It’s been over ten years since Garth Nix released a book set in the world of the Old Kingdom, where an ancestral line produces individuals who take on the mantle of the Abhorsen, the necromancer responsible for keeping the dead beyond the Gates where they belong.
Set six hundred years before the events of Sabriel, Clariel is a young woman with dreams of becoming a forester, preferring solitude to anything the city can offer. Unfortunately her mother is one of the most sought after goldsmiths in the world, and the family’s move to the royal city of Belisaere provides her with more materials for her craft. Clariel hates it, and in the dinner parties and formal lessons that follow, she quietly plots her escape.
An opportunity arises from unexpected quarters. After an “attack” that’s so clumsily staged even Clariel realizes it’s just for show, she becomes aware of the political intrigue that’s broiling under the surface of Belisaere’s streets. Guildmaster Kilp conspires to overthrow the King, and when Clariel meets with those trying to stop him — who also believe he’s in league with a dangerous Free Magic creature — they offer her a way out of the city in exchange for her help.
As the relative of the Abhorsen, Clariel is in a unique position to lend aid. More attuned to unnatural forces, all she has to do is help them find the Free Magic creature. Naturally, this is easier said than done.
Clariel makes for an unorthodox heroine, and not strictly an appealing one. Asexual and aromantic (that is, uninterested in any forms of intimacy), she borders on anti-social at times and has no desire whatsoever to get involved with city life. I always welcome a female protagonist that doesn’t feel any compulsion to be likeable — either to the reader or other characters, and she’s sharply written as a young woman driven by her need to live alone in the forest, only for her growing sense of responsibility to spur her into action against Kilp.
But Nix never undermines her love of solitude or her consistency in rejecting overtures of love. She never meets “the one” who makes her reconsider her decisions, and she politely but firmly shuts down any attempts to make her change her mind. It’s rare to find a female character who is so confident in who she is and what she wants.
As antagonists go, Guildmaster Kilp isn’t hugely interesting, though I enjoyed the portrayal of his son Aronzo. Arrogant, rude, aggressively in pursuit of Clariel — in any other YA novel these characteristics would probably make him the romantic lead, but Clariel hasn’t got the time of day for him.
The novel deals with themes of social responsibility and the effects of power. Clariel consistently wants to abandon everything and go live in the forest, whereas the King’s apathy and the current Abhorsen’s obsession with hunting have created a power vacuum that greedy men like Kilp are quick to take advantage of. Yet in taking responsibility for stopping them, Clariel has to tap into powers that undermine her own identity: not only the hereditary trait of berserker rage, but in controlling the will of other Free Magic creatures. It creates genuine suspense and raises questions about how far an individual is allowed to go to achieve their goals, and how much of themselves they’re willing to sacrifice to attain them.
There are a couple of weak notes: a subplot about the King’s missing daughter Tathiel is never fully fleshed out and resolved in such an anti-climactic manner that I’m not even sure why it exists, and there’s an open-ended resolution that’s somewhat undercut by Nix’s afterword. In it he reveals that Clariel [here’s a SPOILER, highlight if you want to read it] will eventually become Chlorr of the Mask, one of the antagonists in Lirael. It’s probably not something I would have picked up on by myself (despite Clariel’s acquisition of a bronze mask) but I immediately thought: “well geez — where’s THAT story?” Without knowing how the heroine of this book eventually becomes a terrible, near-mindless enemy in the later ones, Clariel sort of feels like a prequel to an origin story that hasn’t been written yet. [END SPOILER]
What’s also missing is the interplay between the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre, which lies over the wall to the south. Whereas the Old Kingdom is awash with magic, Ancelstierre is devoid of it entirely, depicted more like England at the turn of the 19th century than anything you’d usually find in a fantasy novel. In previous books it provided some very interesting back-and-forth between two profoundly different worlds, and without it the Old Kingdom lacks its social/geographical/cultural foil.
So ultimately, I think I overhyped myself a little. I really enjoyed reading Clariel; she’s a great character and the plot is action-packed without getting chaotic (one of Nix’s strengths as a writer), but it didn’t enrapture me the same way Sabriel and Lirael did. Yet after ten years it felt great to be back in the Old Kingdom again, especially when a couple of familiar faces pop up (specifically one irascible white cat). And since Nix is already writing more stories set in this world, I’m already anticipating the next.
The Old Kingdom (Abhorsen) — (1995-2016) Ages 9-12. Boxed sets are available. The Creature in the Case is a novella. Publisher: Since childhood, Sabriel has lived outside the walls of the Old Kingdom, away from the power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who refuse to stay dead. But now her father, the Mage Abhorson, is missing, and Sabriel must cross into that world to find him. With Mogget, whose feline form hides a powerful, perhaps malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage, Sabriel travels deep into the Old Kingdom. There she confronts an evil that threatens much more than her life’and comes face to face with her own hidden destiny…