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Abu and the Seven Marvels    by Richard Matheson & William Stout order for
Abu and the Seven Marvels
by Richard Matheson
Order:  USA  Can
Edge, 2002 (2002)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I was immediately hooked by the fantastic colored illustration on the front cover and quickly searched out eight more gorgeous full page pictures scattered through the book (I was especially taken by the patchwork sails on a decrepit sailing ship). These and many black and white drawings, all by acclaimed artist William Stout, only increased my anticipation for the story.

This book is a departure for Hugo Award winner Richard Matheson, famed for horrific novels such as I Am Legend and Hell House. At first it seems like a retelling of a Persian tale from the Thousand and One Nights, but it soon becomes clear that, if this is somewhat like Aladdin, it's Aladdin with Attitude. It begins with the usual ingredients - the sultan, his beautiful (but passive) daughter, an evil Grand Vizier, a humble young hero, and magic galore. The sultan is encouraging suitors, but each and every one (137 in all) is rejected by Princess Alicia, who holds out for love. This makes Grand Vizier Zardak smile, since he fancies his own chances.

Enter Abu, a lowly woodcutter with a little brother called Mut. Abu worships the princess from afar, until one of Zardak's plots goes awry (entertaining a local lion). Abu and Alicia meet and naturally it's love at first sight. The sultan isn't too thrilled and, with the collusion of Zardak, sets the young hero an impossible task. Abu must bring back a token from each of the seven Marvels of the world (with the added proviso that no-one knows what the seventh actually is). Oh yes, I forgot to mention Zardak's bumbling cohorts, Horrible and Terrible, 'as dismal a pair of rascals as has ever darkened the ranks of villainy', whose contribution is ongoing slapstick comedy.

Abu is instructed on his tasks by a forgetful Wizard, and equipped (by Zardak) with the oldest genie bottle in the palace. It turns out to contain a very grumpy, very old, and very tired genie, whose conjurations suffer from the same qualities. And when Abu complains of the age of the container, he is told 'You never judge a genie by its bottle' in the first of a series of in jokes for the reader (watch out for allusions to 'all but the kitchen sink' and 'sailing the seven seas' further on). Abu, Mut (who won't be left behind) and the genie bottle take off on a trembling, moth-eaten carpet. The horribly terrible duo of villains ride their super-deluxe model in hot pursuit.

A series of marvellous adventures follow for Abu and Mut, who encounter an endearing cast of characters and mostly miss the comic misadventures of the villains. Along with the aged genie (with whom you have to sympathize) I especially enjoyed the mouse with grandiose ambitions, argumentative portraits, a cowardly ice dragon, and the socially maladjusted giant. There's a moral to each episode (perhaps a little too explicit), a race to save the princess, and of course Abu and the reader eventually figure out the seventh marvel. The fragile carpet slowly disintegrates as in 'The carpet, colors running, chugged dyspeptically toward the shore.'

I was interested to find out from an author interview that this tale was originally intended for a cartoon, as I easily visualized every scene as I read. Abu and the Seven Marvels works on many different levels; it's inventive, fast, familiar and funny. If you like fantasy and have a sense of humor, get hold of a copy and enjoy a dizzying magic carpet ride.

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