For an Old Kingdom fan, it’s hard not to love the idea of a book about Sabriel’s parents. In Goldenhand, Garth Nix brought several of his Old Kingdom storylines to a solid point of closure. Now, he’s gone back in time to tell a story of the previous generation. Terciel and Elinor is set some years before the birth of Nix’s iconic teen necromancer, Sabriel, when a young Abhorsen-in-Waiting meets a sheltered young woman on the other side of the wall, in the non-magical land of Ancelstierre.
This story is inherently bittersweet; anyone who’s read even a few pages of Sabriel knows that Elinor does not have a long life ahead of her. But Terciel and Elinor left me so glad that we got to spend at least a little time with her.
Elinor Hallett doesn’t know a thing about magic, or necromancy. Raised at Coldhallow House primarily by her governess, Mrs. Watkins, and an old circus performer named Ham Corbin, she knows all of Charlotte Breakspear’s plays, how to juggle, how to do stage fighting, and how to act, but she’s ignorant about the Old Kingdom, despite the fact that the Wall separating the two countries is only miles away.
When something very bad sweeps across the Wall and into the body of her distant, dying mother, Elinor’s life takes a considerable turn. The Abhorsen, Tizanael, and her apprentice, Terciel, arrive to handle the situation, which gets worse before it gets better. And Elinor is left with nowhere to live—and an entirely new understanding of what the world is made of.
What happened to her, though, was a trap for the Abhorsen, and one masterminded by a Dead creature whose name Nix’s readers will recognize from the very first pages of Sabriel. While Elinor figures out where and how she can learn more about Charter Magic, planning eventually to make her way across the Wall, Tizanael and Terciel prepare to tangle with Kerrigor, who is massing Dead minions in a corner of the Old Kingdom. This will require a trip into parts of the Abhorsen’s House that are as new to Terciel as they are to us, as well as the dubious help of Moregrim, also known as Mogget, sly and fish-obsessed as ever.
Prequels have a long history in SFF, from C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew to Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Expectations for prequels can be tricky, as any Star Wars fan who began with the original trilogy can tell you. Sometimes an earlier story feels dramatically different; sometimes a prequel hews almost too closely to the stories that come after, timeline-wise. Clariel, Nix’s previous prequel, was set 600 years before Sabriel’s time, but that wasn’t what threw off some readers, who were maybe not expecting the turn Clariel’s story takes.
Terciel and Elinor is much more like the stories that come after it: The threat of a key enemy hangs over the too-quickly developing relationship between two appealing young people who are often not yet sure about their places in the world. The build-up of a relationship has never been Nix’s strong suit. His (generally very straight) characters tend to fall in love with the first available match with an inevitability that leaves little room or time for the development of their relationship—for flirtation and curiosity and desire and the vibrating sense of possibility. Even Lirael and the uninspiring Nicholas Sayre, who take a couple of books to get together, do so in a rushed manner that Nix never fully sells.
Old Kingdom readers know what happens to Terciel and Elinor, but somehow that makes it all the more disappointing that their shift from acquaintances to lovers happens so swiftly, and in the same manner. The presence of a Clayr, one of the women who See visions of many futures, shifts things from “inevitable” to “fated” in a way that feels like a shortcut. He’s there, she’s there, Terciel has to have kids and Elinor has been Seen to be important, so they like each other and fall into bed.
Both of them deserved more time, more development. Terciel is studious but reluctant, not sure he wants to give up everything to be Abhorsen, the way his great-aunt Tizanael has done. He was a poor orphan when a set of Abhorsen’s bells appeared for him, and carries that memory close, knowing his life could have been very different. And Elinor, charismatic and inventive and quietly reeling from trauma and rapid change, steals the story. Her growth from lively, lonesome kid to a young woman with friends, with skills, with promise—it’s exactly the kind of growth the relationship deserves, too.
Nix is better at existing relationships: when Sabriel and Touchstone reappear in Abhorsen as married grown-ups, their partnership has a warm, lived-in feel. If we’re very, very lucky, perhaps Nix might write a book about Elinor and Terciel as adults, closer to Sabriel’s birth. An adult Old Kingdom book? Do we dare to dream? Maybe one about prickly, duty-bound, fascinating Tizanael, while we’re at it, and poor Belatiel, from Clariel’s time?
Nix’s secondary characters, from the constant presence of Mogget to the shorter appearance of Ham, are a delight; he’s incredibly good at sketching a personality from a few habits and gestures and moments of affection. Much of Elinor’s story takes place in the tricky space near the Wall, where magic sometimes works but bureaucracy prevails, and Nix leans into the uneasy, fascinating relationship between Ancelstierre and its magical neighbor to the north.
Even the weakest of the Old Kingdom books (Goldenhand, for the record) is still a solid, appealing fantasy built around a fascinating and malleable magic system and Nix’s clever, fierce heroines, who make choices at least as important as anything a Clayr might have Seen about them. Terciel and Elinor is full of familiar elements, like Old Kingdom comfort food. It would’ve been a stronger book if the central romance had more time to build—if Terciel and Elinor had spent more time on the page, growing together. But for anyone who just wants to spend more time in the Old Kingdom, in the Abhorsen’s house, among the magical tools and the sendings and that dratted cat, it’s a lovely wintertime treat, a book to read by the fire, cozy and warm.