Last month, the U.S. cover for Garth Nix’s long, long-awaited book, Clariel, finally hit the internet. (That’s it to the left!) For those of you who don’t know, Clariel is a prequel to Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, and it may just answer some questions about how the magic in in the series works. Free Magic? The Charter? From the very first page of the very first book, Nix launches his readers into a fully-realized world which he, infuriatingly enough, never fully explains. All the rules appear to be there, and Nix knows all of them—but we don’t. Until now… maybe.
Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, the three books in the Old Kingdom trilogy, include one of the most unique and complex magical systems I’ve ever come across. Sure, Nix explains enough to get you into the series, but for the most part he just narrates action scenes at you in the hopes that you’ll pick it up on your own. Sabriel, the eponymous heroine of the first novel, is an Abhorsen—the title given to a bloodline that combines Free Magic with the Charter to lay the dead to rest. Unlike the necromancers, which raise the dead as their servants, an Abhorsen—well, an Abhorsen is a zombie slayer. Simple as that. The Abhorsen’s tools are seven bells, each of which will compel the Dead to do a different thing, and a Charter-spelled sword.
In Lirael, we see another side of the Old Kingdom in the Clayr, a different bloodline that possesses the ability to see the future. Lirael, the eponymous heroine of the second novel, is the daughter of a Clayr, and eagerly awaits the year when she will gain the Sight and officially join their ranks. However, the years pass, and Lirael is left in the blue tunic of a child, working in the Great Library of the Clayr to take her mind off her Sightlessness. Of course, that’s when her adventure begins. She’s joined by Sameth, Sabriel’s son, and an altogether disreputable Free Magic creature. Their adventure culminates in Abhorsen, in which the cast of both books come together to stop something which I cannot tell you about because I want you to read it, Charter help me.
For a book series that began in 1995, the Old Kingdom trilogy certainly doesn’t lose much as it ages—Sabriel does have the feel of a first novel, with some plot conveniences and a little too much telling instead of showing, but it was one of Nix’s earliest novels. The three books were published several years apart, but despite this, rereading the trilogy together shows just how well Nix did his worldbuilding (hint: very well). Much like Sabriel’s Book of the Dead, Nix’s world reveals a little more of its secrets upon every reread.
Beyond the noteworthy layers-upon-layers of magical system, Nix also writes a remarkable gender equality into the Old Kingdom—Sabriel and Lirael are obviously female, but so too are many of the minor guards, soldiers, mayors, and high-ranking persons. The Clayr are notably almost all female, as well. And even if he might not have intended it, Mr. Nix makes a good attempt at handling race in fantasy, something many authors don’t bother with. For instance, I always read Sabriel as of Asian descent, because she and those of her bloodline are consistently described as having jet-black hair. (I’m Asian, so it’s possible I just wanted a protagonist who looked like me. I’m not bitter or anything.) The Clayr, too, are fantastic, even more so because they’re the aloof, mysterious, Elf-like bloodline, and they’re described as being brown-skinned and blonde-haired. When they make a movie out of this series (please Peter Jackson please), I can’t wait for all the racists to stumble out of the woodwork upon seeing the Clayr’s Glacier appear on the silver screen.
“But Luce,” you say, “you’ve gone on about Free Magic and the Charter for this entire article, and you still haven’t told us what they are!” Exactly. This is what I say to the Garth Nix in my head whenever I reread the books. Abhorsen tells us a tale of how Free Magic beings combined forces to create the Charter, presumably as part of binding a destructive Free Magic force, and we know that they did so many years before the events of the Old Kingdom trilogy—but that’s it. How did they create the Charter, and how does that magic combine with people to create bloodlines like the Abhorsens and the Clayr (and the Wallmakers)? Is the Old Kingdom really an alternate universe that merely intersects with the magic-less Ancelstierre? Most importantly, is Mogget actually going to be a dragon in Clariel?
Clariel comes out October 4th, and if you’re interested in a series that both stars kickass women and doesn’t rehash other fantasy ideas, I implore you to take the upcoming months to catch up. I haven’t yet read the short story collection Across the Wall, myself, because, in the way of things that I have to wait three years for, I drummed my fingers impatiently for months and then forgot about it. (Good luck, Sherlock Series 4!)
If I’m not too busy fangirling over it, I’ll come back with a review of Clariel in October. How does she help shape the Charter as we know it? I can’t wait to find out.