With a title was Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen , I was expecting a dark origins story of Chlorr of the Mask, a minor villain in the The Old Kingdom Series. I am still smarting from the disappointment that it isn’t. Finishing Garth Nix’s newest edition to the Old Kingdoms series filled me with a feeling of bemusement. It certainly wasn’t satisfying, but I’m still on the fence on whether it was good. Well-written, covering an expansive geographic area, it nevertheless doesn’t contain a dynamic duo as memorable as Sabriel and Touchstone, nor fascinating familiars like the Disreputable Dog.
For those new to The Old Kingdom series, the world is different enough that the other books aren’t required reading, but the Charter, the fantasy magic system, takes a back seat and it’s opposition to Free Magic is not fully explained here and may cause some confusion. However, it is a really amazing world and there’s plenty of world-building nuggets for all readers to love and enjoy.
Clariel is a sharp departure of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series. In his fantasy trilogy, death comes in several forms: zombies and monsters. Sabriel and Lirael (and Touchstone, Sameth, and Nicholas) spend much of their time battling souls that have lived past their time but continue to scramble into the world of the living and wreak destruction upon its inhabitants.
Set eight hundred years before Sabriel was born, Clariel takes place when the Royal Family, Abhorsens, and the Clayr have grown complacent during a long stretch of peace and prosperity. It is a richly imagined world in a full cultural upswing. The separation between the Dead and Free Magic creatures is sharply delineated, with the moldering ghouls of his earlier works completely absent in this novel. The villains here are of the brighter, flashier variety.
In Sabriel , the Charter (ordered, civilized magic) and Free Magic (chaos, elemental) were set up respectively as the forces of good and evil. Although there is a bit of nuance later, all his good characters buy into the idea of order and society aka the Charter. Garth Nix tries something new in the character of Clariel, who thrives in and on the wilderness and has a strong dislike to doing Charter magic and book learning in general.
While the character Clariel works on more levels than as a thought experiment, her asocial temperament means that although a variety of intriguing characters are introduced, they are rarely given much screen time. I especially liked the enthusiastic and awkward Bel, Clariel’s cousin and self-named Abhorsen-in-waiting-in-waiting, and Kargrin, a bear-like Charter mage. At times, I’d rather be following them around than with Clariel and her single minded quest to return home.
Without giving too much away, Clariel struggles to find its rhythm in the first third and retreads familiar ground with fantasy school, awful controlling parents, the good looking bad boy who has the hots for her, but for patient readers, the story eventually picks up before floundering at the end.
The primary weakness of the book is SPOILERY and thus further discussed in the SPOILER section at the end of the review, but here is the bare bones version. Garth Nix sets up an interesting premise but ultimately fails to deliver. Whether it’s saved up for a sequel or just 11th hour cold feet, who knows and who cares. Clariel is a lost Abhorsen, but it seems like just about everyone member of the Abhorsen family has lost his or her way. Another weakness of the book is the lack of a prominent and strong supporting cast. I attributed this to Clariel’s solitary nature, but it could also be that Garth Nix simply has too many characters and too much plot to cover. There are characters who inexplicably reveal top secret information and more than a handful of red herrings. It’s better than your average YA Fantasy book, but not Nix’s best work. Cupcake Enjoyment Rating: 3.5/5 Carrot Quality Rating: 3.5/5 SPOILERS Other thoughts: – Clariel reveals some plot holes with Lirael and Abhorsen. If “el” is a naming convention of the Abhorsen family, why was Lirael’s unknown parentage such a huge plot point? Her name is LiraEL, after all. Also, confusing is that Sabriel decided to break from tradition by naming her children Ellimere and Sameth. – I also was very unsatisfied by the return of the princess and the convenient death of the Abhorsen. The growth of Bel’s character from giddy schoolboy to full-fledged Charter Mage is mostly off screen, and his attraction’s only point is to Clariel underscore her asexuality. – I felt like Garth Nix definitely held back his punches by steering away from a corruption and redemption narrative. While Clariel is “corrupted” by Free Magic, she does not become Chlorr of the Mask aka Darth Vader. Her flaws are derived primarily from her need for independence, and to my mind, aren’t true flaws. Garth Nix definitely left himself plenty of room to revisit Clariel. – In my opinion, a much more satisfactory ending would be Clariel sacrificing herself by binding herself to the Free Magic creatures and trapping them in Death, but not beyond the Ninth Gate. – A lot of my annoyance would be ameliorated by a different title. The “Lost” Abhorsen seems like a sly trick, since yes, Clariel is technically an Abhorsen, but not The Abhorsen. – This was not a great book for the men folk as Bel and Aronzo are assholes in romancing women, Harven bows under his wife’s every wish to the detriment of her daughter,
Yannael Tyriel is incompetent, etc.