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It was like an Abadazad museum. There were copies of the first three books…Little Martha in Abadazad, Queen Ija of Abadazad and the Eight Oceans of Abadazad

…that looked as old as Mrs Vaughn. A tiara that looked just like the one the Two-Fold Witch wore (I’m sure the rubies were fake, but they sure seemed real to me. Of course I’ve never seen a real ruby in my life). And best of all, hand-painted figurines of Queen Ija, Professor Headstrong, Mary Annette, Mister Gloom, Master Wix, and a whole mess of other characters. And they weren’t like the plastic junk you see in the toy stores. They weren’t even like those ridiculously expensive “collectibles” they sell to super-nerd adults who never got a life. This stuff – I wish I could explain it – it was like they weren’t based on the characters, they WERE the characters. Like each of those little figures had…I dunno…a soul or something.

I remember the first time I heard about Abadazad. It was featured on the sadly defunct Ninth Art review site. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog‘s series received rave reviews, even talk of a Disney film adaptation shortly after the first issue, but that was not enough to protect the book from the implosion of publisher Crossgen. Fortunately Disney did acquire the rights to the series, but only three books out of a proposed eight were ever published. Here’s an interview with DeMatteis explaining what inspired the story in the first place.

What I am reviewing is in fact the second iteration of Abadazad, published by Disney in a format that mixes Ploog’s art with pages of text. DeMatteis introduces the clever premise that we are actually reading the diary of the main character, Kate, which has been enchanted. So the images that appear are in fact magical windows into the world of Abadazad itself, which Kate can look through – but sometimes the creatures she sees can see her as well. It’s an inventive wave of justifying the use of these colourful illustrations and text.

For most of her life, fourteen-year-old Kate raised her younger brother Matty. Her parents separated when the children were young and instead of having a typical childhood in Brooklyn, the two would read the novels of Franklin O. Davies together, describing the adventures of plucky young heroine Little Martha in a magical land called Abadazad. Their mother Frances was left a mess after the divorce, so retreating into this fantasy world afforded the children a welcome escape from the adult world of depression and misery they were trapped in.

Then one day at a summer fair, in front of Kate’s eyes, Matty simply vanishes. That was five years ago. Matty’s face has been on milk cartons and Kate has been seeing a therapist ever since. ‘Frantic Frances’, has retreated further into herself and her daughter has turned on her, in an attempt to alleviate her own guilt. “It’s been five years, Frances, he’s dead. Get over it.”

Kate meets an elderly neighbour, Mrs Vaughn, who owns an impressive collection of Abadazad memorabilia and even claims to have known Franklin O. Davies. At first Kate finds herself reminded of her own dead grandmother, but then Mrs Vaughn starts to say some strange things. Such as that Abadazad is real. She has been there and, what’s more, she was Little Martha. Kate argues that Little Martha was a white girl and Mrs Vaughn is an old black lady. She claims Franklin O. Davies made the character Little Martha white to sell more books, but the books are just adapted from her own magical adventures. Kate is halfway out the door when Mrs Vaughn says something even crazier. Her brother Matty is alive – and he is in Abadazad.

For the purposes of this review I read the first two volumes of the Abadazad series. While some might feel the pace somewhat slow, DeMatteis does  a great job of introducing the character of Kate and establishing this more modern setting, contrasting her upbringing with that of say Dorothy Gale, or Little Nemo. Abadazad itself is a hybrid of Dr. Seuss and Oz – and Mike Ploog’s illustrations reminded me of the Seussian wonderland featured in Tom Fowler‘s Mysterius the Unfathomable.

By the second volume the story really takes off. There are repeated allusions to the censoring of children’s fantasy, with Kate surprised at what Davies left out for commercial purposes.

Warm, funny and sweet – travel to Abadazad.

‘Women are the ones who know what’s going on’, she said quietly. ‘They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?’

There are days when I feel very grateful for the opportunity I have been given with this challenge. It has forced me to broaden my choice of reading, introduced me to writers I would not otherwise have encountered. This is one such example.

Alexander McCall Smith is an Edinburgh-based author, who came to writing from a successful career as Professor of Medical Law. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency he exchanges his Caledonian surroundings for the exotic locale of Botswana, with its dusty roads, diamond trade and the Kalahari desert and in Precious Ramotswe, female detective, he has created a quick-witted rival to Philip Marlowe.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is occasionally episodic, with chapters standing in for individual cases, or short stories. Precious inherited her father’s livestock when he died and used the money from the sale of the cattle to set up her own detective agency. After a slow start she soon discovers her gentle humour, observant nature and kindness place her in high demand. While the police are all too ready to barge in and ‘solve’ cases by bringing them to the quickest end. Precious takes her time, offers her clients red bush tea, stares at the ceiling and comes to the best possible outcome.

There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.

McCall Smith returns the detective novel to an earlier format, in having the private eye take the moral view on each case, which is not necessarily the same as the legal view. For one the law is not always on the side of the women of Botswana, with unscrupulous men taking advantage of tradition to mistreat their wives, or daughters when it suits them. Precious refers to herself as a modern woman. She has suffered much hardship in her life, much heartbreak and has learned that men can lie quite easily when they wish. Sometimes it is easier for the police, or doctors, or lawyers to look the other way when a woman is in need.

While the book is episodic, with Precious dealing with missing person cases, as well as a stolen car and the wandering eyes of husbands. It is the kidnapping of a child though, with the suspected involvement of witchcraft, that becomes a case that she cannot solve, lying at the heart of the novel. She is forced to turn down the traumatized parents when they come to her for help, as she can see no possible way of returning their child to them. Plus, though it is a taboo subject, if witchcraft is involved, the child is almost certainly already dead. However, Precious never stops thinking about the missing boy. She is haunted by the memory of her own child, who was lost to her due to an abusive relationship. When she discovers that the kidnapped boy’s fate is tied up with powerful and dangerous men, who could just as easily buy off the police if need be, the stage is set for a poignant and bittersweet coda.

McCall Smith writes with a generous simplicity. This is most pronounced in the chapter relating to Precious’ father and his experiences working in the South African diamond mines. The hardships of the men underground are described in a disinterested manner, which makes the stories of these miners all the more powerful. They tell themselves that they will each be eventually ‘swallowed’ by the mine, whether it be by death from rock collapse, or the choking of their lungs years later. There is a warmth and gentleness to the writing, reflected in Precious’ own personality. While she observes men hurting others, cheating and stealing, she does not give in to despair. Instead she sets up her detective agency to make a difference.

This is a wonderfully hopeful and engaging novel. I plan on reading the rest of the series when I get a chance. Recommended.

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