A review of Clariel by Garth Nix

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Garth Nix
Allen and Unwin
Sept 2014, Paperback, 432 pages, ISBN 9781741758627

I’ve always thought of myself as a character driven reader. Whenever I think about the books I love I don’t usually think about the setting, the plot, the genre, the stylistics, although all of those things are essential to a good read. I tend to lock onto the characters and their arc. However, Garth Nix has me re-thinking that. I remained engrossed by the Old Kingdom series, flying through each book with intense engagement, even as the characters changed. I began my reading of the Old Kingdom series with Clariel, the latest book in the series, thinking perhaps that it might be enough, but the minute I finished I wanted more, and it didn’t take long before I had read every book in the Old Kingdom series, including the series of short stories Over the Wall, and am still hungry for more about the characters, the plot, and above all, about the wonderful/terrible world of death.

While this review primarily focuses on Clariel, the whole Dark Kingdom series is superb. Each book stands alone, and is able to be read in isolation (I dare you to stop at just one), but since Clariel is set 600 years before the birth of Sabriel, the first character in the series, is works particularly well on its own. I also found that, while all of the books are top notch, engaging and beautifully written, Clariel for me, was the most subtle, the most complex, the deepest, and the most moving of the series. Clariel is nearly seventeen years old, and has just been moved, against her will, to Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom and a major city compared to her quiet country life in Estwael, where her mother, a gifted goldsmith, has been given the honour of joining the high Guild of Goldsmiths. All Clariel wants to do is to go back home to the forest and become a Borderer guard, but her parents, and indeed, the town’s erstwhile leader, Guildmaster Kilp, have other plans for her.

When a free magic creature is discovered in the city, Clariel’s own power begins to emerge in frightening and uncontrolled ways. Her character arc is a strong one, full of conflicting priorities and anti-hero qualities that make her unique and somewhat tragic as she finds herself the centre of political intrigue and manipulation. Watching Clariel grow as she navigates her difficult situation through the complex and superbly built world of the Old Kingdom is fascinating. Mogget, the Abhorsen’s bound cat, a point of continuity between all of the books in the series, is an exceptional supporting character: fully of mystery, fun (often funny) mischief and a perfect blend of sweet cocky cuteness and fierce danger. I was also fascinated by Nix’s Nine Gates of Death, which are extremely detailed and very cleverly described in Clariel (and in all the books). The associated seven bells, the amazing array of extraordinary monsters, the tension between the tightly ordered Charter magic and the wild “beserk” power of Free Magic are all apart of the great appeal of Clariel. Younger readers will relate to Clariel’s discomfort as she wavers between a growing desire to control her own destiny versus the way adults (and others) continue to use her in order to advance her own aims.

Clariel’s struggles are partly driven by the lack of interest her parents show in her needs, and the way the adult world discounts her feelings, and the play between this and other dichotomies adds to the deep thematic threads beneath the plot. Though the fantasy is fully realized and so deftly drawn that it’s possible for the most pragmatic reader to suspend judgment and become caught up in it, it is also possible to see a parallel in Free versus Charter magic against Clariel’s desire to be free versus the very real need to keep her berserk nature under control. Other opposing themes include freedom versus security; camaraderie versus solitude; politics versus sincerity; depth versus superficiality. Nothing is exactly as it seems, and the reader learns, along with Clariel, that we must always look a little deeper in our perceptions.

Not once does Clariel falter for me. Nix does an excellent job of introducing readers to all of the key elements of his series, and providing enough foreshadowing and background so that this book is actually a pretty good place to start the series, though again, I dare you to stop here. While it might be tempting to contain the magic of the Old Kingdom series under genre classifications like “fantasy,” or “young adult” fiction, I think it’s fair to say that Nix is a writer whose work goes well beyond genre definitions and edges towards the classic. The work will appeal to readers of all tastes – particularly those who want to be transported into a world richly drawn and exotic, and yet so full of a very human verisimilitude of life, coming-of-age, and loss.