Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?
In the nearly twenty years since the publication of what became the first of Garth Nix's Old Kingdom Chronicles, this question has been asked repeatedly of, and by, the main characters in the series, the family of Abhorsens whose job it is to keep the Dead down. The first three Old Kingdom books—Sabriel (1995), Lirael (2001), and Abhorsen (2003)—followed young women of the Abhorsen line finding their way in the world of the Old Kingdom, a fantastical realm in which magic is real and the Dead very much a threat to the living, and in Ancelstierre, the early-twentieth-century Britain-like country south of the Wall that divides them. At the beginning of Sabriel, the Old Kingdom has been in a parlous state for some two hundred years; this year's Clariel takes place some six hundred years earlier, in a peaceful and prosperous Old Kingdom that might as well be a different world. Fittingly, Clariel is also a different sort of book than its antecedents, just as Clariel, the eponymous protagonist, is a very different sort of person, and one whose path in life is much less clear. As a consequence, the question of fate versus free will that the phrase asks seems especially pertinent to her story.
I am never quite sure that Nix’s works have gotten the recognition they deserve, whether because of timing (the three prior Old Kingdom books predate the current Young Adult boom by a few years) or because of age group—most of his books have been written for the middle grade segment. Hopefully the publication of Clariel this year, to be followed next year by his second short story collection To Hold the Bridge and soon thereafter by another Old Kingdom book, will raise his profile among adult fantasy readers. It doesn't hurt that Clariel is an excellent example of the genre's strengths at the same time that it gently subverts some of its tendencies, and that in some ways it seems that Nix and Young Adult books have finally caught up to each other.
Clariel is subtitled "The Lost Abhorsen," and sharp-eyed readers of Lirael and Abhorsen will already be going into the book with some idea of the ending. (If you haven't figured it out by then, Nix's Afterword explains the link plainly.) In the meantime, we meet seventeen-year-old Clariel, related to the Abhorsen and the King, who has just moved to the capital city of Belisaere with her parents and who wants nothing more than to leave again. Clariel has little taste for people and would prefer to spend her life in the Great Forest, but her parents have other plans for her future, including the expectation that she will make an advantageous marriage. Confounding them all, Clariel quickly finds herself working with her cousins from the Royal Guard and the Abhorsen clan in the midst of a nefarious conspiracy that has grown up in the dangerous power vacuum created by both the King and the Abhorsen abandoning their responsibilities. Unfortunately, Clariel's ignorance of other people's plans as well as of her own family's history may prove fatal—if not for her, then for people she would not willingly see hurt.
Nix manages at least two interesting authorial feats in this book, if not three. The book moves with the author’s reliable swiftness of plot even as the narrative fills in many details of the Old Kingdom's earlier history, encompassing a notable variety of settings and a great deal of information about Free Magic (the opposite of the Charter magic that sustains the Old Kingdom and which the Abhorsens draw upon to bind the Dead). Indeed, one of the most enjoyable things about the Old Kingdom books is the depth and cleverness of the magic in them, and as well as being crucial to the plot of Clariel, those who have read Abhorsen must suspect that Free Magic will play a large role in the next Old Kingdom novel too. But at its core Clariel is a story which features an unconventional, if not outright disagreeable protagonist who is nonetheless never unsympathetic, and it is also a story, moreover, to which a good many readers already know the ending, yet which nonetheless manages to be both suspenseful and engrossing. Although for longtime Old Kingdom fans Clariel's fate is foreordained, how she reaches it is not one jot less interesting because of that knowledge.
In large part the book succeeds because of Clariel herself. One of the draws of the Old Kingdom novels has always been their female protagonists, who in their pragmatism and competence felt even more refreshing twenty years ago than they do now. The near-total gender equity of the Old Kingdom itself was equally refreshing, and Clariel shows that (unlike, for example, Tamora Pierce's Tortall) this gender equity is also an unchanging feature of the Old Kingdom's past—but Clariel is quite unlike the heroes of the other Old Kingdom novels. She is, in a word, angry, angry in a way that gets to the core of who she is. Like Touchstone of the earlier books, she is a berserk, someone who can accomplish prodigious feats of strength when her anger is unleashed but who, in a rage, is a dire threat to everyone around her. Since her berserk rage is tied to Free Magic rather than to the Charter, Clariel is also uncurious about Charter magic and about her own family history in a way that proves crucial to the book's denouement, which again is a marked contrast to just about every other POV character in the previous three books and which also seems somewhat unusual for a fantasy novel. Indeed, Clariel isn't the only character who lacks interest in Charter magic; in a total switch from the earlier books, fashionable people in the capital hold Charter magic, and therefore the Abhorsens and their work, in polite contempt. And although Clariel's rage, frequent rudeness, and lack of interest in relationships are much less remarkable in the days of Katsa and Katniss, it is nonetheless quietly refreshing that the other two characters in the book who are berserks are both women, and that all of Clariel's family's influence and prestige is due to her mother's artistry as a goldsmith, with her father relegated to the kind of wishy-washy peacemaking role that is still so often the realm of mothers in fiction. (Having just read Nix's 2011 introduction to Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock, it is impossible not to see more than a little of Jones' books' typically neglectful parents in Clariel’s mother Jaciel and her husband.)
To be sure, Clariel has ample reason to be angry; everyone has their own plans for her and not much interest in her own wishes, and throughout the book she struggles as much to hold onto her agency as she does to use it to make the right choice. The intersection of agency and ignorance is where she makes her fateful decisions, which actually makes Clariel read more like a classic YA story than some of its predecessors—agency is one thing that the protagonists of the other Old Kingdom books tend to have in spades. Such is Nix’s skill that it's only in retrospect, moreover, that the disjuncture between Clariel's actions and the overarching political events becomes totally clear: the novel opens with Clariel having just arrived in Belisaere and concludes just a week later, and the actions of Clariel herself have only glancing influence on the larger machinations at work, even as they are crucial for her. This is perhaps the novel's greatest accomplishment: Nix has constructed a story in which the protagonist's limited perspective does not compromise the reader's vantage point.
The vital questions of Free versus Charter magics, of binding and unbinding willingly and otherwise, tie back into the series' overarching themes—the Abhorsens are tasked that the Dead not walk in Life, because it is not their path; the binding of magic itself into Charter versus Free is what created the Old Kingdom; the Wall that literally divides Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom also divides the world into magic and not-magic—in the persons of Clariel and of Mogget, the Abhorsens' oldest and most unwilling servant. Although his screen time, as it were, is limited, Mogget plays a crucial role in the story, and one of the most fascinating things in the book is to compare his opinions and deeds in this prequel to his actions in the later books, and particularly in Abhorsen. What does obedience mean if it is given unwillingly? If one's choices are not freely made, do they have any meaning? If you let your nature guide your actions, to what extent do you bear the blame for their consequences? "But perhaps," Clariel says to Mogget of her dream of living in the Great Forest, "that's only what I want to be, and I must become something else instead" (p. 304).
As a prequel that is nonetheless set six hundred years before the books which it was published after, and as a book that appeared a full eleven years after the last Old Kingdom novel, Clariel could have been a painful flop. Instead, Nix has written an interesting and complex entry in the series in its own right. Clariel expertly sets up the next Old Kingdom novel (set after Abhorsen, and continuing the story of its main characters) even as it tells a satisfying story in and of itself: a melancholy story, in the end, but no less interesting for the fact that its protagonist's path goes astray from expectations—or does it?
Electra Pritchett lives in Tokyo, where she splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. She blogs at electra.dreamwidth.org.