the other side of every cupboard–more’s the pity, since at least one of them appears to lead to Middle Earth–but the worlds we do get to see are as imaginative and varied as a fantasy buff could wish. There’s the Steampunk Capitol of the Universe, aka Byzanthamum; a world ruled by the kind of faeries the Irish were afraid to tangle with; a perpetual sea battle; and an ancient tomb full of insane, life-force-sucking, immortal hags.
I also enjoy the way magic works in these books. It’s not all about wands and spells; those who can wield magic (mostly seventh sons and faeries) get their power from the natural world–“green men,” in particular, are each connected to a specific plant from which they derive their magical abilities. And they don’t have to be “cool” plants, either; the most important green man in the books is connected to the humble dandelion. That’s the kind of series this is: lots of faeries and witches, but lots of bumblebees and baseball, too. It mixes the mundane with the magical in a way not many fantasy books do, though more of them should.
But what really makes these books special is the cast of characters. There are a ridiculous number of unforgettable, quirky people in these pages. Henry has a wonderful, believable hero’s journey, and he’s refreshingly angst-free for a teenage fantasy protagonist, especially considering the amount of trauma he goes through in just three books. Frank Willis is, by far, the coolest uncle you could ever wish for. I love Henrietta’s fearlessness, even though it gets her into a lot of trouble in the first two books. Eli FitzFaeren is short, grumpy, and wonderfully complicated. Richard provides the most adorable and pathetic of comic relief moments. And I love the faeren. All of them. They make typewriters and stolen dressing gowns cool.
I should also mention that Nimiane, the main villain in 100 Cupboards, is easily one of the creepiest fantasy villains I’ve ever encountered. Maybe it’s the possessed cats…or the lack of eyes…or the way she sneaks into other people’s dreams…or the way she “feeds” by turning living things into ash…something about this lady is just a wee bit off. Gotta love a truly scary witch.
Also…I want a raggant. Like, you have no idea how much I want my own raggant.
So please, go read these books, and release me from the burden of being a one-person fandom!