‘Clariel’ is the prequel to the much-loved Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix. With it, he takes fans of the series to six hundred years before the starting point for his first book, ‘Sabriel’.
It’s an exciting time for me because I finally get to see what all of the fuss is about with Garth Nix. Also – as a bonus for being patient, not lazy – I am able to read the Old Kingdom series from the absolute beginning. I am aware of being very much in the minority here but also, I hope, well placed to judge whether it can stand on its own as a story.
Let me begin by stating that I often struggle with overly complex epic fantasy, mainly because I need to use my whole brain to keep track of it all and then can’t operate my body. I didn’t experience that problem here, mainly due to the clarity of the author’s vision and the lack of unnecessary clutter in telling the tale.
And what a wonderful tale it is. The book’s namesake, Clariel, lives in the Old Kingdom, a world ruled by powerful bloodlines, organised through a class system based on Guilds and defined by two very different kinds of magic. The common and widely taught Charter Magic was laid down by the Ancients as a form of control over the wilder, more elemental Free Magic. The Charter is divided into five governing bodies, three of which are inherent in the bloodlines of the Abhorsen, the Royal Family, and the Clayr.
The story follows a fundamental time in the life of 17 year old Clariel, cousin to the King and granddaughter of the Abhorsen. When we meet her she is stewing over being uprooted from her peaceful life within the Great Forest, and brought to live in the King’s home city of Belisaere. Here she is a wild thing, caged, yearning to join a group of rangers and live out her life surrounded by trees and silence. But her parents have a very different future in mind for her, involving an advantageous union with a politically scheming family. Unbeknown to all, however, Clariel is heiress to more than mere wealth and position.
She is a girl in a constant state of conflict: both powerful and powerless. Frustrated and constrained, she gives the appearance of compliance and allows herself to be groomed for a role in Guild Society. Beneath the façade, however, Clariel has plans to escape.
It all goes awry when a planned uprising overthrows control of the Kingdom, and Clariel must delve deep inside herself and awaken her true nature to survive.
I found ‘Clariel’ to be a powerful tale of hidden potential realised, particularly in the discovery and acceptance of your true self. I think the character is a worthy example for young readers who, like Clariel herself, spend so much time wrestling with their own nature. I also particularly liked Nix’s handling of her lack of romantic interests and solitary nature. Often this tricky area is left deliberately vague, leaving the reader to wonder what the writer is trying to imply and often reaching the wrong conclusion. I enjoyed the clarity and simplicity of Nix’s explanation.
‘Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?’ is a proverb mentioned. And indeed it could be said to be the central question of the story. Do you choose your own destiny, or accept the one that has been given? The significance being in understanding that you always have a choice, even if it is only acceptance. I think this is an important concept to impart to young people, particularly as feelings of powerlessness can be such a governing force in youth.
I very much get the sense that Garth Nix is absolutely at one with the world of the Old Kingdom. He knows precisely what is important to set the stage and you get a marvellous sense of being swept along with the action. I never felt disengaged or as though I lost sight of Clariel’s character amidst all the goings-on. He never relies on prior knowledge either, making it a true prequel to the series.
There is also an interesting and realistic interpretation of magic, along with plenty of high stakes action, twists and turns. It is perfectly pitched for the older end of the YA spectrum, with enough plotting, misdirection, revelations, duplicity and scheming to impress even the most jaded teen. Younger readers may find it a bit serious.
I have a great affection for writers who have a gift for names. In my opinion, good names – whether of places, people, objects, events or ephemera – draw the reader in and predispose them to engage with the world more deeply. Tolkien, JK Rowling, George RR Martin, Derek Landy and Mervyn Peake are a few fantasy authors that stand out for me as great ‘namers’, and to that worthy list I would also add Garth Nix.
After dipping my toes into the Old Kingdom with ‘Clariel’, I am certainly rubbing my hands together at the thought of diving into the rest of the series.