Garth Nix: Goldenhand
Hot Key Books 2017 (2016)
As I would expect from one of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom novels Goldenhand is chockful of suspense, bravery and fortitude. What I didn’t see coming were the inklings of young love, not once but twice, but what I did hope for were resolutions of threads that had been left slightly hanging from previous books in the series, and in this I was not disappointed.
If in the end I was disappointed it was in the actual execution of those resolutions, which felt a bit perfunctory in the last few chapters. This isn’t to detract from the otherwise masterful storytelling which had this reader continually tempted to read just a few more pages, and perhaps a little bit more after that; or from the convincing worldbuilding that has suffused and sustained the Old Kingdom sequence now for five novels and a couple of novellas.
Lirael, the sympathetic protagonist of the second of the novels, is now Abhorsen-in-Waiting and a powerful Charter Magic necromancer. When the Abhorsen Sabriel (focus of the first book in the series) decides to take a well-earned honeymoon with King Touchstone, young Lirael is left in charge to take responsibility for dealing with reanimated dead creatures plus a Free Magic entity which suddenly emerges to create a crisis to the south of the Wall. Meanwhile, in the far north of the Old Kingdom a young woman named Ferin is being pursued by malevolent beings who track her flight to the south. Is her mission linked with the troubles Lirael is facing further south? You can guarantee it. And what else is it that binds the fates of these two resourceful young women?
The author presents this long novel (over 400 pages in the paperback edition) in a very cinematic way: the settings are as vivid as ever, and our attention is constantly shifting from one protagonist’s woes to another. Cliffhangers sustain our attention from chapter to chapter; we sense that many ‘extras’ (as it were) have an existence beyond the action, however brief their appearance on these pages may be; and the action is carefully and realistically paced, with no obvious longeurs when the action appears to be freeze-framed for a bit of info-dump. All very skilful.
Then there are the mysteries to be solved, those ones that the protagonists can’t fathom and which drive the action forward. To me it seemed the plotting was less about the what or the why, more about the how. How does Lirael discover what happened to her mother? How does Ferin get her message to Lirael? How does any protagonist ascertain the connection between Chlorr of the Mask, the Witch With No Face and Clariel, this last being the protagonist of the prequel bearing her name? How do certain couples who are clearly attracted to each other reveal their hopes and declare their feelings? And how long will it be before anyone grasps the true nature of Nicholas Sayre’s transformed being?
This was certainly an ambitious project, to draw these threads together. There is so much to enjoy in Goldenhand — details that make me smile, old objects and acquaintances that make a reappearance — that it feels a mite churlish to be critical. But those threads I mentioned were tied up far too neatly — and sometimes too quickly — almost as if the author was getting bored or, more likely, alerted to the increasing length of this instalment. In particular the treatment of young love, sensitive though it strove to be, appeared at times to be mawkish, icky even; but maybe I’m just a little too jaded to relate to it — been there, done that, worn the proverbial T-shirt.
What next? Well, this novel definitely extends our knowledge of what exists beyond the Old Kingdom. As Mike Schley’s new illustration indicates, the lands beyond Mogget’s map (which graced previous instalments) have increased fivefold, with new features and settlements marked in, and it distorts any vision of the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre being stand-ins for Scotland and England. We see deserts, steppes, mountain ranges, rivers and a great rift valley to the north and west, only some of which we explore in Goldenhand.
From all this I wonder if those plot strands weren’t all tied up, that maybe there are yet more threads to tease out and admire.
In the 2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge I’m going to count this as a book published in the last year. Even though this novel appeared in hardback in 2016 I actually bought this paperback in 2017, when I first became aware of it, and despite the fact it’s taken me until now to read it I’ve chosen to interpret it to my advantage. So there.