Note: I submitted this review for consideration at Strange Horizons. Since I haven't heard back from them for over a month, I will assume that it was not accepted for publication and therefore I can publish it on various social media, because this book is awesome and more people need to read it.
Further note: Image via BookLikes.
There is a distinct divide in opinions in the YA blogosphere when it comes to prequels, sequels, midquels, or spin-offs of best-selling books or trilogies. Some consider them as no more than a blatant cash grab; others think it’s a great way to explore characters and stories the author couldn’t write in the original. And indeed, the best pre-/se-/mid-quels seem to be the ones that can be read as stand-alones.
Set 600 years before the events of the Old Kingdom trilogy, Garth Nix’s “Clariel” is definitely one such book – despite the many things it has in common with the original books (Charter Magic, Free Magic, even a character or two,) it is set in a world drastically different world from that of “Sabriel.” The Old Kingdom is prospering, the King, Clayr and Abhorsens, are little more than figureheads, and Charter magic has gone “out of fashion”.
Clariel, granddaughter of the Abhorsen, is brought to the capital city of Belisaere thanks to her mother’s rise in status in the Guild of Goldsmiths. But where others would welcome the move for all the opportunity it presents them with, Clariel hates the city from day one – she has very little patience for all the pomp and circumstance enforced by the Guilds, she has no interest in playing political games, and she resents her parents for forcing her into doing something she has no interest in. She even goes as far as to devise a plan to run away, and enlists the help of some people from the former King’s Guard to help her.
The only catch? Clariel’s accomplices are trying to prevent a deadly conspiracy against the King, and they want her to help them first, by luring out a dangerous creature of Free Magic that they believe is helping the Guilds take over. The stakes are raised even further when Clariel discovers her own affinity to Free Magic, an affinity that might prove to be too tempting to resist.
One of the biggest strengths of Garth Nix’s style is how he can bring the reader into his world with just a few well-placed descriptions. World-building can prove very tricky, particularly in high fantasy, where various magical systems and creatures need to be introduced alongside the characters and the countries in which the story is set in. Trickier still is doing so in a prequel novel, where, presumably, some percentage of the readers are already familiar with the world. Nix accomplishes that, by taking some of our preconceived notions and flipping them on their heads:
Abhorsens, Clayr, the King: they all seemed to be relics of a bygone past, just as the ‘stone and mortar’ of the rhyme meant very little in the present day. This referred to the Wall in the south, to Clariel merely a curious landmark she’d heard about but never seen; and to the Great Charter Stones she knew only as they were depicted in a mummer’s play: big grey man-size puppets painted with gold representations of Charter marks. In Estwael they had become part of a comic turn in the Midsummer Festival, tall rocks that crashed into each other, fell over, got up again, and then repeated the whole process numerous times to gales of laughter.
- p. 19, Hardcover
The people who hold the magic are no longer in power; the big landmarks that carry that magic (the Wall and the Great Charter Stones) are either taken in stride or made fun of. Without any immediate threat, the Old Kingdom is prospering, but it also has lost its respect and reverence towards the things on which it was built on.
Another very interesting thing about the world of “Clariel” is how casually oppressive it is, despite being a seemingly egalitarian society. Women can not only enter the militia or learn a trade, they can prosper and rise in the ranks without encountering any overt sexism; the majority of families we encounter are traditional, but characters talk of unconventional arrangements (presumably same-sex or polyamorous relationships) as if they are commonplace; Clariel herself is written as asexual. But class struggles are still present – workers are striking and protesting, citizens who are not affiliated with the Guilds or the big trading houses are unable to prosper, and, because the King has secluded himself, nobody is able to challenge the Guilds as they seize power.
Furthermore, despite the abundance of opportunity present in this world, there is an underlying snobbism that condemns little dreams. In a curious parallel to our own Western society, the assumption is that the world is your oyster, but if you’re not diving for pearls, you’re wasting your potential:
“You thought that we limit the choices of our students?” asked Ader. “We do not, bit it is a sad fact that the great majority limit themselves. You might find it best to keep your ambition secret, Lady Clariel. Many here would consider it too small, a thing to be made fun of. (…)”
- p. 78, Hardcover
As the novel will go on to prove, wanton ambition can be a lot more damaging to a community and to an individual. Indeed, a major theme of the novel is how dangerous it is to force your idea of a good life on other people.
Like many of the previous protagonists of the Old Kingdom books, Clariel is very pragmatic and smart – despite being characterized as a hot-head, (a major part of her character) she’s able to quickly analyse a situation and draw conclusions. She’s angry with her parents for making decisions for her, she defends her dreams passionately, but she still takes the time to consider all the logistics running away would involve. (A horse, money, a disguise.)
That said, Clariel is still very, very young (two months shy of her eighteenth birthday.) She’s intelligent enough to read between the lines, to see other people’s motives, but doesn’t have the life experience and the maturity to emphasise with them. This, in turn, makes her very short-tempered and intolerant of what she perceives as weakness:
“Do you know what’s happening t Belisaere and the Kingdom while you stare out at the sea up here and drink tea?” asked Clariel.
“I don’t care!” shouted the King. He was almost sobbing. “I’ve had to care for too long and I’m past caring! Why does everything depend on me? (…)”
“I’m ashamed to be your cousin!” said Clariel, her voice growing louder with each word till she was nearly shouting too. “If you won’t act like a king you shouldn’t be one!”
- p. 221, Hardcover
It’s a realistic character flaw to have, one that isn’t explored as often as it should be – for all of the protagonists in paranormal and fantasy YA who are written as mature for their years, very few stories go ahead and ask the question: “But is that a good thing to be?” One major part of growing up is learning to make compromises and putting yourself into other people’s shoes, something that can be very hard to do when you believe you have all the answers and you think everyone around you is being complacent. In other words, Clariel reads like someone you might know. She may even read a little bit too much like yourself.
But then, isn’t this why we have literature? As readers, there are always books and characters that speak to us more through their flaws than their virtues. Sometimes we might even hate them, because they are so much like us and because they make a mistake we’d see coming from a thousand miles off; or, we might hate them because we know, deep down, that if we were in their place, we’d make that exact same mistake. Good books help us kill a few hours, but really, really good books, the kind that make us think about ourselves, are the ones that stay with us for longer.
And if you’re in the mood for the latter, then “Clariel” is definitely worth picking up.