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Clariel by Garth Nix

Clariel by Garth Nix
Book Name: Clariel
Author: Garth Nix
Publisher(s): HarperCollins
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: October 14, 2014

Clariel is the newest addition to Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, which also contains Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, and several novellas and short stories. It’s one of my favorite series, full stop. I’ve never been particularly into zombie stories, but the world of the Abhorsen is captivating. Necromancers, Charter mages, and free magic users all exist behind the Wall, a mysterious border between the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre. Ancelstierre is roughly analogous to turn-of-the-century England and contains no magic, except very close to the Wall. The Old Kingdom, on the other hand, is steeped in magic, myth, and medieval tech with a few exceptions. Most of the Abhorsen series takes place in the Old Kingdom, because Ancelstierre does not believe in magic and does not understand the threat posed by Necromancers and free magic constructs and users should they find a way to breach the Wall.

Clariel takes place a couple hundred years prior to Sabriel and its sequels, and tells the story of Clariel, an antisocial young woman who knows exactly who and what she wants to be, but is thwarted at every turn by society’s expectations of her. All Clariel wants to do is live and work in her beloved Great Forest, but her career-oriented parents want her to make something of herself in society, join a Guild, and become a great name in one of the prestigious trades in the capital city of Belisaere.

At this point I want to clarify that I adore Garth Nix in general. I’ve read everything he’s published, and I have loved it without exception. Clariel is my exception. It’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near the quality of the rest of the Abhorsen series, or his other series and books. He’s a good writer, so it was still an enjoyable read, but I was not drawn into the story by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve heard the criticism that the title character, Clariel, is just too unapproachable for anyone to empathize with her. I disagree. Clariel is asexual, aromantic, and doesn’t like people much. She is unapproachable, but it’s also nice to see her trying to be friendly to her classmates even though she is unhappy and has nothing in common with them. She’s a sympathetic character for anyone who has ever felt hemmed in by a society trying to push them into a mold they don’t fit. I think the main problem with the book is the pacing.

Clariel starts off slow. There’s a lot of internal landscape for Clariel, and a fair amount of setting the scene in Belisaere. This lasts for almost half the book, and then, all of a sudden, within the space of one page several hugely important events flash by so fast that I almost missed them. Without spoiling anything I can tell you that I would normally expect such pivotal things to take at least a chapter to unfold, particularly with the otherwise slow build of the story as a whole.

Once Clariel sparks into action she moves swiftly for a bit, and then the pace slows again. The climactic event of the book was…anticlimactic. I felt let down. She makes a string of bad and questionable decisions that are obviously wrong, so there’s no suspense for the reader. I was unconvinced by her motivations for much of the story, since she flips from being proactive to passive on a page-by-page basis.

I did enjoy the insight into free magic. Clariel is an indifferent Charter Mage but craves power as a means to control her own life. Charter magic is orderly and safe for humans to use. Free magic is chaotic and dangerous, and corrupts all who attempt to use it, often ultimately killing them and bringing them back from the dead as slaves to powerful creatures made of Free Magic. Much of this is covered in the three original books of the Abhorsen series, but none of the main characters until Clariel actually try to use it.

The Free Magic users we encounter in the books tend to be evil, and all of the constructs are either evil or so chaotic and destructive as to make no difference, but Clariel, who is drawn strongly to Free Magic, is not an evil character. She doesn’t like humanity much, but she doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Under the influence of Free Magic her motives become less clear, and the ending states explicitly that if she uses Free Magic again she will become evil.

This was difficult for me to swallow. Can someone whose motives are essentially harmless become evil simply through circumstance? Clariel becomes addicted to the power Free Magic gives her because she has been thwarted all her life and craves personal agency. Her choices pertain solely to herself, and throughout the story she continually chooses to protect her friends and family, even when it would be easier not to.

The ending was ambiguous, particularly since we already know how Clariel turns out. We know the end of her story before we start reading. If you’ve read Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, you’ve already met her in her final form. I would rather have had a definite ending that led directly to that outcome than the strange, wishy-washy ending we got.

I was disappointed by the pacing and characterization, but thought that overall Clariel was decent. I continue to love the Abhorsen series to bits, and I enjoyed the expansion to the world of the Old Kingdom. I’m also glad that Mogget made an appearance, though there could have been more of him. Every story could use more Mogget.


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