It has been nearly twenty years since the first publication of Australian author Garth Nix’s acclaimed Sabriel, the first of the “Old Kingdom” novels: more than ten since the publication of the well-received second pair, Lirael (2001) and Abhorsen (2003), which together form a tightly-connected duology. It’s hardly to be wondered at that Nix should chose to return to a world that has in the past been the site of such triumphantly entertaining stories.
The wonder is that Clariel is less a triumphant success than an interesting failure.
The eponymous protagonist is the daughter of a goldsmith, related both to the Abhorsen (who prefers hunting to his duties) and to the King, who has shut himself up in his residence and abandoned the business of ruling. Clariel’s mother (the goldsmith) is completely absorbed in her own work; her father is effectively a nonentity. Clariel wants to be left alone to pursue her vocation as a woodswoman. Instead, her mother’s elevation in the goldsmith’s guild brings them all to the city of Belisaere, where Clariel finds herself caught between guild and kingdom-level politics, and the perils of Free Magic creatures. When her parents are killed—murdered—it makes her determined to have justice, or at least revenge.
Ultimately, Clariel is a failed tragedy. I mean tragedy in the classic sense, a Hamlet, an Antigone, a Hippolytus, a narrative whose heroic figure is doomed by the flaw in their character and the intransigence of the world in refusing to bend to their ends, not merely a sorrowful tale. But Nix is unwilling to commit to the narrative necessities of tragedy, to follow tragedy’s inevitable logic through to its cathartic catastrophes. From the beginning we are set up to expect a heroic narrative, until the engines of the story change gear in the final lap; and so it is a failure as a hero-story too. You can’t change horses in the middle of a race, not unless you manage the trick a lot more deftly than Nix has done here.
(And I confess to feeling that if one is going to set one’s protagonist up as a failure at heroing without committing either to tragedy or farce, one should as least allow the protagonist to give over to screw-it-all-I’ll-play-the-villain. This is, I admit, a personal peccadillo.)
I should note here that I can’t separate my feelings about this book from my feelings about its predecessors: I can’t judge it as a thing-in-itself but only in comparison. I might have had an entirely different response to it had I read it in isolation. And yet I don’t think I would respond any more positively.
Among things that gave the previous Old Kingdom novels part of their power, part of their charm, was the interplay between Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre, the movement between the atmosphere of unmagical 1920s-esque normality, almost banality, and the unpredictability and creeping dread that attended Old Kingdom magic. Clariel lacks that movement, and absent it, the Old Kingdom seems a standard, not particularly-well-sketched-out Fantasyland. The Old Kingdom has never been particularly well-developed as a place: it belongs in large measure to the realm of fairytale and the logic of myth. As such it falls apart when one is invited to look too closely at it. The movement between Ancelstierre—a realm of technology and reason—and the Old Kingdom provided a great deal of interesting incongruity, an illuminating interaction between different kinds of worlds, and distracted the eye from that closer examination.
But Clariel is a book set almost wholly within a fantasy city, with guilds, and a shut-up king, and a guildmaster doing politics. It’s Fantasyland at its most basic, and as a consequence it’s lost much of the atmosphere and tone of the earlier books, the combination of playfulness and dread that made them so effective. And yet Clariel relies greatly on existing familiarity and engagement with the idea of the Old Kingdom, with Free Magic and the Abhorsen, for its emotional effect.
This would not be particularly annoying or frustrating—one resigns oneself to certain Fantasyland sameness after much reading in the genre—were it not for two things. First, as previously mentioned, that Clariel doesn’t know whether to be fish or fowl, tragedy or hero-story, and consequently strings its narrative episodes together in chunks that, tonally, thematically, don’t connect up.
Second, that Clariel herself is not an especially compelling character. She is, sad to say, somewhat bland. She’s not interestingly selfish, though she is somewhat self-absorbed; she’s abrasive, but only when it’s narratively convenient; meek, likewise; remarkably incurious and incautious both—when narratively convenient.
She is inconsistent.
Taken all together, this makes Clariel a rather frustrating read. Tonally and thematically, even structurally, it feels like bits of three entirely different books spliced together into one, and the joins left lumpy.
I’ll admit that it’s possible I wanted Clariel to be another book like Sabriel or Lirael, and my disappointment in not having that makes me judge it more harshly. But I did go back to reread the other Old Kingdom books before I began to write this review, to refresh my memory and to make sure that the rose-coloured glasses of memory weren’t imparting a more positive shade to my impressions of the previous books. Memory is not so faulty as all that. They come together with vividness, energy, and a sense of fun: a unity that’s more than the sum of their parts.
Clariel is flat and muddled by comparison. It is, on the prose level, perfectly acceptably written, brisk and engaging. But what it’s not, is a well-thought-out, well-put-together novel. It’s entertaining and keeps the attention, but it’s a definite decline in quality from the previous Old Kingdom books.
Disappointing, on the whole. Interesting, but disappointing.
Clariel is available October 14th from HarperCollins.