Clariel – Garth Nix

HE WROTE A SEQUEL PREQUEL! I found out yesterday so I bought the book and read it immediately and OH. MY. It was so worth it you have no idea.

It did not, initially, feel worth it. The earlier installments of the Old Kindom series are shrouded in the heavy mists of nostalgia and joy, so I honestly couldn’t tell you if this is a flaw they share, but the writing in the start of Clariel is a bit clunky and rather childish. Lots of over-simple sentences, repetition, overuse of names and just too much “she did this and then she did this and then she did this”. But then… then… there is a moment of euphoria. There is a sudden second of realisation, of understanding where the book fits into the rest of the canon and it is GLORIOUS. I will admit right now, I may have flapped. I may have squeaked. Because I didn’t realise, right up until I realised, and then I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised.

I’m trying to talk around it, and it’s really hard, because I don’t want to make it obvious to anyone who hasn’t read it, and my tentative Facebook pesterings suggest that my friends have not, on the whole, read it (yet).

To put on my critic mask for a moment, it has a lot in common with the other books, in ways it possibly shouldn’t. My main concern is that Clariel, especially early on, is very Lirael. Nix doesn’t write very many female characters (and don’t get me wrong, they tend to be ace), and he hasn’t done a new one here. In a similar way, the main male character is a bit… wet. Very much like Sameth, in fact. Touchstone was wet too (especially compared to Sabriel) but yeah, Sameth. Nicholas? Also wet.

Despite being male, Nix writes very strong, well-balanced women, and slightly meek, indecisive, wet men who get trampled over a bit by their more successful ladies (who often aren’t very interested in men except for some occasional sex). See also: the Clayr are mostly women and are a bit disdainful of men in general (again, except for the occasional sexytiem). There are a lot of badass lady guards/Clayr glacier stabby women/librarians* going on in this universe. There are a few slightly badass male guards lying about, but as the humanfolk go, really? It’s all in the women. That is just the humanfolk though. As a friend pointed out to me, when you go into the non-humanfolk, there is some awesome going on. And by awesome, I mean MOGGET. And yes, he does appear in Clariel (so all is well and we can read the book in happiness and peace).

The only really competent man I can think of is Terciel (Sabriel’s dad). And he’s minor, and backgroundy, and is still competent in a quiet, wistful, thoughtful way, not the full on “look at me Abhorsening around the place and fixing several hundred years of screw up” that his daughter does. Nix just makes his women shine (in a slightly bossy way) and his men… step back. They don’t faint weakly and meekly, but nor do they stand forward like their sisters, mothers, lovers, aunts and nieces. Not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. Because I’m not against good, strong women. That would be stupid. But there probably ought to be a bit of variety somewhere in there. Maybe a couple of meek women, or just ones who weren’t very fighty badass (fighty does include magic and necromancy here), and maybe one man who was, for the sake of contrast. I suppose Hedge could count, but he’s not… really human.

I’m wandering off a little here. Clariel is more tightly focussed on the main character than Lirael or Abhorsen were, and much more like Sabriel in a lot of ways. Like Sabriel, Terciel is a bit at sea about an awful lot of the world around here, immersed in something new and unfamiliar somewhat against her will. It’s much more a standalone book, keen on exploring the details of the world and the mysteries it can hold, rather than ramping up the drama stakes and saving the universe from evil and cliff-hangers. Like Sabriel, again, the plot is closely bound with one girl’s small aim in a world full of bigger troubles, never wanting to get sucked into all the issues around her but finding herself unable to say no. It’s not a carbon copy, but there’s a lot of parallels you can draw between the two, and that’s where I think the joy actually lies. It creates the meh at the beginning (in the form of “yes yes we’ve seen this all before, what’s new?”) only to flip it all over later in the book and slap you in the face. In a good way, if that’s possible. I strongly suspect Nix knew what he was doing when he made the two so similar, and wanted to create precisely that effect. Whether the same is true for the character creation? Not so sure.

In any case, if you loved the Old Kingdom books, I cannot see a way not to love Clariel. It’s not the best, but it slots in so neatly to *mumble mumble clamps hand over mouth to prevent spoilers* that you can’t help but enjoy it. It’s exhilarating, and fantastic and thoroughly joyful, even when it’s sad (again, like Sabriel**). Read it. Read it now.


*That was my favourite bit of Lirael. The librarians are superheroes who fight monsters. And catalogue books.

**My favourite bit of Sabriel is actually when Sabriel thinks she’s going to die, and she reads the inscription on her sword (the Clayr saw me, the Wallmakers made me, the King quenched me, the Abhorsen wields me, so that no Dead shall walk in life, for this is not their path) again in a distressingly melodramatic way. It makes me so happy inside, and I don’t even know why.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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7 Responses to Clariel – Garth Nix

  1. Will says:

    With the exception of the last part, which I think came together amazingly well, I didn’t like this as much as the others. Part of that might be nostalgia, but I thought the first half or even two thirds of the book were (a) a lot more formulaically YA than, say Sabriel (which I still think is by far the best of the four, much though I love Lirael and Abhorsen) and (b) rushed.

