Garth Nix’s latest novel in his Old Kingdom series is set 600 years before the events of his earlier trilogy Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, which I loved. The question was, ‘Would the Old Kingdom prequel be as good?’
It’s officially a Young Adult Fantasy series but I’ve found them in the general sci-fi/fantasy section in some bookshops. If you’re not a regular fantasy reader and think of elves, fairies and dwarfs, think again. The Old Kingdom is dangerous, where political intrigue poses as much of a threat as the supernatural.
Clariel opens just after the seventeen year old title character has moved to the capital city of the Old Kingdom where her mother has been called to join the High Guild of Goldsmiths. Away from her beloved forest, feeling hemmed in by stone and people, Clariel is forced into the role of a high-ranking young socialite while resenting her distant mother and subservient father. Though plotting to escape back to her forest, she is unwillingly drawn into the problems of the city, each step taking her further into a web which threatens to bind her away from the freedom she loves.
This prequel isn’t what I expected. It’s better. I guess when I go back to books in the same series as ones I’ve enjoyed I’m wanting more of the same; similar plots, similar scenes, similar characters, similar feelings of satisfaction at the end. Clariel is more complex and in many ways more interesting than her fellow protagonists. Nix uses her dysfunctional family, introversion and social aversion, and struggle to control her beserker rage to paint a portrait of a young woman out of her element, craving to be elsewhere, trying to make it through until she can escape to her trees, unfettered by duties she finds so onerous.
In some ways Clariel’s story could be seen as the opposite of the stories of Sabriel, Lirael and Sam in the other three books. Theirs are stories of discovering who they are and growing into it, whereas Clariel begins with clear ideas of who she is and who she wants to be, which become clouded during her experiences and choices, for good or ill.
Being a prequel there is no disadvantage to readers who are not familiar with the other books in the series. It may be a good place to start for those who don’t often read fantasy, as those elements are introduced more slowly than in the first book of the trilogy, Sabriel. There are also plenty of issues that could be introduced using Clariel as a springboard, such as background, choices, vocation, parental influence, anger, responsibility, and social class, among others.
So my initial hesitation was unwarranted. I should have known. Garth Nix’s books keep getting better.
Links: Garth Nix Website
Update: Nomination for a Locus Award in Young Adult Category