Garth Nix’s Lireal (2001)

lireal

While I am eagerly awaiting Garth Nix’s Goldenhand, the fifth book of the Abhorsen/Old Kingdom series, I’ve been re-reading the earlier books in the set. This week I finished the second novel (and my old favourite) Lireal.

Unlike the first novel, Sabriel, Lireal covers the story of two main characters – Lireal, a Sightless Daughter of the Clayr, and Sameth, the son of King Touchstone and Abhorsen Sabriel. A prologue sets up the main source of conflict, with two powerful necromancers meeting at a hill where something evil is buried. The stories of Lireal and Sam, set around nineteen years after that of Sabriel, are then woven together through the nefarious plots that are plaguing the Old Kingdom. Lireal finds strengths outside of her family’s gift of Sight and, along with her magical companion, the Disreputable Dog, leaves the Glacier on a mission to find a sick man digging up an ancient evil that Lireal has Seen only in a vision given to her by her family. Prince Sameth meanwhile, struggles with the burden of family expectations, as it is assumed that he is the Abhorsen-inWaiting, due to begin helping his mother keep Free magic and Dead creatures under control. Sam is terrified of Death after a confrontation with an evil necromancer and, under the guise of rescuing a missing friend, he runs off without the bells of the book that an Abhorsen needs. The bells and the book follow anyway, along with the bound Abhorsen servant, Mogget, for Sam finds that there is more trouble brewing in the Kingdom than anyone had previously assumed. And his meeting with Lireal confirms that his missing friend, Nicholas Sayre, is at the centre of it.

This novel was always my favourite of the set. My original copy is the most tattered book in my collection, with dog-eared and yellowing pages, and a cover that is peeling in places. Part of the reason I have such a love affair with it is because it offers a deeper understanding of the world Nix has constructed without the pressures of plot. While other books in the series are quite speedy and action packed, cramming in information and world-building in the breaths between action, Lireal moves more slowly and allows for more attention to detail. It is very much one of a pair, acting as the set up for the third novel, Abhorsen. Re-reading did cause some issues for me because of my love for it – realising that one of my old favourites is actually pretty weak when it comes to plot came as a shock. Unlike Sabriel, which works well as a single novel, the lack of a major narrative arc means that Lireal cannot stand alone. The entire first quarter is devoted to developing the character of Lireal and has little or no relation to the wider narrative. But it’s still so good!

The world-building in this novel, as ever, is wonderful. I know from reading about his writing process that Nix doesn’t plan overly much but I just don’t understand how. There’s so much complex detail in the world the series is set in that I can’t even begin to explain it all, even after numerous re-readings. Lireal covers parts of the Old Kingdom that were left untouched by Sabriel including that of the Clayr Glacier. The Clayr are one of the three important bloodlines to the Charter (the structured magic of the series), after the Royals and the Abhorsen, and their lives revolve around the inherited ability to See the future. Exploring this area allows for greater understanding of how the more magical aspects of this world works and provides something different than the typical medieval-style fantasy. There is also further exploration of the wider Old Kingdom, particularly through Sam’s story, having been built up in the years since Touchstone and Sabriel re-established the Royal line. And, most importantly, more of the history (particularly that of the kinds of magic used in the Old Kingdom) is explored. You learn more about how the seven bells of the Abhorsen, created with both the wild Free Magic and the regulated Charter Magic, relate to the bloodlines and the rest of the world, building up an understanding that will be essential in the next book.

Lireal is such a character focused novel. Like its predecessor, it is a coming-of-age novel (of sorts), but the character maturation comes more through time and growth, rather than the forceful circumstances that pushed Sabriel into adulthood. The eponymous character, Lireal, begins the novel as an uncommunicative and melancholy fourteen year old, depressed because of her lack of Sight in a family that cares of little else. A failed suicide attempt leads to the other Clayr giving her a job in the Library with the hopes that work will distract her. Curiosity leads her into many dangerous situations but she also finds the Disreputable Dog, an ancient and mysterious Charter Magic/Free Magic-combined creature. I think that Lireal, as a character, was a big draw for me in this book. Depressed fourteen year old who likes books and adventure? Why wouldn’t I like her? She was brave and responsible but not immune to fear. I saw a lot of myself in Lireal and this meant that her adventures felt like things I could do too. Her decisions made sense to me in a way that some of my other favourite characters never did and this made the books feel more like I was a part of them.

