Clariel’s family has moved into the city of Belisaere and she will do anything to get out. Her longing to live with her aunt in the Great Forest, the only place she feels truly comfortable, will be frustrated by unreasonable relatives, uncanny monsters and even an attempted coup d’etat. For no matter how much Clariel wants to keep to herself, her world simply won’t let her.
Clariel is the prequel to Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy. The Old Kingdom is a country where most of the supernatural forces have been woven into Charter Magic. Everything else is Wild Magic and therefore evil. And the Dead occasionally rise. That’s where the Abhorsen comes into it, being a sort of psychopomp/ghostbuster armed with magic bells. Most Old Kingdom protagonists are associated with the Abhorsen of their day. Clariel’s Abhorsen is her useless grandfather who is more interested in hunting than his actual job. I should also mention Mogget, the sarcastic cat who serves each Abhorsen, who I suspect is the same character as Maruman in the Obernewtyn Chronicles.
Characterisation is Clariel‘s strongest point. Our protagonist is asexual, which is a real novelty for me because the only other asexual characters I can name are Bilbo Baggins and Jesus Christ. Occasionally the people around her will ask her if she plans to get married, and when she doesn’t she is usually taken seriously. I find that refreshing. The other thing I like about Clariel is how driven she is by her passion for woodcraft and hanging out in the Great Forest. This sort of intensity runs in her family, with her mother being obsessed with making golden artifacts and her grandfather’s love of the hunt. In all three cases, these narrow interests lead to an indifference towards everything else, sometimes with disastrous results. Other reviews I’ve read for this novel claimed that its characterization is flat – I disagree.
Like Bilbo, Clariel is sometimes incidental to the events of her novel. To be perfectly honest, she only made the situation worse. Although this is frustrating, it’s also kind-of interesting in a Coen-brothers way. How many fantasy books do you read when things would be happier if the protagonist wasn’t involved? In a way, Clariel’s ineffectual handling of the novel’s events only validates her desire to live in the Great Forest.
We get a fair bit of action as well. There’s fighting with both weapons and magic, a prison break, flights on the magical equivalent of a hang-glider and later on something which I think is a pterodactyl. Needless to say, I think all this would work on film.
This book would go down well with asexual readers looking for representation, women who want to read a YA female protagonist more nuanced than a hyper-competent tomboy plagued by self-doubt, or anyone who enjoys fantasy. Due to the absence of the Dead in Clariel horror fans should probably start with Sabriel, although maybe they’d appreciate the Wild Magic beasties if they think of them as eldritch. Clariel is simply the best non-comedic and non-weird fantasy I’ve read in a very long time.