100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

Cover of "100 Cupboards: Book 1 of the 10...
Cover via Amazon

I had been wanting to read the 100 Cupboards series by N.D. Wilson for some time. I loved Leepike Ridge, and wanted to read more from the author, but for some reason it took me awhile to get around to the series.

I wish I hadn’t take so long! What a great series. It has to rank up there with one of my favorites; and one of those rare ones that have the depth and character to repay re-reading for many years.

The series starts, not surprisingly, with 100 Cupboards.  Here is the publisher’s blurb:

Twelve-year-old Henry York wakes up one night to find bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall above his bed and one of them is slowly turning . . . Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room–with a man pacing back and forth! Henry soon understands that these are not just cupboards, but portals to other worlds.

The most important advice I can give to those contemplating reading this engaging series: have patience. The book takes a while to set up the characters and the setting. Enjoy the language and background and don’t worry about the action; it will come.

And once it does I think you will come to love this complex and mysterious story as much as I did.  More below.

The above mentioned Henry York finds himself in Kansas after his parents decide to go on a bike tour in South America and soon find themselves kidnapped.  Henry must acclimatize himself to Kansas, his aunt, uncle and three female cousins and a world without the clear cut boundaries his parents constantly placed around him (a car seat until he was nine, a helmet for gym class, etc.).

He soon begins to feel some freedom and to think about playing baseball and other typical childhood dreams. But like Dorothy, Henry finds in Kansas a portal to something far from normal.

As noted above, this book is likely to frustrate some readers. It is far from straightforward and takes a rather long time to get to the cupboards. Wilson does not write in straight lines and loose ends are not neatly tied together.

A couple of reviews point to the different reactions.

Claudia Mills, reviewing for Children’s Literature, found the language enticing but the plot less so:

Wilson is a marvel at crafting delightful sentences, such as “The paint was scum brown, the sort that normally hides at the bottom of a pond, attractive only to leeches and easily pleased frogs.” Henry is the perfect unlikely fantasy hero, a boy whose parents made him ride in a car seat until he was nine and gave him a protective helmet to wear in P.E. But it is hard to connect with a boy who asks about his absent parents, “Are they really my parents?” is told, “Nope,” and then never asks anything about them again. Henry’s journeys through cupboard after cupboard become tedious after a while, with too many magical vistas and villains, and the completely unresolved ending feels more like a cheat than a beckoning to read on through the proposed series.

While noting the challenges, School Library Journal offers a more fair assessment:

While the first part of the book may seem slow to those thinking the title indicates an immediate portal into different realms, fans of dark fantasy will be intrigued by the unknown realities awaiting these unsuspecting people. The characters are especially memorable, with Henry’s seemingly clueless Uncle Frank, whose laid-back style offers wit and energy, standing out most of all. The story is well crafted and gratifying but the resolution may prove challenging for some. Unanswered questions lead into the next book in the series.

I think this is one of those books that you either enjoy the style and set up or you don’t. You read a book like this not for order or structure or tidiness but for imagination and for language and for adventure.

Wilson describes setting and characters in simple but beautiful ways. And he leads the reader on an adventure in multiple worlds with twists and turns; in ways both dark and deeply joyful.

The early setup in this case makes Kansas both a physical and emotional setting. The characters are tied to it even as they are pulled in multiple directions – between worlds even.  It is also an excuse for Wilson to write evocatively about something he clearly loves.

But this is not a rock-em-sock-em adventure where action is King. Nor is it an intricate plot with all the piece of the puzzle neatly tied together. There is a sense of mystery and chaos even as the beauty of the story and the language play out.

Once I got a head of steam going I loved it and took every moment I could to read each of the three books in succession.  Not to use a cliche but they are like the Harry Potter books in the sense that part of the enjoyment comes just from being in the world and interacting with the characters. Not everything leads directly to a plot point and not every event or character reaction ties in perfectly.

So as is so often the case: your mileage may vary. But if you like epic YA fantasy this is a must read series, IMO.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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