About 12 years ago, I was first introduced to The Old Kingdom, a stunningly dark fantasy world from Australian Author Garth Nix. Starting with Sabriel, the trilogy tells the story of the Abhorsen, a singular warrior in the fight to maintain order in the world, making sure the dead stay dead using powerful, forbidden magic. The books span generations, moving on to Lirael, 14 years later, but maintaining a dark, personal view on an epic fantasy saga. I was utterly captivated by the books as a teenager, as they examined the very natures of life and death, and so when I discovered that Garth Nix was penning Clariel, a prequel set 600 years before the first book, I was so excited I was practically levitating. And it had been picked up by Hot Key Books, pretty much the best publisher in YA/Teen Fiction? What a match made in Death…
Clariel wants nothing more in life than to live free, alone in the Great Forest. She longs to hunt and forage, living a life uninhibited by other people and their petty squabbles which she has no interest in. Unfortunately for Clariel, though, her mother Jaciel, the most skilled Goldsmith in the world and daughter to the near-mythical Abhorsen, has been summoned to the capital city of Belisaere by the King himself. Nothing could be further from what Clariel wants – to be trapped in a stone city, with no trees and thronging masses of people everywhere she looks, sent to etiquette schooling to learn how to be a perfectly pristine noblewoman. So she forms a plan, a way to flee the city and live in peaceful comfort away from the prying eyes of others – But she’ll need help. She agrees to help a group of magic users track down a dangerous Free-Magic creature that has infiltrated the city, and using their magic skills, they promise to help sneak her out of the capital city. But it turns out that the Free-Magic creature is only the smaller piece of a much larger puzzle, one that seeps into the core of Belisaere’s stone and threatens to pull the world into a new, unimaginable darkness. Does Clariel care enough to save a people she’s always hated?
So it looks like Garth Nix can absolutely still blow me away! Clariel is an epic, twisting combination of magical fantasy and shocking political intrigue; with more a huge rollercoaster drops than you could shake some Abhorsen bells at. Clariel herself is a driven, powerfully wilful protagonist, fuelled by her “Berserk”, a supernatural strength that comes with her fiery temper, which creates a character who is strong and determined, but also petulant and irrational as her emotions fly off the handle. As she begins to control her abilities, her character growth to a more understanding, mature woman is gradual and utterly believable. Clariel’s indifference to the worries of the world are superbly counterpointed by Bel, whose enthusiasm towards saving the world helps balance the novel’s atmosphere from the title character’s pessimism. He’s a well meaning, passionate and resourceful, and he keeps the sense of adventure up throughout the story.
And what a story! The start is a slow build, as we see Nix start to create the world of the Old Kingdom as we know it, but also hundreds of years before we’ve ever seen it, mixing the elements we’ve come to know so well from the original trilogy with a complex but brilliantly realised caste system that punctuates life in the city of Belisaere on every level. Throughout the first third of the novel, we get a real sense of order, society and life in the capital, and we also get chance to really look inside the heart of Clariel and her frustration at being unable to control her own life – The struggle really reflects modern adolescence despite the fantastical setting . Then, after a MASSIVE jump in pace, the second act of the book suddenly ramps up tension, drama and violence, absolutely tearing through pages as the situation in the Old Kingdom really kicks off and we start to see the dark, twisted workings that have been conspiring throughout the opening. The whole book builds to a blisteringly harrowing crescendo, with Clariel really turning down some questionable avenues in an attempt to do the right thing. One of the things I loved so much about the book is how much things are not black and white for the characters, and Clariel does become ruthless in the name of justice towards the end of the book, culminating in some difficult, but powerful scenes.
Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen is a brilliant addition to the Old Kingdom books, and Garth Nix fans will be absolutely absorbed by this new, but familiar universe, expertly paced plot and textured, flawed characters. New fans will be able to enjoy this as a standalone Fantasy novel, and as a perfect introduction to a fantastic trilogy.
Thanks so much to Hot Key Books for my super shiny SUPER PROOF too! It’s SO beautiful!
Until Next Time, readers!
P.P.S – Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen hits shelves on the 14th of October 2014!