    I mean, it was still very good. The worldbuilding is still there, Jaciel was great, I liked a lot how he made the king and the Abhorsen really badly flawed without being cartoons. But I don’t think it lives up to its predecessors – except at the end.

    I haven’t decided whether to write a review of this yet. If I do it’ll be interesting to compare.

    • Will says:

      Also, regarding your Facebook comment, do you mean Az et al.? Because while I can totally get that being imprisoned forever totally sucks and it’s understandable that they’ll go to great lengths to avoid that, they still seem pretty evil to me. One thing that I did really like about the last part of Clariel is how it showed that, even with the collar on, Mogget is Not Good News.

  2. readerofelse says:

    Re: the not so great start, I do agree. But I thought the way it came together later was definitely worth it. I mean, I had a moment of sudden “Oh? OH! SHE’S GOING TO BE CHLORR!!” which felt magnificent and cancelled out the slow/YA/formulaic start by just the squee of getting an explanation for someone a bit mysterious (especially given Mogget’s comment of something like “she always was cautious when she was an A-… alive” in reference to Chlorr in Lirael, I think, where you were totally meant to know that there was some History here).

    And I really did love how we had some Abhorsens not doing their job. In Sabriel etc. you get the sense of the Abhorsen being the glorious upholder of the True Ways of Excellent Conduct while everyone else falls apart, so it’s nice to have the contrast of them being human again.

    Re: Az etc. – Noooonono. I meant Clariel. Because so far, necromancers have been basically like Hedge – just evil people. No depth to them. I mean, the image of Hedge in death particularly strikes me, where he’s described as a massive caricature of evil evilness. We’ve always known necromancers as people but they’ve never been given any depth. We never saw why someone came to be a necromancer (and I guess I just had the vague sense of them being evil people who wanted power and didn’t care that they had to deal with nasty things to get it). It was a really good balance to see someone slipping down into the Free Magic side of things by a progression of well-intended decisions in the face of no help from those who should have been able to. The Chlorr we see in Lirael/Abhorsen is just plain scary – seeing her as a young woman trying to do her absolute best by her country when the powers that be can’t or won’t help is an interesting flipside to her story. I think it’s that more than anything that makes up for the shaky start for me.

    • Will says:

      Okay, I suppose the fact that I’ve known this book will be about Chlorr of the Mask for nearly a decade makes a difference to my reading experience there. Though given that, it did take me a very long time to realise that the mask she puts on in the House is THE mask, and I did get a great shiver when I did realise.

      I agree that it’s really nice to see some motivation for Free Magic sorcerers. It’s not exactly an original dynamic though – see also Jedi vs. Sith, or Light Ones vs. Dark Ones.

      Maybe it’s unfair for me to compare it to Sabriel – it had the advantage of being the first, and therefore of being new, and also has nostalgia behind it. But still, there was nothing in Clariel that for me matched the fear of the Mordicant chase, or the sad horror of the Dead creature in the island village, or the bizarre and fascinating in-between world of the Perimeter, or the vastness and coldness of the journeys into Death. But Clariel did remind me of all of those things, and of the magnificence of the series as a whole, so I’m grateful for that.

      Re the writing, I think the clunkiness might have something to do with the fact that he’s been writing children’s books almost exclusively since 2003.

  3. readerofelse says:

    I know it’s not original, but it’s one of the things that’s always bothered me about an otherwise amazing series – the baddies are just evil. The first time I read Lirael, I was expecting Hedge to somehow be… complex… but no. Like, Orannis is the spirit of destruction; you can’t really write depth for that… but the human necromancers? It just makes me happy that something that irritated me for years has been somewhat fixed.

    But even with that, I agree it’s no Sabriel. Or Abhorsen, which is my favourite (if only because of the delicious melodrama of the final chapters and Moggetmoggetmogget etc.).

    Oh also – NO NEW POETRY. I was hoping for some more because it’s all so neat and catchy and pleasing but nope.

    I thought he had always written children’s books? Or do you mean children’s as opposed to YA?

    • Will says:

      Yes, no new poetry! I loved the rhymes in the original trilogy!

      I’m not actually sure Sabriel, at least, is YA. Or if it is it’s unusual in having an older protagonist – I’m pretty sure Sabriel is 18 or 19, at least. It’s on the borderline, I think.

      But yeah, since Abhorsen it’s been Keys, which is on the younger end of YA, and the tower/colour books, which were targeted even younger, and some even more explicitly child-directed stuff. So that might have coloured his writing style.

      • readerofelse says:

        I’ve always thought the Keys series was a bit rubbish because male protagonist. Didn’t consider it being just aimed younger… *facepalm*

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