I first heard about Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (alternatively known as the Abhorsen series) from a housemate during my university days. She was kind enough to lend me her copies of Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, which I remember finishing in a matter of days (no small feat during those postgraduate days) and then gushing about them to everyone I knew. They had everything I was interested in at the time: a strong female protagonist, an interesting universe, talking cats and dogs, the undead… But like with most things, I soon forgot about Garth Nix’s world and moved on to other works.
So it perhaps shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the release of Clariel, a prequel to the original trilogy, came and went past me completely unheeded. I heard nary a word about it (which really says more about how up to date I am with releases these days) until Josephina from Big Shot offered the team a copy of the book for review; naturally, I greedily pounced on the opportunity to do so. Let me tell you now, you really need to get your hands on this book.
Without giving too much away, the plot can be summarised as follows: Clariel is forced to move to Belisaere, the Old Kingdom capital, when her mother is accepted into the Goldsmiths Guild. However, she isn’t interested in high society, ballrooms and tea; she longs for Estwael and the Great Forest and starts plotting a way of escaping the capital. However, when she recruited to aid in the capture of a Free Magic creature, she sees an opportunity to earn the right to go home; but things are not what they seem in Belisaere and soon, Clariel finds herself on a dangerous path, full of treachery, murder and hard choices. Soon, Clariel must question the motivations of everyone around her and rely on the only constant in her life – herself.
For the longest time I found Clariel to be a nuisance, and I would constantly remind myself that at sixteen I wasn’t making the greatest of choices either. I would find myself sighing and shaking my head at her, wishing I could slap some sense into the girl; but reading it as the intended teen and young adult audience might, Clariel feels much more human. She is vulnerable and in her attempts to control that vulnerability, to empower herself, she makes rash choices with consequences she cannot even begin to contemplate. This is where Nix’s writing really shines: reading it at face value, as an adult with (a modicum of) life experience, Clariel feels silly and over the top; but imagining the book as read by a teenager, all the small slights, all the minor quibbles gain momentum and spiral out of control. Who’s ever been a teenager and never exaggerated their lot in life? The final pages alone redeemed Clariel for me and I ended up seeing her in a new light, with a lot of sympathy towards her.
That being said, I feel there are readers who won’t enjoy this. Anyone who thinks that teen and young adult books are “childish” should probably steer clear of this; sure, the book misses out some of the genre tropes (like romance), but this isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire, either. The more subtle nuances of the human character are lost in Clariel, although it didn’t bother me enough to make me want to stop reading. Also, I would actually recommend this as the last book in the series, despite being a prequel. The author’s note at the end contains huge spoilers for the rest of the trilogy and I actually feel that it would ruin a lot of Lirael and especially Abhorsen to read Clariel first. If anything, this doesn’t feel so much like a prequel as an exploration of the history of the Old Kingdom and it sounds like there is more to come from Garth Nix.
In the end, I enjoyed the book and I would definitely recommend it to both fans of Garth Nix’s works and those who enjoy reading fantasy starring interesting (and flawed) female protagonists. Thanks again to Josephina and everyone at Big Shot for supplying the book for this review. You can buy Clariel straight from Amazon or, if you need further coaxing into reading this, watch the trailer below.
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— Abort, Retry, Flail (@AbortRetryFlail) July 20, 2015