The Chestnut King (Book 3 of the 100 Cupboards) by N.D. Wilson

Cover of "The Chestnut King: Book 3 of th...
Cover via Amazon

If you have been scoring at home, we are working our way through the 100 Cupboards Series by N.D. Wilson.  The aptly titled 100 Cupboards started the series and Dandelion Fire was the middle book. Which brings us to The Chestnut King – the final book in the trilogy.

For each book I have offered the advice to dive and in and enjoy the series. The books do not start fast but they repay effort.  I also suggest that readers try to clear expectations and assumptions about the books prior to reading. This is hard, yes, but I think you will enjoy them more if you can manage to just let the books come to you rather than trying to impose expectations and preconceived notions of how books of this sort should work.

For those unfamiliar with the series here is the publishers tease:

When Herny York found 99 cupboards hidden behind his bedroom wall, he never dreamed they were doors to entirely new worlds! Unfortunately, Henry’s discovery freed an ancient, undying witch, whose hunger for power would destroy every world connected to the cupboards–and every person whom Henry loves. Henry must seek out the legendary Chestnut King for help. Everything has a price, however, and the Chestnut King’s desire may be as dangerous as the witch herself.

N. D. Wilson concludes a remarkable, worlds-spanning journey that began with one boy and one hundred avenues to adventure.

What I love about these books is the depth and complexity. There are worlds within worlds and texts within texts.  It is a coming of age novel; a good versus evil fantasy epic; it is a hero quest; etc.  It is full of beautiful and witty prose and has allusions and nods to literature throughout.

The characters have been developed across the books and I found myself intrigued and concerned about almost all of them – even the most frustrating of them. Action happens across worlds and battles are engaged even as the larger war is unclear. Events flow toward a final confrontation but there are twists and turns along the way. There are traditional narrative arcs and some things that just seem thrown in for fun.

The world building is exciting and the cast of characters outside Henry’s family are creative and imaginative and yet firmly within the fantasy and literary mythology if you will. It is a mix of reinvention and homage to the classics.

That is not to say the books are not a challenge at times. The review for Children’s Literature reflects this sentiment best:

This story is just weird. Perhaps the preceding books in the “100 Cupboards” series can ease the mystery and confusion of this work. This is not a standalone work. Henry, a teenager from Kansas is playing baseball in the first chapter, then wavering between reality and augmented realities in subsequent chapters. Though most reviews of this work and series are stellar, without the basis of the trilogy this entry is confusing, bewildering, and disturbing. Heads have fingers in the back of them that can be manipulated like puppets, peoples can shape-shift and change identity, fairies dismiss one another. If that sounds like an attractive escape this is your book. It takes more than dandelion magic to finish this!

I can agree that if you just picked this third book up cold and started reading it would throw you.  It is not that kind of book.  And at times even with the previous books it can be bewildering and disturbing – but in a good way!

But with caveats noted, Kirkus  captures my experience with this book and this series:

This refreshingly American fantasy trilogy plants one of its feet squarely in Kansas and the other in magical realms. Henry York has rediscovered his true home, his true parents and the power of his dandelion-fire magic. Unfortunately he’s also discovered that the blood of the witch Nimiane has infected his face, and if he doesn’t find a way to destroy her he’ll soon be dead (or worse). Leaping through different worlds and perils, Henry’s family is split apart once again and he is forced to answer the unanswerable: How do you kill something that cannot die? Wilson ratchets up the tension, which is fortunate since readers will need it to get through the first 100-page slog. Undeniably the most visceral of the 100 Cupboards series, this title takes some time to find its feet yet ends with an entirely satisfying finish. A word of warning: Do not hand this book to anyone who hasn’t read the previous books. The story moves at a fast clip and doesn’t bother to catch newbies up.

All of the advice contained within the above is worth taking: build up momentum to get past through the first 100 pages and you will be richly rewarded and be sure to read the series in order – they are not stand alone books.

But if you like large, complex and imaginative fantasy series this one is a must read.  And as I noted previously, I think it is exciting that this series has enough depth and details to reward re-reading.  It is great to have a series you can return to and share with family and friends – young and old.

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).

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