Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: "Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen" by Garth Nix

Middle school was around the time when I distinctly remember beginning to develop my own strong reading preferences. Almost immediately I favored darker stories of adventure and epic quests, preferences that have stuck with me to the present day. During this time of literary exploration and discovering what it was that I truly enjoyed reading, I discovered the Abhorsen Chronicles by Garth Nix and fell instantly, irrevocably in love with the characters that he created and the dark, beautiful, complex world that they inhabited. Protagonists Sabriel and Lirael were the first book characters to teach me that knowledge could in fact be power, that book-smarts can be just as useful to heroes as a weapon can, So you can imagine my delight when I heard a few months ago that author Garth Nix was returning to the Old Kingdom with another tale of the Charter and the Abhorsens.

Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen takes place 600 years before Sabriel's time, in an age when Charter magic has been deemed unfashionable and is forgotten by most, even the Abhorsen. All young Clariel wants to do is join the Borderers, who patrol the Great Forest and care for its creatures, to be alone under the trees. But instead her mother, an estranged relative of the Abhorsen and a renowned goldsmith, moves the whole family to the capitol city of Belisaere. Forced into the deceptive world of politics, where everyone has an ulterior motive and merchant guilds have taken over governance of the city, Clariel is miserable. She's made to attend a finishing school designed to polish her for an advantageous marriage, but it's there that she meets Bel, another member of the Abhorsen's extended family. Together they uncover plots against the Crown and face dangerous Free Magic creatures in pursuit of answers, all while Clariel keeps trying to get home to the Great Forest and live a quiet life there alone.

This installation of the Abhorsen Chronicles focuses lesson the Abhorsens themselves, less on Death (in fact nobody enters into death in the entire novel), and more on the history of the Old Kingdom and Free Magic workings. It's an exciting look into a part of the Old Kingdom when the Charter was mostly forgotten, when the importance of major bloodlines like royalty and the Clayr was held in low regard and the responsibilities of the king and the Abhorsen were left by the wayside. By putting Clariel, Bel and their allies in a version of the world without everyday magic, Nix was able to emphasize and explore the hereditary qualities of the Abhorsen's family, like the succession of the title of Abhorsen and the inheritance of the berserk rage that runs in the royal family.

Clariel's desire to live alone, and her lack of interest in being with other people either romantically or platonically is treated as an unusual but perfectly acceptable approach to life, preserving Nix's great track record of demonstrating partnerships instead of romantic obsessions in his stories. Following one's calling is held in high esteem, but in this novel in particular the author emphasizes the danger of blindly following what you want without regard for the people who are around you and who sometimes depend on you. This is especially apparent not only with Clariel's struggles to control her rage, but also with her attraction to Free Magic and the raw force that it represents. Bel, with his overwhelming sense of duty in the face of his uncle's shirking his duties as Abhorsen, is great as both a supporting and a contrasting character to Clariel as she attempts to find where she belongs and the world and where her allegiances actually lie.

Of course Mogget, everyone's favorite Free Magic cat creature, plays a part in this story. I'll admit, I was hoping to learn more about his origins and how he came to be bound by the Abhorsen. But alas, I'll have to keep waiting with baited breath to hear that tale in its entirety. Readers are, however, treated to a return to Abhorsen House, paperwing flights, Charter sendings and, as I mentioned, a trip to Belisaere.

If you've been pining for the Old Kingdom, it's time to celebrate! Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen by Garth Nix will be released on the 14th of this month. Refresh your good memories of Nix's wonderful writing by reading Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen (yes, yes, Across the Wall too) before diving into the new adventure.

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