Author: Garth Nix
Rating: 2 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library.
Note: This review will contain massive, anger-filled spoilers.
Sixteen-year-old Clariel is not adjusting well to her new life in the city of Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She misses roaming freely within the forests of Estwael, and she feels trapped within the stone city walls. And in Belisaere she is forced to follow the plans, plots and demands of everyone, from her parents to her maid, to the sinister Guildmaster Kilp. Clariel can see her freedom slipping away. It seems too that the city itself is descending into chaos, as the ancient rules binding Abhorsen, King and Clayr appear to be disintegrating.
With the discovery of a dangerous Free Magic creature loose in the city, Clariel is given the chance both to prove her worth and make her escape. But events spin rapidly out of control. Clariel finds herself more trapped than ever, until help comes from an unlikely source. But the help comes at a terrible cost. Clariel must question the motivations and secret hearts of everyone around her – and it is herself she must question most of all.
I’ve loved the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix ever since I was twelve. I remember browsing in a bookstore as a child, looking for a birthday gift for a friend and for some reason, Sabriel leapt off the shelf at me. Intrigued by the cover, I read the book even before I gave it to my friend, and then bought a copy for myself a few years later when I was in high school.
By this point, my dad was dead, so I identified strongly with Sabriel’s quest to rescue her father, the Abhorsen, and their bittersweet reunion — although she rescues him, his time is numbered, and he uses it to delay the novel’s antagonist. I bought the second and third books in the series, Lirael and Abhorsen, when I entered university. It’s those books that introduce us to Clariel — or rather, to Chlorr of the Mask, a Greater Dead entity with necromantic powers.
See, it’s hinted at in the original trilogy that Chlorr was originally an Abhorsen, one of a long line of people tasked with banishing the Dead back to the realm of Death. The idea of an Abhorsen, well, abhoring their birthright and becoming a necromancer instead, throwing their lot in with the enemy? That was interesting. There was a story there. And so I awaited the publication of Clariel with bated breath for years.
I say all this to show my deep love of the series as a whole. Having said that, it pains me to say this: Clariel was a disappointment. A grave, grave disappointment.
I was expecting a rich, compelling story about the birth of a villain, a character that falls from grace and perverts all of their original promise. Instead, I got something that pulled its punches. Sure, it’s interesting that Clariel is an aromantic asexual, especially since this book falls into the YA demographic. But aside from her lack of interest in relationships either platonic or romantic, she comes off as one-note and annoying — that one note being pretty much “I hate it here in the big city and no one understands me.”
Since loneliness was a major concept behind the characterization of Lirael, the protagonist of the second book, it felt like Garth Nix was returning to the same well. This is especially true when you consider that both characters have absent mothers; Lirael’s physically, and Clariel’s emotionally. Part of her mother’s emotional distance stems from the fact that both of them have a deep reservoir of rage within them. It’s a magical kind of rage, actually — the berserker instinct has strong connections to Free Magic, which necromancers use.
Another parent who fails to live up to the emotionally nurturing test is King Orrikan. His heir, Princess Tathiel, has run away and he’s desperate for her to return; as a result, he’s weary of the crown and refuses to rule the kingdom like he should. This was a plot thread that I wish Nix had pulled on a bit more. There’s a really interesting theme in the book about what happens when people abdicate their responsibility — Belisaere’s political unrest stems from King Orrikan’s apathy. On top of that, the current Abhorsen, who is also Clariel’s grandfather, spends all his time hunting instead of patrolling the kingdom for Dead creatures and Free Magic spirits.
This power vacuum is as much magical as it is political. Guildmaster Kilp capitalizes on the the weakening grip of the king and the kingdom’s general disdain for magic by attempting to install Clariel as a regent since she’s also the king’s distant cousin. But Kilp’s attempt at a coup ends in chaos, with Clariel’s parents dead.
So, Clariel has constantly felt like a pawn in her own life, has a bottomless well of rage that can be used for evil purposes, and lives in political conditions that her are perfect for her to wreak some havoc. And what do we get instead of a satisfying descent into darkness? We get Clariel moping about, thinking about how much she hates living in the big city. We get her being forced into a private school with monied twits, and her having to deal with catty classmates getting jealous because the most attractive classmate is flirting with her (which Clariel hates, by the way).
On top of that, by the time things actually do go to hell and Clariel takes matters into her own hands, she doesn’t go full evil. She’s got Free Magic ability, and she uses two freed spirits to ride to the castle and get revenge for her parents. She even starts to wear the mask that Chlorr of the Mask is known for. As she continues to do so, she feels her connection to the Charter (the lawful magic of the kingdom) fade. She seriously has the opportunity to go down the dark path…. but she doesn’t. Instead, someone else rides in at the last minute (a newer, better Abhorsen) and manages to put the kingdom to rights.
(Oh, and by the way, Princess Tathiel comes back after the slaughter to reclaim the throne! It turns out that she was hiding out with the Clayr, a group of prophetic women. Considering the Clayr were the ones who told King Orrikan in the first place that his daughter would return, but neglected to state when, doesn’t it seem kind of remiss of them to, you know, not mention that she was staying with them all along? Plot holes, plot holes….)
After the hubbub dies down, the new Abhorsen tells Clariel that he’s found a way to restore her connection to the Charter and prevent her from accessing her Free Magic abilities. Hooray, she hasn’t been corrupted after all! Oh, and by the way, she gets to keep the mask that she wore! Everything’s fucking hunky dory!
At the end of the book, Nix has the gall to write this in his author’s note:
“Clariel is of course Chlorr of the Mask, who appears at the beginning of Lirael, having been drawn south by the reawakened powers of Orannis. As to what she did in the intervening years between the events of this book and Lirael, who can say?”
Nix, in essence, is telling his devoted readers this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Seriously? This is the equivalent to George Lucas making the entire prequel trilogy without any Darth Vader at all, just Jake Lloyd as a kid. I honestly wasn’t expecting this book to out-Lucas Lucas, but it does. Oh lord.