The long-awaited prequel to Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy finally came out this past October, but I didn’t get the chance to read it until this past weekend. (My amazing Valentine’s Day plans for myself included cuddling my cat and reading this book.) Clariel turned out to be a great, if sad, exploration both of the more mysterious magics of the Old Kingdom and of Clariel herself, as she was only a minor character in the later books.
Spoilers for Clariel follow below.
Clariel almost immediately differentiates itself from the other books in the Old Kingdom series. Where Sabriel and Lirael were about women of the Abhorsen line coming into their full power, Clariel is about a girl who (at first) has no power, and doesn’t expect to. Though all three are from the same Abhorsen line, unlike the other two, she knows she will never become the Abhorsen. Instead, she wants to become a Borderer—a warden who lives at the edge of the kingdom’s forests and helps to maintain them. Her parents disagree, and drag her to the familiar city of Belisaere.
So by specifying that Clariel is not going to be an Abhorsen, author Garth Nix ensures that we are going to learn about a different side of the Old Kingdom—important, especially in a series as long as this one. Sabriel introduced us to the office of the Abhorsen, and Lirael introduced us, at least in part, to the seers of the Old Kingdom, the Clayr. Upon her arrival in Belisaere, Clariel quickly finds that she has the berserker rage, like Sabriel’s Touchstone. We’ve never seen a main character (or a woman) with this ability before, so seeing Clariel learn to try and control it is something new entirely. The fury, as they call it, manifests itself in a mindless anger and incredible strength; when Clariel’s told she has the fury, she doesn’t believe it at first, but then remembers that once a boar gored her in the woods and she’d literally ripped it apart with her bare hands. The fury also gives her an incredible affinity for Free Magic, rather than the controlled Charter magic that is used throughout the kingdom and particularly by the Abhorsens, who make it their job to fight Free Magic creatures and necromancers.
In Belisaere, Clariel is immediately swept up in political intrigue. The King still rules, though barely—this is not Touchstone’s broken kingdom or his restored one, this is just a corrupt kingdom where the King has retreated from the public eye and his advisers do all the ruling for him. Similarly, the current Abhorsen, Clariel’s grandfather, hasn’t been out laying the dead to rest or catching Free Magic spirits; he believes there is no danger out there and spends his time hunting game. Clariel’s parents want her to marry the son of the governor of the city, who means to become King, and remain in Belisaere. But at a formal dinner party with the governor, Clariel’s family discover that the governor’s family is consorting with an evil Free Magic creature. They try to run, but Clariel’s parents are killed and Clariel herself becomes a prisoner of the governor.
Thus Clariel, unlike the other two books, is more of a revenge story than anything else—it’s more like Anakin from Star Wars than it is a straightforward hero’s journey. And like Anakin, Clariel also finds herself led astray by her magical powers. She escapes the governor with the help of Belatiel, another Abhorsen relative who is studying the Book of the Dead in case the Abhorsen never actually does his job. Bel takes her to the Abhorsen’s house, but Clariel believes the Abhorsen isn’t going to take any action against those who killed her parents. She knows that the Abhorsen has some Free Magic creatures locked away in his house, and she releases two of them, bending them to her will using the berserk rage and swearing them to her service. When she gets to the castle, she’s able to kill the governor and his family and avenge her parents. But the Free Magic creatures buck her control and move to kill the King. Clariel’s able to stop them for a time, but it’s Bel, proving himself to be the true heir to the Abhorsen powers, who is able to finally bind the Free Magic creatures and save Clariel’s life.
Magic aside, Clariel is also a uniquely original protagonist. She’s pretty explicitly written as asexual aromantic, which is a rarity in YA books. She says several times that she is not interested in sex, either with men or with women, and when Bel makes romantic overtures towards her, she finds herself wondering why she doesn’t want to act the way that she sees all the other teenage sweethearts act. This may seem a little problematic at first, because Clariel is pretty anti-social and wants to live in a forest by herself, but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care about people at all. She loves her Aunt Lemmin, and she cares for Bel and for her parents, despite their differences. Her antisocial personality is clearly just that: her personality. It comes from being a teenager.
They had talked about solitude and self-sufficiency once, Lemmin and her niece, soon after Clariel had first chosen to lie with a young man and had found herself quite separate from the experience, and not caring one way or the other about repeating the act itself or the emotional dance that went with it.
“Perhaps I don’t like men,” Clariel had said to her aunt, who was pulling garlic bulbs and delighting in her crop. “Though I can’t say I have those feelings for women, either.”
“You’re young,” Lemmin had replied, sniffing a particularly grand clump of garlic. “It’s probably too early to tell one way or the other. […] But do think about it. Unexamined feelings lead to all kinds of trouble.”
Clariel examined her feelings once again, and found them unchanged.
Because Clariel is a prequel to the other books, we already know that Clariel ends up as Chlorr of the Mask, a villain later controlled by the evil Orannis. How she ends up this way was a mystery, at least until now. At the end of this book, Clariel’s had her predilections for Free Magic bound by the Charter, but she knows that if she goes far enough north, where the Charter loses its hold, she’ll be free. We know the end of Clariel’s journey, and we know the things she’s struggling with here (the berserker rage, the Free Magic) because of the other books as well. Clariel is an excellent exploration of the magic of the Old Kingdom that we haven’t yet gotten to see.
But for Clariel herself, the story is sadder. She had no control over her life while her parents were alive, and even finding out that her mother too had the berserker rage didn’t help them bond; they were both too angry at each other. Furthermore, because the current Abhorsen didn’t bother teaching Clariel anything (or doing his job and sending Free Magic creatures into Death before they could meddle with Belisaere), Clariel didn’t fully realize the dangers of consorting with Free Magic. Mogget, the creature who is supposed to advise the Abhorsens, is associated with Free Magic himself; because the Abhorsen values hunting over doing his duties, he hasn’t restored any of the bindings on Mogget and thus Mogget is allowed to do what he likes. Instead of helping Clariel, he tricks her, telling her that using Free Magic creatures for vengeance is a cool thing to do and it’ll be totally okay. At the end of the book, Clariel’s been too corrupted by Free Magic to be restored to the Charter; she wants to keep using it. Like Anakin, she’s been turned to the dark side of the Force. Unlike Anakin, though, it seems like Clariel didn’t choose to turn to the dark side: she just made a series of mistakes based on bad advice. I almost wish the book had continued a little more, to show us how Clariel truly turned into a villain instead of being deceived into being one.
If you’re new to the Old Kingdom series, I wouldn’t recommend starting with Clariel; it doesn’t take the time to recap any of the magical systems we’ve learned about and, indeed, doesn’t explain much of the prior worldbuilding. However, if you’re a fan of the Old Kingdom and have read the other books, this book was meant for you. Garth Nix clearly knows that his audience is smart enough to remember previous books and has used Clariel to fill in some of the blanks in his otherwise excellent worldbuilding. The book works without much explanation because his readers know what Clariel is dealing with before she even does. So for long-time fans, and possibly just for them, Clariel is an excellent adventure in the world of the Old Kingdom once more.