It’s been a long time since the main trilogy of the Old Kingdom series ended—the original three books, Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, were published in 1995, 2001, and 2003 respectively and we’ve only had the occasional short story to tide us over since. But in 2014, author Garth Nix returned to his universe with a prequel installment, Clariel, and ever since then, he’s been making noises about finally giving us a sequel to Abhorsen and following up on the lives of our favorite zombie-killing necromancer ladies. Well, the sequel is finally here, and it’s great. Well, it’s good. Well, it’s… I liked it, at any rate.
Minor spoilers for Goldenhand after the jump.
Goldenhand is more or less an expansion of the Old Kingdom universe rather than a book on its own. It picks up about six months after the events of the last book in chronological order (Abhorsen). Lirael is settling in to life as a member of the royal family, but she can’t rest for long—she’s called beyond the Wall to help her old friend, Nicholas Sayre, and she soon discovers that the Free Magic and Charter Magic mixed in him from the events at the end of Abhorsen is turning him into something altogether new. Since she’s unsure about what this means herself, she takes him to her childhood home, the Clayr’s Glacier, which has some of the best healers and mages around. Once she’s there, a messenger called Ferin travels a long, hard journey through most of the Old Kingdom and arrives to deliver a prescient warning to Lirael from Lirael’s mother, who abandoned her and died long ago.
It’s the fifth book in a series, so it’s understandable that Goldenhand totally doesn’t stand on its own. Unlike Abhorsen, though, Goldenhand doesn’t signal the beginning of some globe-spanning, world-saving adventure—it revisits the countries and places we’ve come to love, and it delves deeper into Lirael’s past and emotional state than any other book so far. On the one hand, I really loved this. Not every book in a series can or should continuously up its stakes, and doing so runs the risk of making it extremely boring and convoluted. (See: Supernatural, in which Sam and Dean have fought demons, angels, gods, God, and God’s sister.) Though Sabriel was always my favorite book in the series, Lirael was the protagonist closest to my heart—her first book starts with a moment of serious suicide ideation born of loneliness and uncertainty, she has few true friends or family, and she finally finds meaningful work in a library before becoming the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. So to return to her character and to see the conclusion of her romance with Nick, resolve some of her family and community issues, and deal with her grief over the Disreputable Dog was a real treat for me.
However, on the other hand, Goldenhand doesn’t stand on its own as a story. It has almost no plot or villain to speak of—the message Ferin brings is about Chlorr of the Mask, who intends to raise an army of the Dead and bring it down on the Old Kingdom. Chlorr is a villain from many of the previous books, and in one of said books, we learn that she was once known as Clariel before she was seduced by Free Magic and turns to this universe’s equivalent of the dark side. It’s this past knowledge that we have to rely on to give Goldenhand any level of suspense, because Chlorr doesn’t even appear in Goldenhand until the very last chapters of the book. We do get one moment of Clariel and the regrets that led her to becoming Chlorr, but it wasn’t enough to carry the book, and there wasn’t enough emotional impact to it to give her an Anakin-esque redemption arc. Similarly, we don’t see very much of the final battle, and we wrap up with some pairings that seem forced rather than natural.
Thankfully, though, Goldenhand continues the Old Kingdom’s usual traditions of well-written female characters and particularly female characters of color—the brown-skinned Clayr are a major part of the story, as is new character Ferin—and this book takes the series’ representation further by delving, at least a little bit, into disability. Lirael lost a hand at the end of Abhorsen and has to have a new one constructed of Charter Magic; similarly, Ferin loses a foot in the events of Goldenhand and has to learn to adjust to its loss. Neither is ever considered “damaged” or lessened because of their injuries, and Ferin, in particular, bears the loss of her foot extremely stoically because injuries are common among her people. At the same time, though, the disabilities are almost treated too nonchalantly—neither woman really grieves over their injuries, and who cares if you lose a limb if you can just have it replaced by a Charter Mage? The book’s representation of disability is better than most—the Charter-made limbs are only slightly better than prosthetics we would have in our world, not “super” in any way—but it still leaves something to be desired.
The Old Kingdom series is still one of my favorites, but because Goldenhand isn’t really as much of a story as the other books in the series, I definitely wouldn’t recommend starting with this book. Even if you are a fan of the series, Goldenhand might only seem fun to you if there are certain things in the other books you’ve always wanted to see tied up. I liked it, but your mileage may vary. Either way, I hope to see another book in this series soon—hopefully Garth Nix will continue on the roll he’s on and we’ll get another (better) book in two more years.
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