Necromancers are Fantasy’s favourite villains but there are both good and bad necromancers in this week’s recommendation – a new book in the popular `Old Kingdom Series’ by Australian writer, Garth Nix. `Clariel’ was published in 2014 and is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook. The first three novels in the series – `Sabriel’, `Lirael’ and `Abhorsen’ featured two courageous heroines, two captivating magical creatures, a unique form of magic involving seven bells, and more zombies than `The Walking Dead’. `Clariel’ is a prequel, set around 600 years before the start of `Sabriel’, so it provides a good introduction to Nix’s Old Kingdom – a country where technology doesn’t work and there is a constant threat from the returning dead and Free Magic elementals. Only Charter Magic can protect the living.
When this story begins, the Old Kingdom is enjoying a time of relative peace and the importance of Charter Magic has almost been forgotten. Seventeen-year-old Clariel has been forced to leave her beloved forest, and accompany her parents to Belisaere, the capital city of the Old Kingdom. Lady Clariel is a very well connected young woman. Her mother has just become a High Master of the Goldsmiths Guild and Clariel is related to the reigning king and to the current Abhorsen, the powerful Charter Mage whose task is to banish the dead and defeat demons. Clariel wants to become a Borderer and spend her life patrolling the Great Forest but her parents insist that she goes to an elite school where she will mix with the `best people’, including her friendly cousin Bel.
At school, Clariel begins to understand that the Guilds are now more powerful in Belisaere than the royal family and that the Abhorsen and his clan no longer practise their hereditary magic. Bel is the only member of the family striving to be a true Abhorsen. When Clariel is sent to Magister Kargrin for some token lessons in Charter Magic, he discovers that she has an affinity with Free Magic and a powerful rage within her. Kargrin enlists her help to track down and capture a Free Magic creature which is loose in the city but the encounter does not go as planned. Clariel is warned that the whole kingdom is in danger but she focuses on avoiding an arranged marriage and getting back to her chosen way of life.
When the power-struggles in Belisaere erupt into violence, Clariel flees the city with the help of Bel. Clariel is taken to the ancient House of the Abhorsens where she meets Mogget, an elemental being in the form of a cat who is compelled to serve each Abhorsen. The House is staffed by ghostly servants known as Sendings and protected by powerful magics. Clariel is safe there but she doesn’t want safety – she wants action and revenge. She decides to risk using Free Magic; a choice which sets her on the path to an extraordinary destiny.
This is a difficult review to write because I can’t tell you about some of the things which make this novel so good without spoiling the story. I shall have to choose my words as carefully as Mogget does. Anyone who enjoyed the previous `Old Kingdom’ books will be delighted to meet the charming but utterly unreliable Mogget again. He may look like an ordinary white cat but he is something very different if anyone is foolish enough to remove the collar which binds him. Without breaking the rules of his servitude, Mogget can deceive and beguile innocents like Clariel into very deep trouble but he’s also capable of forming real attachments to some humans. You never know which way he’ll jump and that is what makes him a fascinating character.
Nix usually writes as if all the monsters he’s invented were snapping at his heels, so he daren’t pause for a reflective moment. Most of his novels are packed with thrilling non-stop action scenes, leaving little room for character development. The one exception is `Lirael’ , which describes all the formative events in the shy young heroine’s life before sending her off on a difficult and dangerous mission. `Clariel’ is similar in that the reader is allowed plenty of time to get to know the central character and understand her hopes and dreams. Clariel’s unhappy relationships with her weak father and dominating mother, her frustration at the lady-like role she’s expected to play and her fear of being manipulated, are all very well portrayed. It is because we see the politics of Belisaere through her naive eyes, that the descent into extreme violence is particularly shocking. Clariel suddenly finds herself fighting to survive.
I suspect that some readers of this blog will be thinking, `Please, not another story about a feisty teenage girl finding her true destiny and saving the world!’ I have several responses to this complaint. Firstly, Fantasy Fiction was dominated by male characters for a very long time, so now it’s the girls’ turn to take the leading roles. Secondly, it is every teenager’s job to discover their destiny and save the world because they have reached the age when they can see what the previous generation has done wrong. Teenagers burn to put it all right but they may end up making things worse. There are two teenagers in `Clariel’ who seize the initiative because they think that they know better than their elders but their actions have very different results. This is a `finding your destiny’ story with a bitter twist.
If you are not yet convinced that `Clariel’ is worth reading, here are more reasons. Nix takes risks with the character of Clariel. She isn’t particularly likeable and she is definitely not your typical Fantasy Romance heroine. She has tried sex and didn’t think much of it and she isn’t interested in relationships. Clariel is critical of everyone around her but blind to her own faults and the mistakes she makes aren’t the sort which teach neat life-lessons. The motto of the `Old Kingdom Series’ is `Does the Walker Choose the Path, or the Path the Walker?’ `Clariel’ is a serious exploration of the question of how much character shapes destiny. At the end of this novel you will probably look back at the choices Clariel has made and wonder whether things could have turned out differently. So, if you want a change from the usual `follow your dream and save the world’ format, try this introduction to one of modern Fantasy’s darkest domains. Until next time…