This re-read allowed me to appreciate Prince Sameth a lot more than I had previously. Although he was the other main character of the novel (though not receiving quite as much solo page-space as Lireal) Sam’s parts were often merely skim-read during my teenage years because I just didn’t connect with him. Now that I’m older, I suspect it is probably because some of the parts of his personality highlighted in this book – slightly selfish, arrogant, moody, rather childish, and given to avoidance – were some negative aspects I saw in myself. I stand by my original stance, as he IS arrogant, moody and childish, but I can also acknowledge that he has some good reasons for this behaviour and has good points to back it up. In real life, I think I would get on well with Sam because of his creativity and passion. Another reason I think I may have thought less of his sections of the novel is that they were often the more plot-heavy parts. Not as much world-building, not as much new information, but the bulk of the actual plot is with Sam. His story drives the novel forward and connects several seemingly separate plots together. Without his part, the novel is largely Lireal wandering around the Library and then sailing down a river. Dividing the novel between the two provides the background that is essential for the next book without encroaching on the plot.

I have said that Lireal explains more about the history of the two magics in the world but it doesn’t give you everything yet – just wait until the next book! It does give you hints to things that will be revealed in the next novel though, and this re-read allowed me to pay more attention to these little clues that I definitely did not notice on my first read. Two of the biggest hints spend so much time on the page that it is almost laughable that I was surprised when I found everything out. The Disreputable Dog is one of those things that are never fully explained in this novel. She appears in a flash of light through a Charter Spell gone awry and evades all Lireal’s questions about what she is. She is Charter and Free Magic all at once, something that should be impossible, and incredibly ancient. But she is such an enthusiastic and fun character that you, the reader, get distracted from the question of what she is along with Lireal. Mogget, who was first met in Sabriel, is slightly more understandable. We know that he is a Free Magic creature bound by the Charter but this novel adds more mystery to him. He and the Dog know each other and it is hinted that they met before the Beginning. Her existence brings questions about his and, for someone like me who likes trying to work things out, it’s very interesting.

Lireal uses lots of opposites and comparisons to tell you things, particularly by playing off the situations of Lireal and Sam against each other. Though they seem very different, the two characters both have the same core problem – they cannot meet the expectations of their families and don’t understand why. They do not fit. Lireal is not like her dead mother, who was a Sighted Clayr, and doesn’t know her father. Sameth is not a natural Royal, unlikely to be King like his father, and fears Death, which makes it difficult for him to be an Abhorsen like his mother. Their stories begin at opposite ends of the world, with Lireal in the very North and Sam in the south below the Wall. They both have magical companions with inexplicable origins. They are different but the same. It all combines to form the ongoing question of the series; does the walker choose the path or the path the walker?

From a structural and cinematic point of view, Lireal is probably one of the weakest books in the series. It is the background and build-up for the action of the third book. There is nowhere near the level of action that can be found in the other books and the action that is there doesn’t feel like it has the same stakes. But the characters, with their maturation and search for their paths, along with the utterly enjoyable world that it is set in, make Lireal one of my favourite novels ever. Even though I am no longer an awkward teenager given to fits of melencholy that I was when I first read it, I still feel connected to Lireal and Sam and, instead of feeling hope at their progress, now reading their story now feels like looking through pictures of my younger self and appreciating how far I’ve come. Though my love of this book is a very different type of a appreciation for Nix’s work than I once had, I fully expect to still be re-reading this novel when I’m as old as the Disreputable Dog.

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