I’ve had a passion for fantasy since I first started to read—anything from Tamora Pierce to J.K. Rowling was on my bookshelf. If there was a sword or something magical on the book cover, I wanted it. Especially if it featured a badass-looking female character. I know it’s said never to judge a book by its cover, but I did that plenty growing up (hell, I still do) and it rarely failed me. In fact, judging the book by the cover is how I discovered the author Garth Nix and his Abhorsen trilogy, a series that proved to be one of the literary comfort foods of my middle school years through to the present day.
How could anyone resist a cover so badass and mysterious? Look at that shadow monster!
The Abhorsen trilogy began with Sabriel, published in 1995. Sabriel was followed by two sequels, Lirael (2001) and Abhorsen (2003). Various short stories and novellas featuring new and familiar characters from the prior series have been released since, such as the novella The Creature in the Case (2005). Nix has had a loyal and devoted fan base during this time and nearly 20 years after Sabriel hit the shelves, Clariel was announced , a prequel set 600 years before the Abhorsen trilogy.
Clariel was published in October 2014, and I have finally had the opportunity to get my mitts on a copy and read it. Having the chance to revisit a world I have read and reread about for two decades was bittersweet. I was of course very excited to get to explore the Old Kingdom, the universe where the series mostly takes place, and to do so through a prequel meant experiencing this kingdom in a different time period than I knew, through a different lens than I had grown accustomed to in my twenty years of reading Sabriel and the other books.
Yet as with nearly any long awaited, long delayed continuation of a beloved series, there was fear as well. Sure, Nix had been writing short stories within the universe in the interim, but would he really be able to capture the essence of the Old Kingdom after a decade of not publishing anything about the world? Is it even possible to retain that same narrative voice after so long away from it? Should I even bother reading it, risking somehow tainting a series I have loved and relied on for most of my life? (The answer was of course I’m going to read it, because I love books.)
After reading Clariel at long last, I find myself torn over my feelings for the book. In a nutshell, Clariel was a nice little jaunt back to the Old Kingdom, but ultimately the book felt like a shadow of its forbears.
A Summary of Clariel:
Warning: Contains spoilers!
Set 600 years prior to Sabriel, Clariel is the story of the titular character, a young teenager who is a distant relative to Sabriel and Lirael, the main protagonists of the Abhorsen trilogy. Clariel’s mother is a renowned goldsmith, and the family moves to Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom, to allow her to join the Goldsmith’s Guild and further her craft. Clariel, like any sulky teenager who doesn’t want to move, is furious her folks wouldn’t let her remain in their hometown near the Great Forest, the one place Clariel feels happy and like herself. The readers are treated to a lot of teen frumping and whining as she constantly tells her parents, guards, and anyone who will listen that she doesn’t want to be there.
Clariel quickly learns Belisaere is in dire political straights. The King, a cousin to Clariel and her mother, has been an absent ruler for years since the disappearance of his daughter and sole heir. As a result, the Governor of the city has effectively been ruling, enforcing policies that have created a hostile rift between the ruling class guild members and non-guild day laborers. The Governor decides to take his rule up a notch by overthrowing the King.
Clariel’s family arrives in Belisaere as allies to the Governor, not aware of his plans to take the kingdom; her parents even arrange for her to marry his son. But when Clariel’s mother discovers the Governor has been working with Free Magic creatures—beings of pure magic who exist only to control and destroy human life—everything goes wrong. Clariel’s family is betrayed, and the Governor murders her parents. Clariel manages to escape to her mother’s estranged family, the Abhorsens.
The Abhorsens are an ancient bloodline in the Old Kingdom related to the king and the two other bloodlines that helped found the kingdom and create the Charter (the system of magic within the universe). The Abhorsens duty is to put the Dead risen by necromancers back to rest and to protect the Kingdom from Free Magic creatures, who exist outside the Charter and seek to destroy it and its practitioners. Clariel struggles to get the Abhorsens to go to Belisaere, to save the King and avenge her family, but the Abhorsen will not give her any promises of vengeance or information of any plan to attack.
Clariel takes matters into her own hands, freeing two Free Magic creatures from captivity and using her own magical abilities to control them. Clariel returns to Belisaere and exacts her revenge on the Governor and his son for murdering her parents. However, she loses control of the Free Magic creatures, learning they were in fact using her to attempt to kill the King. She learns they plan on using blood magic, killing the King to destroy the Charter and effectively ending the world as they know it. She tries to control the Free Magic beings, but is not able to.
Clariel is saved by her friend, Belatiel (the only Abhorsen who retain a sense of duty to the kingdom), who followed her to Belisaere after she ran away. He defeats the monsters, and tells her an army was amassed and retook the capital. Clariel learns that the princess who had ran away returned after hearing of the Governor’s coup, and has taken the throne; a plan which rendered her illegal and dangerous use of Free Magic ultimately unnecessary. When she recovers from her wounds, Clariel is sent from the Kingdom to a remote forest far north, both as punishment and reprieve: the use of Free Magic is punishable by death, but since Clariel ultimately helped to save the kingdom (and is a relative to the royal line) she is granted exile to the woods instead, which is really what she always wanted anyway.
I feel like they just don’t design book covers like they used to.
