I meant to get around to buying this immediately when it came out in September, but my reading pile has been pretty busy for a while now. I blame Flatmate and his insistence on lending me good things to read. But I got it while it was still the shiny, beautiful hardback, and that’s the important thing. The aesthetics of these books really do deserve a mention. I mean, look at it:
The shiny charter marks that only show up when you turn it in the light. It just… it’s so pleasing. I’m only sad I have paperbacks of Sabriel and Lirael.
The other thing about this series, and I know it’s a really silly thing, is that the font they’ve chosen is just so pretty. It seems particular to Nix’s work, and it’s quite distinctive, and very apt to the Old Kingdom setting… and so now it’s inextricably linked with them in my mind. It’s a nice touch, and alongside the loveliness of the cover art it makes me think they’ve got someone really invested in details working on the books in the design department.
Anyway, leaving aside my abiding attachment to the aesthetics of Nix, I’m quite pleased with this one. It’s always tricky reading YA sequels to things you loved when you were younger, and Clariel didn’t really quite stand shoulder to shoulder to the original three books. It was passable because Nix’s world-building remains fantastic and we got answers to some lingering questions, not because it was a good story or a particularly compelling character. Goldenhand manages to be a pretty decent story too, while continuing to give us more of the setting and some pretty lovely characters. It doesn’t feel as good as the original trilogy, but I’m not sure how much of that is just nostalgia, and the fact that nothing could really measure up. At least some is on merit, I think, though.
My main quibbles are two: the romantic relationship between two of the main characters, and the melodrama of the set-piece danger of the story. I’ll deal with the latter first (and with some spoilers for Abhorsen).
I guess my main problem is that once you’ve already done the “saving the entire world” thing, you’ve got nowhere left to go but down? And the ending of Abhorsen really is that. They stop the ravening power that would have destroyed the planet, and in a suitably dramatic and world-changing manner. You can’t really do that style of story arc again straight after, because it just falls a bit flat – you need to do something a bit different. But Nix has done the same style of plot in Goldenhand, where a big bad has arisen and will do a lot of damage (just not whole world destruction) and it comes down to the setpiece end battle where everyone has to manage to do their bit just right and they can just about pull off saving everyone. If he’d have moved slightly sideways and done something a bit more political, or an enemy within or something, he could have maintained things as they were (if we ignore the dip for Clariel, but that’s a prequel so can be ignored). But nope, big enemy/necromancer/dead thing, massing forces… we know the drill. And like I say, we’ve done that. And it’s never going to be as heart-wrenching as Abhorsen was, because it loses the force the second time around. He’s done it very competently though, and while pulling in a new bit of world-building (the northern tribes) which fit in very nicely. And we get to see how the world is getting on after it’s been saved, which is pleasing, in a way. It’s not a bad plot and so on, it’s just one that suffers from context.
Shockingly for it being me, the romance issue isn’t the one that bugs me the most. Nix has some tropes he tends to write, and while that’s kind of annoying, they’re not the usual tropes and so I’m sort of willing to forgive them. He writes strong, competent women (sometimes shy too, but always thoroughly competent), who fall in love with slightly daft, slightly wet men. The men aren’t entirely useless, but their capabilities are normally something that means they’re not great at looking after themselves in danger, or maybe are just a bit emotional… so they end up being the damsels for the women to rescue. And that’s refreshing. But it is, by now, very much a Nix trope and it would perhaps be good not to stick to the same script not once but twice in one novel. The main one – Lirael and Nick – was signposted in Abhorsen quite strongly, so we knew it was going to happen. But he’s not executed it as neatly as he did Sabriel/Touchstone. In part, this is because Nick and Lirael are both hopeless nerds who just can’t people very well… which I sympathise with very much. And a lot of their behaviour that comes off as awkward works when you think about it in that light. But some of it is just that he’s determinedly crowbarring the romance in when maybe a lighter touch, with a less settled conclusion at the end, would have felt more natural. When we left Sabriel and Touchstone at the end of Sabriel, yes they were clearly into one another and we all knew really that meant they’d end up married, because narrative… but he never said, so it worked. It had got as far as hand-holding and the odd kiss, and a lot of dramatic feelings. With Nick and Lirael, he seems determined to give us a conclusion as well, and so it has made the relationship zoom past horrendously quickly, to the point that they go from first kiss to mentioning their wedding in the space of days. And yes, partly the wedding thing is because they live in a world where people can see the future… but neither of them freaks out in the slightest at it and it’s just a bit wrong.
It’s particularly wrong since Nix has managed to avoid the pseudo-medieval morality stuff in constructing his world (partially*), and so there’s no easy explanation for them going from zero to wedding in five seconds. There’s no “oh no we have kissed, better marry before scandal”. The fact that Lirael’s niece keeps trying to chivvy her into casual dalliances comes up a lot throughout the book; it’s clearly no big deal. So I either have to assume they’re even worse dorks than they appear and they just have no clue how humans are meant to interact (which I suppose could be the intention), or just think Nix wanted a concluded romance too badly to worry about crowbarring some of it in.
I think it’s that one, if I’m honest.
Leaving those two things aside though, there’s a lot of good in this book. I continue to love the world and the people he fills it with, and the way he links back to his other books manages to avoid being too much “huh, huh, did you get the reference?”, while still making you go “oooohhh yessss”. I particularly still enjoy seeing middle-aged Sabriel, having watched her awkward teen years in the first book, and likewise Touchstone, and Nix clearly does know what he’s doing when it comes to writing complex and entirely likeable characters. The pacing could have been better, as it definitely builds to a lot of a crescendo at the end, but that comes part and parcel with the style of story to some extent, so I’m willing to let it slide.
Mostly what it is is a solidly decent story told in a world I love, giving me enough new things to be excited about while keeping the old and nostalgia-ridden stuff in there too. It’ll never be as good as what I read when I was a kid, but it’s doing pretty well nonetheless and I will definitely keep reading if he writes more.
*He does do some beautiful diversity in Sabriel where Touchstone needs to assert his position as a sworn sword to Sabriel to prevent scandal from a man and woman travelling alone together when they wander the rural parts of the kingdom, but at the same time, the Clayr have their free and loose attitude to sex and children, where they just assume that everyone is an adult and can sort things out as they like, without any real condemnation of any sorts of choices they might make. And I like that. He’s avoided the typical trope without making the mistake I find, for instance, steampunk, makes in going too far the other way. See also his having women just casually being in the background and in charge and in what might be in other books male-dominated roles in the Old Kingdom… while having a very early-20th-century-England, with all the associated morality stuff, next door in Ancelstierre. He’s good at this stuff.