Date read: 10.13.2016
Book from: Personal collection
(Sorry for the disordered posting schedule lately; I lost my posting buffer, and only just got the time to make it back up again. Wednesday posts will resume next week.)
Clariel is the daughter of one of the most notable families in the Old Kingdom, with blood relations to the Abhorsen and, most important, to the King. She dreams of living a simple life, but discovers this is hard to achieve when a dangerous Free Magic creature is loose in the city, her parents want to marry her off to a killer, and there is a plot brewing against the old and withdrawn King Orrikan. When Clariel is drawn into the efforts to find and capture the creature, she finds hidden sorcery within herself, yet it is magic that carries great dangers. Can she rise above the temptation of power, escape the unwanted marriage, and save the King?
Clariel was a long-awaited prequel to Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, coming a long, long 11 years after the publication of the final book of the initial trilogy. In the intervening time, Nix had promised that he was working on telling the story of the mysterious Free Magic sorceress (i.e., villainess) Chlorr of the Mask, who was revealed to be a lost member of the Abhorsens, the family sworn to banishing the unquiet Dead.
When it first came out, Clariel was out at the library for so long that I actually forgot to follow up on it, until this fall’s release of sequel Goldenhand sent Kakaner and me into a joint catch-up tizzy (as previously mentioned in my feature on Clariel‘s cover case design).
The distinguishing flavor of the Old Kingdom books is darkness and desperation: Nix roots the reader deeply in the textures and difficulties of life in a kingdom that has long lost its royal family, where order and prosperity have been eaten away over centuries by the re-encroachment of chaotic Free Magic and greedy Dead. The series’ staunch heroines endure arduous journeys across a stark landscape, disturbing magic, and above all, uncertainty.
Clariel is a very different beast to the rest of the series. Though it’s seeded with darkness from the beginning, its first, city-bound act must be described as genteel – I thought of a cross between Tamora Pierce and Ella Enchanted. Wild-blooded Clariel, who wishes only to work as a solitary forest ranger, is thrust into the fussy conventions of city living, burdened with chattery finishing-school classmates, socially ambitious parents, and political intrigue. This means we have to deal with numerous chapters of her brooding, resenting, and not-very-compellingly longing for her forest refuge. (Normally Nix is very good at evoking place, but Clariel’s ruminations on her forest idyll feel too shallow and generic to give a real sense of what’s she’s lost.) And though the economic and political context is interesting – in the absence of an active king, city functions have largely been privatized by corrupt merchants’ guilds, which of course foreshadows the later threat of a monarchy completely dissolved – the snippy, rulebound urban world that all this entails simply isn’t as singular and gripping as the wider Old Kingdom.
But even if Clariel’s sulking and “I’m not like the other girls”-ing can’t quite escape the burden of being fantasy clichés, Nix does a lot of work towards making her character more specific, more interestingly difficult: she’s not quite a run-of-the-mill Angry Action Girl, as she’s eventually revealed to be a berserker, which even in-universe is stated to be unusual given her gender. On top of that, she’s explicitly asexual, which I think is the most directly I’ve ever seen that possibility addressed in a young adult novel. Finally, Nix’s examination of Clariel’s estranged relationships with her obsessive artist mother and weak-willed father lends a softer and often more genuinely sad nuance to her general misfit tragedy.
In terms of plot mechanics, I think Clariel is again slightly hampered by genericness: though the external conflicts are terrible and draw tight a noose of desperation, Nix often fails to evoke Clariel’s internal state with concreteness. Her eventual use of both berserker magic and Free Magic means that we get numerous scenes of her “summoning her rage,” which registers as both repetitive and blankly abstract.
It occurred to me about three-quarters of the way through that Clariel’s fall to Free Magic is essentially a Dark Jedi narrative (I was a big Star Wars reader, okay); it also occurred to me to frame both of these as Apollonian/Dionysian conflicts: disciplined, academic, and constructed versus primal and emotion-driven. The trouble in Clariel is that the Apollonian side (Charter magic, and Abhorsens’ bell magic) is actually way more intereresting to read about than the Dionysian; the descriptions are unusual and vivid, whereas Clariel’s berserker stuff could have come from pretty much any epic fantasy book you’d pull off the shelf.
(I hope I’m not beating this generic/specific thing into the ground – I just think Garth Nix is an interesting case study for it because he’s a mediocre writer who can nonetheless write books that are in so many ways great, and the generic/specific, abstract/concrete question provides an easy lens for distinguishing where he does and doesn’t overcome the fact that on the sentence level he’s a weak writer.)
Anyway, do read Clariel if you’re an Old Kingdom aficionado (although I don’t think there’s such a thing as a lukewarm Old Kingdom fan, so if you are a fan, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that; and if you haven’t read any of the Old Kingdom books, then by gum, go get Sabriel and start). It will make you slightly annoyed, and and then it will make you read extremely fast with a sense of impending doom, and then it will make you really frickin’ sad but also bittersweetly hopeful. Garth Nix’s heroines are always thoughtful, tough, and honorable; Clariel is cast from the same mold, but slightly twisted out of true, a tragedy that Nix makes ring out with especial clarity and grace in the book’s wistful, resonant epilogue.