My Thoughts on Clariel
Clariel was a fun trip down memory lane… but that is it. I ultimately felt that the story was poorly paced and lacking in the rich world building the other books of the series did so beautifully.
The plot took so long to really take off. The first two thirds of the book consist mostly of Clariel whining about she did not want to be to anyone with ears, and of every member of a secret resistance to the Governor’s rule telling Clariel they are members of a secret resistance to the Governor’s rule. The story did not feel like it took off until the betrayal and murder of Clariel’s parents, and then it simply felt rushed as everything that followed happened in the span of 100 pages or so. I thought Nix possibly did this to symbolize how out of control Clariel’s life felt after the murder of her parents— how once that happened and she chose a new path for herself (taking up with forbidden Free Magic beings, and essentially getting herself addicted to power), there was no going back and the current of her choices swept her away. While the possible symbolism within the story’s pacing is a fun notion for the English major in me to think of, it is not something I appreciated as a reader.
I also feel Nix did too much telling and not enough showing in this novel; Clariel doesn’t figure anything out on her own. People just tell her what is going on and what to do. She is told about a secret resistance to the Governor’s power by no less than three different members of the resistance on separate occasions, and she is told all about the magical berserk fighting ability she possesses rather than discovering more about it on her own. Clariel is told about the Abhorsens shirking their duties, and doesn’t seem to piece it together herself until it’s blatantly stated. Clariel simply does not have the sense of intelligence, discovery, acceptance of duty and responsibility, or coming of age that Sabriel and Lirael had.
It was exciting to explore the city of Belisaere a little, especially 600 years before the other books took place; the Abhorsen trilogy starts with the kingdom in shambles, and our experience of that dilapidated Belisaere was interesting to compare to Belisaere closer to it’s heyday. Clariel’s Belisaere is certainly a very different city than what we have seen before in the Old Kingdom. I wish we had been able to explore it more, but unfortunately anytime Clariel is in the city she intentionally ignores most of her surroundings out of spite.
In general, the world building of Clariel just felt lacking compared to its predecessors. Sure, the main character is really only ever in two places, but there is almost no sense of history in either location. Belisaere felt flat, as if we could have been in any large city of the kingdom (or any fictional kingdom, for that matter), and Hillfair (the home of the Abhorsens) received minimal description and no real exploration by the character. I found that disappointing, since we see the main characters in Abhorsen traveling through the ruins of Hillfair with little comment or backstory. I do not know if Garth Nix simply wanted to rely on his reader’s memories of the other books, but Clariel is distinctively lacking the otherworldly charm that the Abhorsen trilogy had in its settings.
Clariel’s growth and characterization is also part of the problem with this book. While many of the complaints I have about her could be justified as aspects of her character that could demonstrate the themes of the book… I don’t think that Nix was going for that effect. Clariel is annoying; she is self-centered and self-involved, acknowledging why her parents do what they do and behave as they do, but still questioning them constantly and being as spiteful as possible when they offer explanations. Sure, this is typical teenage behavior (I’m pretty sure I was even more obnoxious myself at that age), but Nix provides very few redeeming qualities for Clariel’s character. If you’re going to make the main character unlikeable, I think it needs to be done in an endearing way… and Clariel is certainly not endearing.
Clariel’s development and growth as a person and character was vital for really carrying this story, making the poor characterization even more upsetting. Readers familiar with the trilogy knew prior to the books publication that Clariel was meant to be the story of Chlorr of the Mask, a powerful sorcerer and necromancer met at the beginning of Lirael. Throughout Lirael and Abhorsen, small mentions of Chlorr’s past are made by a character named Mogget, a Free Magic being who was bound to the service of the Abhorsens at the start of time… a character who appears in all three books of the trilogy and in Clariel. So from the start of Clariel, most readers knew that she wasn’t going to be the hero, and that we were going to see her fall. I was anticipating the fall all throughout the book, hoping to watch a gradual decline to evil take place, but was ultimately disappointed due to the pacing.
I wanted to want to root for Clariel, I wanted to be crushed when she made the decision to recruit the aid of Free Magic creatures, effectively confirming she was taking a bad path towards the darker side of magic… but Nix never made her likeable, never made her someone I wanted to cheer on. Instead he gave us big gaps of no character development, and then rushed through key moments of self-reflection and exploration Clariel experienced. Her slow descent into addiction for power and cruelty was mostly glossed over; the book ends with her more or less determined to avoid Free Magic (aware she is too tempted by it), but smiling when someone mentions the region she is going to will allow her to practice it. And that’s it; we miss all the really juicy parts about Clariel’s transition from Clariel to Chlorr.
Ultimately, I felt more like I had just read a 300-page fanfiction about Chlorr of the Mask’s origin… and while it was a very well written fanfic, it was not a very intriguing or immersive one. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are existing fanfictions about Chlorr’s origin out there which are probably far more intriguing and better executed.
If you have not read Garth Nix’s original Abhorsen trilogy, I highly recommend it. But Clariel is certainly not required, or even recommended, reading if you want to explore the Old Kingdom. It was nice to revisit the universe Nix had built twenty years ago, but unfortunately the Old Kingdom of the past is best left to the vague histories we know from the original trilogy.