Destiny’s children

Romano-British mosaic fragment, British Museum (2013)

Garth Nix Lirael  Collins 2004 (2001)

Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?

Much of fantasy is founded on the principle of Fate taking a hand in deciding future outcomes. It’s hardly surprising – it shares this principle with fairytale, with mythology, with religion, whether Fate is called a fairy godmother, a god or any other kind of demiurge. With backgrounds such as these the notion of prophecy looms large, even saws and sayings become significant determinants which one defies at peril or at least with little success.

In Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series that sense of predestination is encapsulated in the question “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” Now while many abhor such casual predetermining of individual or collective futures by Fate (or whatever one chooses to call it) there is no denying that as a plot device in fantasy it can be not only a successful but also satisfying way of ensuring that karma catches up with individuals and justice in all its forms is seen to be done. From fairytales through myth and on to much classic literature we all like a pleasing narrative where good, despite the odds stacked against it, overcomes evil in the end and all deserving souls live, for the foreseeable future, happily ever after.

So it is with Lirael, the second in the series. The eponymous Lirael, turning fourteen when we first meet her, is in despair: she has still not attained the Sight, the ability to descry the future, that all the other females in her society have been able to do well before this age; and she is physically distinguished from this female community in having eyes and hair of a different colour — traits that she has inherited from an unknown father. She is fortunate in being able to gloss over these apparent defects when she is appointed to be an assistant librarian, giving her the opportunities to explore hidden areas within the glacier that houses the Clayr community and to practise her exceptional magical skills.

Away from the Old Kingdom Sameth and his sceptical friend Nicholas are coming to the end of their school days in Ancelstierre, a country that lacks all magic. However, a north wind emanating from the Old Kingdom has allowed certain dead bodies to be magically reanimated, and these are being directed to attack Sameth and other sixth formers, and this is not unconnected with the fact that Sameth happens to be a prince of the Old Kingdom, son of the Sabriel we first met in the preceding volume and her royal husband Touchstone I. Though the narrative at first follows the adventures of Sameth and Lirael separately, we can be sure that at some stage their paths — and their destinies — will cross.

Lirael is set in the 1920s of an alternate world, with the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre sharing only a passing resemblance to Scotland and England: in the latter there are private schools for the children of the rich where traditional games such as cricket are played, while the former is a country hosting a medieval economy and culture, where magic holds sway and the calendar marks different seasons. In both countries, however, Fate takes a hand, particularly in the Old Kingdom where one suspects that Lirael’s destiny is not to be able to see the future and that Sameth’s destiny is not to be the necromancer-in-waiting that his family expects him to be.

Sameth’s friend Nicholas Sayre is the catalyst for the powers of evil — oh yes, pure evil is inevitably involved, a familiar fantasy trope — to initiate their campaign to take over the Old Kingdom for their nefarious ends. Nick is the nerdy science type who thinks that all phenomenon can be explained rationally, and who refuses to believe the evidence before his eyes — his reward is to remain blinded to the chaotic Free Magic that is trying to counteract the order that Charter Magic maintains. A writer like Garth Nix of course knows the difference between fantasy and reality but I’m wondering if Nick is an aspect of his sceptical hard-headed self — after all, Nix (and the related surname Nixon) merely means “Nick’s son”, in the same way that Dicks and Dixon originally indicated the son of a certain Dick. Conscious or not, Nick is a foil to Sameth, the young man who fears Death but who is brave in the face of danger when it threatens his friends, no doubt a quality that we all hope we would exhibit if we found ourselves in the same position.

Lirael is a long book, longer than the other two titles in the current trilogy, and my first reading of it found me irritated at Lirael’s angst and Sameth’s prevarication, even though I’m aware that angst and prevarication are rarely absent aspects of the teenage years. Subsequently I found this focus easier to take as preparation to the revelations that gradually emerge about Lirael’s family and Sameth’s true qualities, and along the way I was then more able to enjoy the journey, both the passages set in the Clayr glacier or the royal capital of Belisaere and the physical trips across country and down the river Ratterlin. At the end of Lirael there is only a temporary reprieve in the action as the scene is set for the culminating climax of Abhorsen.

There are moments of horror of course. The villains are truly villainous — semi-human like the necromancer Hedge, the Dead such as Chlorr of the Mask and creatures such as the terrifying Stilken — and the scenes set in Death still have the power to chill. As counterweight we have the character of the Disreputable Dog, based on Nix’s family pet Bytenix (despite her title, she’s a bitch), and the white cat who appeared in Sabriel to great effect (though Mogget is here reduced to a somnolent but no less sardonic Puss in Boots).

Nix’s secondary world is, as always, beautifully thought through and convincing. But there are themes running through that, though this is fantasy and therefore make-believe, remind us that it is still based on human realities. There is a political party in Ancelstierre that demonises foreign refugees, appears to force them to wear distinctive clothing and aims to more than marginalise them by forced emigration to certain death. If this is not a commentary on our own European history of the 20th century then it may be a reflection of ethnic prejudices and policies of repatriation in Nix’s native Australia of 2001, not to mention a prediction of the gross inhumanity that currently continues to be meted out around the world to those of different race, creed, class or gender.

2 thoughts on “Destiny’s children

  1. Lirael was my favorite book in the trilogy, especially I think, her discovery of her own powers as she explores the depths of the library with the Disreputable Dog, another great character. For whatever reason, her adventures both solo and with Sameth really resonated with me. Some of the images – releasing that beast in the library (doesn’t every teenager have at least one “unredeemable” screwup) and escaping the dead hands through a haunted tunnel still appeal. Thanks for the review.


    1. I’m not a dog person, Morgan, but I agree she was a wonderful character, one to leaven the otherwise prevailing dark mood (as Mogget did in Sabriel): a fitting tribute to what must have been a well loved companion in the Nix household.

      I think the way Nix depicted Lirael’s low self esteem was true to life as my experience of teenagers is that they often don’t recognise let alone value the talents they do have, fixating instead on those they don’t have in an effort to conform to social norms. But then that applies to a lot of adults too!

      The incident of fighting Dead Hands in the tunnel — I think that actually happens in Sabriel in the flight to the Abhorsen’s House, though Lirael does tackle Dead Hands with Sameth by the river.


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