I love Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books (Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen). I read them all back to back in one giant gulp, which means I didn’t read them as they were published, but it’s certainly at least ten years since I immersed myself in the world of Charter magic and Free magic, and the thrilling exploits of the necromancers, who control the passages between Death and Life through the use of bells. Clariel is a prequel, set some six hundred years before the events of Sabriel, though it does feature two characters who reappear in the trilogy, and it is in some ways an attempt to flesh out the world of the Old Kingdom which, in the trilogy, was past its best, a crumbling ruin of its former self. In Clariel, the Kingdom is young and vibrant, and the action takes place there in its entirety. The trilogy cleverly made use of the disparity between the two ‘realms’ – the Old Kingdom, passing into history, and Ancelstierre, a country ruled by reason and science – and made a feature out of the Wall separating one from the other. In a lot of ways, this made for a better read; the Old Kingdom felt like a threat, like a dark shadow which loomed to the north of Ancelstierre like a nightmare waiting to pounce. In Clariel, the setting is simpler and the politics, governance, and dramatic tension are all altered as a result.
Clariel introduces us to the title character, Clariel herself, who is seventeen (even though the back of the book says she’s sixteen, which annoyed me no end), and who has come to live with her parents in the city of Belisaire, the capital of the Kingdom. She has excellent connections, as she is related both to the Abhorsen (the master necromancer whose job it is to patrol the border between Death and Life, keeping everything where it’s supposed to be) and the King. Her mother is a preternaturally gifted goldsmith, the toast of the city and her fellow artisans, and her father is a rather boring, grey figure, a man who largely spends his time wringing his hands and worrying about things instead of actually taking action, in any sense of the word. Clariel herself feels born to be a Borderer, a person who works in the forests, much like a ranger; she is drawn to the solitary, outdoor life and finds living in Belisaire, among crowds and noise and bustle, an intolerable strain. But, of course, she is too young to control her own destiny, and her parents have other plans for her – plans which include becoming a ‘lady’, making a good marriage, joining a Guild in the city and carving out a career for herself.
However, Clariel knows she has found the career she wants, and the lifestyle she craves. Her parents won’t hear of her living alone, even though she has proved herself more than capable of surviving – even thriving – in the isolation of the forest. Their clash of wills causes the primary narrative tension in the book, and though it might sound like a facile thing, I could really feel Clariel’s frustration and her building rage, and I could empathise clearly with her desires to find her own life, mark out her own space and her own way. There was a lot about her I admired: for one, she is asexual, which is something YA books do not deal with often enough. She has no desire to be romantic with anyone, of any gender, and the idea of marriage seems absurd to her. She is an entirely self-contained individual with a strong mind and solid convictions, and it was painful to watch her being denied her autonomy and freedom, time and again. But then, when she is asked to help in the capture of a powerful Free Magic creature which is running rampage in a fishing village not far from the city, things start to get interesting – and, as well as that, someone is attempting to unseat the King, a feeble-minded man obsessed with his missing granddaughter, and Clariel finds herself caught up in the midst of it.
For all the good things about this book (and bearing carefully in mind how much I was yearning to read it) I can’t say I enjoyed it terribly much. It was too long, and a lot of it seemed repetitive (the conflict between Clariel and her parents, in particular, which I felt was a shame, as the more often it was belaboured the less effective it grew), and I didn’t warm to Clariel as a character. Certainly, I admired and understood her, and I felt her arc was painfully inevitable and well executed, and it was refreshing to read about a heroine who makes mistakes she can’t undo, and who realises too late that she has taken the wrong path – but I didn’t love her. I think, in many ways, this was the point, but I found it hard to really enjoy her story because of it. On the other hand, there’s the delicious twist of who Clariel actually is – or, I suppose, who she becomes – and if you’ve read the Old Kingdom trilogy, this adds a little jolt of satisfaction to the book’s conclusion. I also enjoyed the fact that Mogget, one of my favourite characters from the trilogy, makes an appearance here, too – and he’s up to his usual tricks! I can’t say that Clariel has surpassed the Old Kingdom trilogy in my affections, but it’s certainly a book that a Nix fan should read, and if you’re interested in the history of the Old Kingdom, it’s the place to go. I wish it had been shorter and that a little more had happened in it, but hey. It was great to get back to the Old Kingdom, and it made me want to re-read the other books – so, it’s all good.