The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Genre: Dark Fantasy
Main characters: Harvey Swick
Time and place: the Holiday House — somewhere outside our reality
First sentence:The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.
Verdict: Loved it!

Summary
One bleak and boring February day Harvey Swick receives a surprise guest: a strangely dressed man who tells him about this great place to vacation in. Happy for the break in his routine, Harvey accepts to visit this mysterious place — so magic and mysterious that is hidden behind a wall impenetrable to the rest of the people. Everything turns out to be even better than he imagined and, together with two other children he met there, Harvey loses track of the days he spends happily playing one game or another.

The situation however is bleaker than the kids realize. One day Wendell, the other boy, gets sick of playing and wants to go home. And, as it was only to be expected, he finds no way out. He calls Harvey to his assistance — but can two kids defeat the magic guarding the house?

General impression
The book grabbed me with the very first sentence and it didn’t let me go until the last. It’s a short book (267 pages), easy to read in one sitting (which I did) and quite captivating too. And did I mention the beautiful writing?

Characters
The main character is a ten year old boy, Harvey Swick. He’s quite everything one would want in a hero of such a book: a bit reckless, yet smart and courageous and willing to help and do the right thing whenever the need arises. What’s more important, he does not give up easily — once he has noticed there is something wrong, he never lets go of the idea of escaping; later on, likewise, he does not let the house distract him from his purpose. Which is probably why he is the one child able to defeat Mr. Hood, all the others before him having been sidetracked :)

As for the villains, methinks the author has done a great job with them. Both their physical appearance and their behaviour made a perfect “wolf in sheep clothes” impression, as they cannot help giving off a disturbing, menacing vibe even when they want to seem friendly and nice. In my eyes the whole book has great cinematic potential, but if a movie were made it’s the villains I’d be most curious to get to see :)

Setting
Ah, the Holiday House. The very reason I like Clive Barker’s books is that at times he has some fascinating ideas :)

Imagine a house where four seasons pass every single day. In the morning the trees are blooming, for there is spring. Later on, the sky clears and the temperature rises, as summer has arrived. The clouds come back then, and leaves start to fall; each evening there is Halloween. And then, the snow starts falling and a huge Christmas tree appears in the middle of the house; and each day there are presents under it, and perfect ones too, as the house can read minds.

And let’s not forget that, of course, at Holiday House there’s always holiday — the children are free to spend their time playing and generally doing whatever they please. I don’t think it can get any better for a ten year old than that :)

Relationships
First of all, I liked that Harvey, although delighted with the prospect of a holiday in a magical place, has remembered to spare a thought about his parents, and even calls them periodically. Other than that, there is of course the friendship that forms between him and the other two visitors at the house, Wendell and Lulu. I didn’t feel it to be a central part of the story though (although they do matter for him, especially Lulu, after her change at the end). It seemed to me that Harvey’s motivations were a bit more general than just relating to his two friends — he wanted back what he lost, and he also wanted to help the rest of the children (the scores that have fallen prey to the house in previous years), not Wendell and Lulu alone. Or perhaps I am misremembering and it’s the other way around, he wanted to help Lulu and helped the rest as a side effect. :)

Plot
Ever since Harvey first sets eyes upon the house, the reader is treated to certain clues that all is not as it should be. The theme itself is similar enough to Pinocchio’s Toyland, so it is obvious almost right from the start that Harvey is about to learn that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, most likely the hard way. However, this knowledge does not dim in any way the joy of reading — getting to discover the Holiday House’s domain is fun enough by itself. Not to mention that, while it is obvious that someone wants something from Harvey, I personally was very curious to see what that something is (this curiosity being one of the reasons I couldn’t put the book down). This mystery will be revealed halfway through the book, and then another will replace it: Harvey wants to take back what the house has stolen from him — will he manage to succeed? And if so, how?

What I liked most
The cats :) I liked the idea of having three cats named Stew-Cat and Blue-Cat and Clue-Cat, and the fact that Blue-Cat was blue and Clue-Cat had a tail shaped like a question mark was also a nice touch.

My absolute favorite moment however is somewhere near the end:
show spoiler

What I liked least
Clue-Cat’s accident :( I kept hoping that he will be resurrected somehow :(
Blue-Cat’s fate too :( :(

Thoughts on the title
Brilliant :) The very idea of a “thief of always” sounds quite cool to me. Even more so since both the hero and the villain are referenced as such inside the book, and I like the fact that we cannot be certain who the title refers to :)

Thoughts on the ending
Could the ending be anything but positive and cool? I knew that all along, of course, and yet still I was taken by surprise by how much I enjoyed it :)

show spoiler

I very much liked the last few sentences — the idea that one would treasure every moment from then on may be a bit cliche, but the wording is anything but:

He’d fill every moment with the seasons he’d found in his heart: hopes like birds on a spring branch; happiness like a warm summer sun; magic like the rising mists of autumn. And best of all, love; love enough for a thousand Christmases.

Recommend it to?
Everyone — kids in particular, but I bet it can hold the interest of adults too :)

I loved the first page so much I just have to quote it here:

Harvey, Half-Devoured

The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.

Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter. He didn’t think much of his chances. More than likely he’d become so bored as the hours crawled by that one day he’d simply forget to breathe. Then maybe people would get to wondering why such a fine young lad had perished in his prime.

It would become a celebrated mystery, which wouldn’t be solved until some great detective decided to re-create a day in Harvey’s life. Then, and only then, would the grim truth be discovered. The detective would first follow Harvey’s route to school every morning, trekking through the dismal streets. Then he’d sit at Harvey’s desk, and listen to the pitiful drone of the history teacher and the science teacher, and wonder how the heroic boy had managed to keep his eyes open. And finally, as the wasted day dwindled to dusk, he’d trace the homeward trek, and as he set foot on the step from which he had departed that morning, and people asked him-as they would-why such a sweet soul as Harvey had died, he would shake his head and say: “It’s very simple.” “Oh?” the curious crowd would say. “Do tell.” And, brushing away a tear, the detective would reply: “Harvey Swick was eaten by the great gray beast February.”

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Written by the same author:
Books of Blood, Volume One