Allen & Unwin
You know those things that you anticipate with the sort of energy that should be expended on something far more important? You know the ones – the next George R R Martin book* or the next gods-bedamned series of Sherlock. Clariel by Garth Nix was not one of those things for me, simply because I had no idea it was happening. If I had known, perhaps I would have fangirled a little more while awaiting its arrival. Instead I heard of its existence mere weeks before its release condensing all the excitement into that short period.
Sabriel, the first book in the Abhorsen series, was published in 1995 back when I was a relatively youngish person. By that time I had already figured out that, though related, fantasy and YA were different beasts. While fantasy (bear in mind I had not read widely enough at that point to know any different – please don’t hate me) seemed all a bit samey, YA was like an author’s (and reader’s) goddamned paradise. It seemed like a ticket to write about anything in any genre – so long as your protagonist is under a certain age. And so I remain hooked to YA despite pushing… hmm, never mind what I’m pushing, mind your own business.
Reading Sabriel, I recognised it as fantasy but an inventive and refreshingly different sort. Though again, I confess to not having read widely enough in the fantasy arena to be able to make an adequate judgement. But I know what I like and apparently what I like is death and bells†.
Clariel is a prequel to the initial trilogy, set seven centuries before Sabriel. In the preceding trilogy Nix spun a web of intricate and eerie magic in a somewhat dark atmosphere with characters who had an air of vulnerability. A different atmosphere seems to permeate Clariel but it is difficult to pin down – lighter in atmosphere but darker in themes perhaps‡.
Clariel herself is not the most loveable of characters but she is strong-willed and brave and clever and interesting – what more could you want? It is refreshing to see a main protagonist who is decidedly (not just implied) asexual and aromantic but a bit unfortunate that she is also rather asocial – but she’s allowed, dammit! Have you seen society these days? Well, it’s not pleasant in the Old Kingdom.
If one were to take upon themselves some deeper analysis into the themes and meanings one could perhaps draw parallels between the weakened central power of the king and the rise of the Guilds in Clariel to the weakening of governments and their thraldom to the multi-national corporations in our own world. Ahem, one could, if one wanted to. But one probably shouldn’t because one would probably be wrong… or just pretentious.
Feeling attuned to and energised by nature and solitude, and wishing only to live and work in the forest, Clariel is taken to the big city, Belisaere, by her parents. Facing the prospect of being married off to an abhorrent little psychopath for her genius goldsmith mother’s own advancement, Clariel plans to escape as soon as possible and flee to the forest [insert hardships to achieve goal here].
What I loved about this book (and it may be difficult to believe I’m not being sarcastic with what follows but I’m not – these are a few genuine reasons I enjoyed the book) is that I didn’t like the majority of the characters. I liked them, but, you know, I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them and most I would be tempted to slap at one point or another – though I do not condone violence – including Clariel. It was wonderful. If you enjoy happy endings be cautioned. Clariel could be seen as not having a happy ending. It has an ending, though who is happy at the end I will leave for others to interpret. It is not my place… also spoilers.
* I imagine, given what I hear. I confess I haven’t read them, far too heavy for my delicate little wrists**
** Lies! I have them on e-reader, they weigh hardly anything. My hard back, illustrated special single volume edition of Lord of the Rings however… now that is an ergonomic nightmare.
†And cheese. I also like cheese.
‡ That’s a rubbish review but hey, that’s what happened in my head. You asked. Okay, so you didn’t ask.