The bells, the bells

Garth Nix’s Goldenhand (Hot Key Books 2016) is the latest addition to a long-running fantasy sequence generally known as the Old Kingdom series. This post is a short overview of what preceded Goldenhand for those in the dark about the series, and looks forward to what questions may be addressed when in due course I post a review.

If you haven’t come across the Old Kingdom before, or even find fantasy tedious or derivative, I may still be able to persuade you to at least consider the novels for their, ah, novel approach to all things magical.

The author, who’s Australian, has taken Scotland as a distant inspiration for the Old Kingdom, with Ancelstierre to the south of the wall a faint reminder of England in the early 20th century. This kingdom, however, is kept stable by what Nix calls Charter Magic, its presence indicated by glowing symbols called charter marks flowing over and around objects. Part of its purpose is to control Free Magic, a wilder and more dangerous form of magic, and Charter Stones — like giant batteries plugged into the earth throughout the kingdom — provide a background source for Charter Magic, for without them Charter Magic will cease to exist.

Mogget’s map of the Old Kingdom credit:

Free magic dangerous? Well, it has the power to reanimate the dead when wielded by a necromancer. Such necromancy is countered by a figure known as the Abhorsen, their weapons a set of handbells imbued — and here is a major dichotomy — with Free Magic. Nix’s inspired notion is to have a set of seven bells — perhaps corresponding to the notes of a diatonic scale — the ringing of which will not only control Free Magic creatures and reanimated corpses but even send them back into death. And what a concept of going into this Hades Nix has conjured: several precincts through which a river will take the unwary being until, finally, they exit the ninth and last precinct.

But we don’t engage with novels purely for their magnificent worldbuilding, do we? It’s people that we want to hear about. The author presents for us a series of young women who, by their sheer individuality, are destined to walk a path that is not entirely lonely but for which there are few they can rely on for support. I try to give a hint in my reviews of what makes these novels somewhat special.

In ‘Many layers of allusion’ I note that Sabriel (1995) introduces us to this new kind of female warrior who uses not standard sword-and-sorcery weapons but more subtle musical instruments to control Free Magic creatures. In ‘Destiny’s children’ I discuss a different youngster, the titular Lirael (2001), who finds that her fate is not what her unusual upbringing has led her to expect. Both these young women, very different in their ways, have to cope with new responsibilities and forge new relationships while facing up to the constant possibility of death.

In Abhorsen (2003) both Lirael and the older Sabriel have to combine their talents to defeat not only a malevolent necromancer but also Chlorr, a mysterious figure from the past (as I discuss in ‘A deeply immersive world’). The short story collection Across The Wall: a Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories (2005) includes the novella ‘Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case’ in which we find out more about the young man used by the necromancer as a pawn in Abhorsen (‘A showcase for storytelling’).

By the way, I wonder if Nicholas Sayre is a portrait of the author as a young man, given that Nick S(ayre) equates to Nix? The surname Nix is not so common, I fancy, but it’s certainly derived from Nick’s, meaning ‘son of Nicholas’ in the same way that Nixon is derived from Nick’s son or Dixon from Dick’s son, and so on.

Finally, in the prequel Clariel (2014) we find out more about the origin of the mystery figure Chlorr who first appeared in Abhorsen (‘The mask of hindsight’). Apart from Sabriel and this prequel, Abhorsen, The Creature in the Case and Goldenhand follow on one after another from Lirael. With Goldenhand we discover how Lirael is coping with the loss of her right hand, what happened to Lirael’s friend the Disreputable Dog, what role Nick will have to play in coming events and what Clariel’s fate will be.

And for fans of worldbuilding, we get to find what lies north of the Old Kingdom, where Charter Magic ceases to hold sway.

Correspondences in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series

8 thoughts on “The bells, the bells

    1. Worldbuilding in these kinds of novels needs to be well engineered, consistent and credible or else we cease to have confidence in our willingness to suspend disbelief.

      Here I think Nix handles those concepts very well — I absolutely buy into the worlds he has created — so I am able to accept both the storytelling and the characters he peoples the worlds with.

      Goldenhand isn’t perfect by any means — there are sections that feel rushed to me, for example — but otherwise he manages to maintain that illusion of the Old Kingdom being a fantastic reality which the preceding novels have established so very carefully.


  1. Thanks for this reminder that I need to pick up the prequel/etc. BTW, the wall in GRRMartin’s GoT always makes me think of Nix’s wall between the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre. I’m sure there are other walls throughout fantasy fiction, but these two are the ones that come first to my mind.


    1. I’ve steadfastly resisted the temptation to sample any of the Game of Thrones novels, Lizzie, so I don’t know how Martin’s wall functions. Most of the walls I’ve met in fantasy have tended to defend cities, towns or similar fortifications rather than frontiers, but as I’m not au fait with many novels in this genre that means little, I know!


  2. piotrek

    Ok, I think that’s another thing to add to my TBR… I like the magic system you describe, and the tropes Nix used, if done right, can make a great story. Another interesting series that I was vaguely aware of, but never read 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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