Bells of diminishing size that are used to subdue the dead, the personified days of the week, monstrous creatures posing as little white cats, houses that are as large as countries, familiar aspects of folklore that are reshaped to fit the contours of his own original worlds – these are just some of the marvels that Nix mixes into his stories, but his real gift is in describing them in such a way that makes them feel both wonderful and organic.
It's hard to describe, but he has this knack of pouring intense creativity into prose that contains and controls it. As a result, nothing ever feels outlandish or cumbersome, even when certain concepts technically are outlandish or cumbersome. Perhaps those who've already read some of his work know what I'm driving at here, but Nix really does have a gift when it comes to shaping his imaginary worlds, and it's in making the weird seem extraordinarily normal.
It's been over ten years since Garth Nix released a book set in the world of the Old Kingdom (Sabriel in 1995, followed by the duology Lirael in 2001 and Abhorsen in 2003). The most important thing you need to know about this place is that it contains a particular family which produces individuals who take on the mantle of the Abhorsen, a necromancer who is responsible for keeping the Dead where they belong.
Clariel is a prequel set six hundred years before the events of Sabriel, and though it contains a couple of Call Forwards to events and characters in later books, it mostly ignores the usual aims of a prequel. It's not interested in telling a "so this is how that happened" story, but in relating a self-contained tale that's only tangentially connected to the original three books. In other words, you can easily read this story without having foreknowledge of the others.
Our titular character is a young woman with dreams of becoming a hunter and forester, preferring solitude to anything the royal city of Belisaere can offer. Unfortunately her mother is one of the most sought after goldsmiths in the world, and the family's move to the city provides her with more materials for her craft, as well as access to other smiths' seminal masterpieces. Clariel hates her new environment, and in the dinner parties and formal classes that follow, she quietly dreams of 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 King Orrigan, 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.
Clariel doesn't give a rat's ass about the King or the Guildmaster, but as a relative of the Abhorsen, she's in a unique position to lend aid. More attuned to unnatural forces, all she has to do is help find the Free Magic creature. Naturally, this is easier said than done.
The burden of responsibility is not something that comes up an awful lot in YA fiction (at least not the ones I read), but it's a major theme throughout all of Nix's books. Sabriel was a compelling heroine simply because she had such a mature understanding of what was expected of her, and the co-protagonists of Lirael struggled throughout their journey to find a way to fulfil their obligations despite their mounting terror over what was at stake. In all three cases, the need to accept responsibility is quite literally a case of life and death.
And so it is for Clariel as well. For the first few chapters she's consumed by her desire to return to the forest and live out her life in isolation (just the way she likes it), only for the conflict with Guildmaster Kilp to turn personal and her social conscious to kick into gear. Yet in accepting responsibility for stopping him, 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.
She's also surrounded by other characters that fail in their responsibilities, namely the two men whose involvement in political affairs could have prevented Kilp's takeover well before it gained a foothold in Belisaere: King Orrikan, whose missing daughter has made him retire from court life and spend his days brooding upon her return, and the current Abhorsen, who is far more interested in hunting than doing his job. Their negligence has created the power vacuum that Clariel must enter in order to re-establish stability in the kingdom, raising questions about how far an individual is allowed to go to achieve their goals, and how much of themselves they can sacrifice to attain them.
And because Nix has spent time on establishing Clariel's love for the forest, her decision has real weight and real consequences. Her defining moment is when she's halfway to the Abhorsen's House with a companion, knowing that once she reaches it she'll be in a caught in captivity by her extended family for some time. There's nothing stopping her from disappearing into the forest beyond the fact that her companion is injured – not life-threateningly, but relatively seriously.
Does she stay or does she sneak away while he's asleep? I won't give away the answer, but don't presume to think you know what will happen.
As you can probably tell, Clariel makes for an unorthodox heroine, and not strictly an appealing one either. Asexual and aromantic, she borders on anti-social at times and has no desire whatsoever to get involved with city life. Naturally, I had to have a look at some of the lower-starred reviews on Amazon.com, and sure enough, a lot of the displeasure with the book centred on Clariel's characterization. I won't provide a link as I don't want to risk any dogpiling, but I pulled this snippet from one of the reviews:
Clariel is whiny, rude, capricious, callous, short-sighted, lacking in depth and dimension. I couldn't identify with her. She's the kind of person I wouldn't actively choose to talk to had I met her in real life.
Well, apart from the "lacking in depth and dimension" part, I pretty much agree. She IS all those things, and it's fantastic! I'm sick to death of this need for female characters to be "nice" and "identifiable" and "likeable" – it's not something we ever say about male characters, and I'll take the prickliness and single-mindedness of Clariel over the insipidness of bland self-inserts any day of the week.
And the line "I wouldn't actively choose to talk to her had I met her in real life" is hilarious since this is exactly how Clariel feels about nearly everyone she meets during the course of the book.
Best of all, Nix never undermines Clariel's love of solitude or her consistency in rejecting overtures of romantic interest. She is established as asexual, and as such she never meets someone over the course of the book who makes her reconsider her stance on romance. Nix understands that asexuality isn't "just a phase" and allows Clariel to politely but firmly shut down any attempts at a relationship without making her responsible for anyone else's feelings but her own.
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 existed in the first place, and Kilp doesn't make for a particularly interesting antagonist. His son Aronzo fares a little better, but only in regards to how Clariel perceives and reacts to him. Throughout the novel, Aronzo is arrogant, rude and aggressively in pursuit of Clariel. As depressing as it sounds, all these characteristics would probably make him the romantic lead in any other YA novel, but here Clariel isn't even remotely interested in such an obnoxious twat.
What's also missing is the interplay between the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre, which lies over the Great Wall to the south (and did so at least a year before Game of Thrones was first published). Another of Nix's great innovations is that although the Old Kingdom is awash with magic, Ancelstierre is devoid of it entirely, and is 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.
Finally, the open-ended resolution is somewhat undercut by Nix's afterword. In it he reveals that Clariel 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.
For despite the six hundred year different between this and Sabriel, there's no significant difference in the way the Old Kingdom operates; only that Free Magic creatures are considered extinct (definitely not the case in the original trilogy!) and that magic is considered the domain of servants rather than the elite (a viewpoint I've never seen anywhere else in fantasy-fiction, and which makes me wish Nix had explored it a bit more).
I think I may have overhyped myself a little before reading, but after ten years it felt great to be back in the Old Kingdom, especially when a couple of familiar faces pop up (especially one irascible white cat). More than anything Clariel has inspired me to re-read some of Nix's earlier work, which is surely the best outcome for any new release.