The mask of hindsight

Haverfordwest gorsedd circle
Not Charter Stones but Haverfordwest’s gorsedd circle for the 1972 National Eisteddfod

Garth Nix Clariel Hot Key Books 2014

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to prequels. You’d think, with Clariel preceding the action in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, that it would be easy to predict the way events will go, and that the end result is a foregone conclusion. If you did, you’d be wrong. As, indeed, was I.

Set centuries before the events Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, Nix’s novel opens unprepossessingly with an old fisherman, Marral, who beachcombs the shore in front of the city of Belisaere, but who then picks up an object he shouldn’t. We then cut to young Clariel who has been brought against her will to this byzantine metropolis by her parents when all she wants to do is live a life in the Great Forest. But, increasingly, she finds herself hemmed in by circumstances and political machinations; and, to add to the usual teenage growing pains, she is subject to virtually uncontrollable rages when she is pushed towards and beyond the threshold of her dangerous temper.

Nix on the whole manages the claustrophobic scenarios very well: the constricting fashions of the city’s higher echelons, the tedium of the tea ceremony, the apparent threat of riot which requires all her movements to be shadowed by guards, imprisonment both virtual and real. It’s enough to drive anyone to distraction, though the author harps on just a little too much about Clariel’s desperation to escape to the wilds — spread out to nearly 500 pages of the hardback edition our own patience at times wears a little thin.

For those familiar with the other Old Kingdom novels many of the expected motifs reappear. The objects in which Charter Magic resides are the same — the royal family, the Abhorsen and the Abhorsen-in-waiting (necromancers who keep the Dead in check), the Great Charter Stones, the company of prognosticators called the Clayr and, of course, the Wall that separates the Old Kingdom from its non-magical southern neighbour. Also present are more dangerous Free Magic creatures, including the character Mogget who provides just a little leavening of sly humour in what is otherwise, as expected, a grim narrative. Finally the Old Kingdom itself is almost a character in its own right as the action moves from Belisaere in the north down the river Ratterlin to the abode of the current Abhorsen and back again.

Swedish warrior and berserker
Swedish warrior and berserker

My mind delights in all those little details that hint at the author’s ability to borrow liberally from different cultures in our world. The concept of a malign spirit locked away in an object such as a bottle is well known from The Arabian Nights of course, but other traditions include it too. Belisaere’s indebtedness to the ancient city of Constantinople with its aqueducts, walls encircling a promontory and murderous intrigue is amply confirmed by its use of the bezant, a coin that originally took its name from that city’s alternative title Byzantium. Clariel’s fighting rages are specifically termed ‘berserk’, a concept that derives from Norse warriors donning bearskin clothing before succumbing to battle fury, and is particularly appropriate to a girl who only wanted to become one with the forest. In addition the frequent mentions of a protective mask is reminiscent not only of Roman parade helmets but also of Scandinavian ceremonial headgear, especially the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

I said at the beginning that hindsight isn’t always a guide to what actually happened. In the case of Clariel one might expect the worst, especially in view of later developments; but the truth is that the novel doesn’t quite end the way one might assume, and we’re left with a gap of time in which to imagine our own version of what may have happened before the events in the trilogy unfolded. While, sadly, it’s not in the same league as the trilogy proper (especially Sabriel) — largely because of its pacing — it’s still worth a read, though unlike the trilogy I’m not tempted to indulge in a re-read.

3 thoughts on “The mask of hindsight

  1. Alya H

    You capture quite precisely my thoughts and reactions to the book as well. I was only introduced to Sabriel late last year, so the trilogy was hot on my mind as I read this one. As such, it’s easy to tell it doesn’t quite live up to the standards of the first.

    However, like a friend and I discussed, that ending definitely caught us off guard, and reminded us of precautionary fairy/folk tales warning readers of the perils that await if one doesn’t find a way to be true, or indulges too much…

    I want to revisit the trilogy again now, in light of Clariel, to read into it the shoes of this story (whether the echoes are in fact there or simply a resonance in my mind alone).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting that you had a similar reaction to this, Alya: I suppose expectations ran too high after such a long wait (ten years or more, perhaps) for Nix’s revisit to the Old Kingdom. ‘The Creature in the Case’ short story was okay — for a short story — but I do hope his promised full-length sequel with Nicholas Sayre is equal to at least the high standards of Sabriel; would that be too much to ask?!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Literally challenged: update | calmgrove

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