Clariel by Garth Nix. ★★★1/2
Clariel is the prequel to the Sabriel’s trilogy but can likely be read independently.
Clariel is a young woman who is related though her mother to both the King and the Abhorsen, who is in charge of putting the dead to rest.
The novel starts with Clariel moving with her parents to the capital city of Belisaere to farther her mother’s career as a goldsmith. However, Clariel detests the city. Her overriding desire is to go back home to her forest, where she feels that she belongs.
The King has not ruled in years, and the all powerful guilds are in control. In the midst of various manipulations for power, Clariel finds that she is a pawn who has no idea what game is even being played.
I felt like that was the biggest flaw of the book – Clariel is a pawn. She accomplishes little in the grand scheme of things and is being constantly manipulated and used by those around her. When she finally makes a major decision to take action of her own… things don’t work out so well. Annoyingly, two times Clariel set out to accomplish something, she ended up being rescued by male characters. I would have preferred to see Clariel accomplish positive results on her own, something she ever really does once in the book.
Clariel herself is frustrating and sympathetic by turn. At the beginning of the novel, she feels quite childish – more like 12 than 18. She gets into fights with her parents and bemoans how they don’t understand her. She is obsessed with her forest (this remains relatively constant) in a way that can be rather annoying. Yet, this changes over the events of the book. In the space of a key scene about halfway through, Clariel ages immensely and begins to consider things differently than before. She gains goals other than returning to her forest, even though that is still important to her. My heart goes out to her after this turning point.
However, many of the paths I wanted to see Clariel take never emerged, in a large part due to what I found out at the end. This is possibly spoilery, but I will discuss it at the end of the review.
Clariel is also a canonically aromantic and asexual character, something I was really excited about going in. However, it is debatable as to the quality of representation that she provides (discussed in spoilers section). A line near the end says she “almost… let out some feeling that she had long suppressed.” This is troubling in that it implies she was somehow suppressing sexual or romantic feelings, but it is completely at odds with the last 400 pages.
I found the style and construction of the writing to be excellent and have no complaints on that front. I also love the world Nix has built, and he’s really able to make it come alive in my mind. The situation with the guilds was particularly fascinating and well done.
I would recommend this for people looking for a well crafted fantasy with an unusual protagonist. People looking for a book without a romance subplot may be particularly interested.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT
Clariel is Chlorr of the Mask, a villain from Lirael that I completely forgot existed. Mind you, Clariel takes place over six hundred years before Sabriel. Clariel is not the villain in Clariel. I would say that she’s perhaps a tragic hero. Indeed, she meets many of the qualifications for such, including the fatal flaw. Even the ending does not cast her as the villain but rather lays the groundwork for how she could become a villain.
Due to her “future villain” status, Clariel does not end up with a happy ending. Thus, much of what I wanted for her was not achieved.
With aromantic and asexual characters being so thin on the ground, making the “future villain” one has unfortunate implications. Would the end of Clariel have been any different if she weren’t aromantic and asexual? I don’t think so. In fact, the decisions she made did stem from love, but for platonic love for her aunt rather than romantic love. Still, what the world needs is more true and true heroes who are asexual and aromantic, and I can’t helped but be troubled by if her “future villain” status is supposed to be connected to her being asexual and aromantic.