With only a couple more days to go before Goldenhand (the latest part of the Old Kingdom/Abhorsen series by Garth Nix) wings its way to my kindle, I have zoomed my way through the fourth book. Here are some of my thoughts on Clariel.
Clariel leaps backwards in the series timeline, taking place well before the events of the previous three novels. The eponymous character is in her late teens, and was recently forced to move from her home near the Great Forest to Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She hates it in the city, wishing to escape back to the wilds, but her famous goldsmith parents have other intentions. The city bubbles with plotting, politics, and Free Magic, with the many Guilds wishing to seize power from the neglectful King, and Clariel is an unwilling participant in it all.
I will admit that, when I first read Clariel, I didn’t like it. I felt like Nix had changed his writing style, I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the time… Now that I’ve re-read it again, some of these opinions have changed. It will never be my favourite novel in the series (unless subsequent books give me greater reason to care) but I can accept its place in the set. Contrary to my first opinion, Nix’s writing style in Clariel is not overly different from the previous novels, but if there was ever a book that highlighted the subtle differences in his writing for different characters, it is this one. The character’s voice bleeds through – which is a good thing – and the way he writes is clearly influenced by the time setting, but it is not so vastly different from the previous novels as I had first thought. However, it is definitely a novel which shows some of the worst elements of his writing. All writers have their bad habits and Clariel shows them off more clearly than the other books.
Nix has a habit of hinting towards the outcome of his stories. He uses A LOT of foreshadowing throughout the series and it is usually subtle enough that it serves its purpose but isn’t in your face. Not so in Clariel unfortunately. There are several occasions where things that will happen are pretty much point blank told to the reader and it isn’t even done through the all-Seeing Clayr. There are numerous scenes where characters discuss Clariel’s natural inclination towards Free Magic, about what would happen if she lets her rage loose, if she encounters another Free Magic creature and… why? Most of these moments don’t really help the novel progress and I question whether it can count as foreshadowing when it’s so solidly heavy handed. We know Garth Nix can be subtle, we know he can thread information through his stories so that they only make sense when you reach the right moment, but Clariel just doesn’t have any form of subtlety.
I will concede that part of this could be down to the character. As I mentioned previously, Nix’s writing style does tend to be influenced by the voice of the central character. Sabriel was a quick, organised novel because of the decisive nature of the eponymous character. Lireal was slower paced, more reflective, which fitted with Lireal the character. Clariel, as a character is blunt and expects clarity and Clariel the novel reflects this. Though this does occasionally highlight some of the author’s habits in a negative way, I do appreciate that the character holds so much importance in the way their story is told because it helps the reader feel closer to them (and it is something I like to do as a writer myself).
Clariel, as a character, was another source of irritation for me on my first read through but I have gained a greater appreciation for her this time around. I didn’t like her selfishness, her continual obsession with returning to the Great Forest, her lack of understanding of other people’s perspectives… Now I quite enjoy these things. It does make for some repetitive writing, but it sets her apart from many other titular characters in fantasy. Clariel likes things to be just the way she expects them to be and doesn’t like complications. She struggles with social interactions and empathy, apart from when it comes to creatures or people who she feels are like her. She obsesses over the same ideas and has fits of rage that exhaust her afterwards. She is not an easy character to connect to because she holds herself apart from others. In some ways, Clariel reminds me of Christopher from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and I find it very interesting to have such a character as the main in a fantasy novel.
There aren’t many sympathetic characters in Clariel, further setting it apart from the other novels in the series. I imagine that this is because of who Clariel is supposed to end up as (SPOILER: Chlorr of the Mask, a Free Magic sorcerer in Lireal’s time and, I’m guessing, the bad guy in Goldenhand?). If she is to end up bad then she must have the motivation to do so – why not shove her in a pit of wolves? The King, a relative of Clariel’s, is a crotchety old man who refuses to rule or abdicate, leaving the kingdom in disarray. The Abhorsen family, who are also related to Clariel, neglect their duties and choose hunting foxes over hunting the Dead. Her own parents are rather neglectful. Her father spends much of his time obsessing over his own lack of potential compared to his wife’s, while her mother obsesses over her work (though her mother does redeem herself somewhat part way through the book and I find her to be a very interesting character). Her cousin and self-titled Abhorsen-in-Waiting-Waiting, Belatiel, is pretty much the only person who doesn’t seem unendingly selfish throughout the novel and, even then, I don’t think he makes the best choices.
While the previous books take part in both the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre, Clariel is set purely in the Old Kingdom. It would be very interesting to see what Ancelstierre had been like in that time but it’s not even mentioned, most likely because Clariel would have hated it anyway. Though we do get to explore some parts of the Old Kingdom more deeply than we have had the chance to previously, I’m not sure how much it helps inform our understanding because of the time difference. What does inform our understanding of the setting, however, is the exploration of Free Magic. Unlike other potential Abhorsens, Clariel does not have a propensity for Charter Magic. She can use it a bit but sees it as largely unimportant in her life. He does reject the notion that only servants should use it, as is the fashion in the book, but she struggles to remember the appropriate marks for her uses. Free Magic, however, does come naturally to her and thus the reader gets to understand the other side of the Kingdom’s magic. This hasn’t been explored in previous books and so is very interesting – though I do rather wish it had included some more Death.
Of all the books in the series, Clariel is the one that I think would work best as a film. The others, in my opinion, would work best in a television series because of the way the stories are structured, but Clariel is shaped in a way that would conform nicely to a three act structure. The first quarter of the book, which holds mostly the setting up of character and setting and is really rather boring, could be streamlined into just a couple of scenes and then the rest flows quite naturally into the three act structure (though I would remove one of her incarcerations for simplicity’s sake). SPOILERS to follow – set-up, Clariel is roped into helping capture the Free Magic creature, she lets it go as the first act climax, she meets the useless King, Jaciel has her moment as the mid-way point, Clariel is rescued by Bel and taken to the Abhorsens, the Abhorsen sends her to be kept safe/prisoner at the House, Mogget and Free Magic creatures help her escape as the second act climax, collects swords and goes to rescue King, everything goes wrong and is rescued by Bel, and then Bel helps her escape. END SPOILERS. It just fits so nicely. Honestly, if it weren’t for the first quarter where I didn’t know why I was even here, Clariel would be almost perfect when it came to structure.
I have built a love/hate relationship with Clariel. I love getting to explore the Old Kingdom world again but kind of hate the fact that I don’t quite get how to fit some of the information in to the “present”. I love that Clariel is such a different character, with a book voice that suits her, but hate that that voice highlights some really bad habits in the writing. I love that most of the characters in this book are heavily flawed but hate that at the same time. All in all, it just makes me want more.