Garth Nix has had a long career as a writer of Young Adult novels, and one that has deservedly won him many plaudits. His “Old Kingdom” novels have many adherents, particular among SFF readers. Goldenhand is the fifth novel in this series, providing a direct sequel to Abhorsen. (Clariel, its immediate predecessor in publication order, takes place some several hundred years previously.)
So let’s talk about the “Old Kingdom” novels, for it’s difficult to discuss Goldenhand without at least touching on what has come before. The “Old Kingdom” is a place of magic, threatened by Free Magic creatures and by the Dead, and separated from Ancelstierre—an unmagical country that resembles interwar England—by a well-guarded wall. In the Old Kingdom, the power of the Charter tames Free Magic. Without the Charter, life would be even more dangerous.
In Sabriel, the eponymous main character discovered her heritage as the Abhorsen, with the responsibility of laying Dead things to rest, and in the process restored the Old Kingdom’s monarchy. Lirael, twenty years later, sees the fate of the Old Kingdom—and perhaps the world—in the fate of its eponymous heroine. Born to a clan of prescient women who see the future (the Clayr), Lirael doesn’t have the Sight. Instead, she finds herself able to see into the past, and heir to the tradition of Abhorsens. In Abhorsen, Lirael, Sabriel’s teenaged son Sam, and Sam’s schoolfriend Nick, all come face to face in different ways with a power that could destroy the world, and survive.
How do you build on that? Goldenhand‘s stakes are a little smaller and more personal, fortunately. There’s a threat on the northern edges of the Old Kingdom. A young nomad woman, by the name of Ferrin, tries to cross into the Old Kingdom with a message for the Clayr: news of a terrible threat in the form of the Witch With No Face. But the Witch’s supporters and her creatures are on Ferrin’s trail, and she may not live to deliver her message.
Ferrin’s message comes in the form of a future vision from Lirael’s long-departed mother, now many years dead. The message needs to reach Lirael, but Lirael has her own problems. Nick is returning to the Old Kingdom from Ancelstierre, but the magic that preserved his life at the end of Abhorsen has had some unusual effects. He may be a reservoir of sorts of the Charter itself—certainly he interacts strangely with any Charter magic. It may kill him. Or it may save them all, for in order to end the threat presented by the Witch With No Face—the necromancer known to Sabriel and Lirael as Chlorr of the Mask—Lirael and Nick need to travel into the very farthest north, into lands blasted by an ancient war, where there isn’t even air to breathe, and where only the fact that Nick is what he has become gives them a chance of survival.
Here’s the problem with Goldenhand: it’s unobjectionable. The prose is solid, there’s a through-line of tension, and the characters feel like old friends. It’s fun, but it somehow feels strangely flat, as though Nix pulled the best bits from previous Old Kingdom novels, stirred them up a little, and spread them out to dry on a board. Nostalgia remix: the same story with no forward motion. Hero, threat, battle, a little self-discovery. No named character even dies.
Also, I really don’t love that Lirael—who lost her hand in the course of Abhorsen—has a new magic hand that’s practically as good as the old one. Victory sometimes has costs, and it seems like cheating that no one has to live with scars. Ferrin loses her leg in the course of Goldenhand, and it doesn’t feel significant, doesn’t feel real—doesn’t feel like a sacrifice—because we know that limbs can be replaced. Everyone seems to heal too easily, and while I don’t particularly want more grim novels, books where it feels that victory comes without much cost aren’t very satisfying, either.
When in comes to Goldenhand, I can honestly say that I wish I liked it better. But in truth? I find it a little too predictable to really recommend.
Goldenhand is available now from HarperCollins.