Garth Nix’s return to his Old Kingdom series has been a long time coming – 2005 was the last time that the series was featured, albeit in the short story The Creature in the Case which was a World Book Day release – you have to think back to 2003 to find the last full length book set in his world, Abhorsen. Clariel therefore has been highly anticipated by fans of his series, which follows the ‘Abhorsen’ and her family in her duty to put down the dead and dangerous ‘Free Magic’ creatures that threaten The Old Kingdom where she resides, and its neighbouring Ancelstierre.
Exploring this universe was clearly not a decision that Nix made lightly – with such a successful series of books, and well loved characters, it is easy to see why he made the decision to explore the world in a different way. Rather than continuing on from the plot of The Creature in The Case, (although Nix does say that he intends to continue from here in his next novel) the events of Clariel take place many years before that of the first novel Sabriel. Whereas Sabriel saw the world of the Old Kingdom in decline after years of regency, Clariel takes place at a time where the Kingdom is burgeoning, with the dead and free magic creatures well and truly controlled, and the King ruling.
In moving back in time Nix makes a canny move – there has long been interest in the world when it was flourishing, and he makes the most of this. While the characters are entirely new (save for the cat Mogget, who features for part of the text) the world is familiar enough that the audience of the book doesn’t mind, as engaged as they are in the differences and similarities that the text presents. The plot follows Clariel as she is brought to the capital city of Belisaere by her parents, as she explores the city and the whole new social strata she finds herself in.
For the most part the novel is successful – the plot is solid and all the elements of political intrigue and dangerous creatures remain. The stakes don’t feel as high as those presented in Abhorsen, but that doesn’t mean that the story suffers. It feels like more of a woman’s fight to resist the temptation of power, rather than a great fight against an insurmountable enemy.
Part of the problem with Clariel is that the eponymous character is not as interesting or engaging as Sabriel, or Lireal, his two previous heroines. If you’ve paid enough attention to the previous series before picking up the book you have an inkling about who Clariel is, which results in a lack of investment in her journey. She is likeable enough, but somehow never manages to move beyond likeable – I found myself more moved by the journey of minor character Belatiel.
Not Nix’s best novel, but the story can stand alone, and fleshes out a portion of the world not previously seen. A decent book that will whet your appetite for more from this author – bring on the as yet untitled sequel to The Creature in the Case!