The Descent of Clariel: A Review

Clariel (2014)
Written By: Garth Nix
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Pages: 419 (Trade Paperback)
Series: Old Kingdom (Book 4)
Publisher: HaperCollins

Why I Chose It: I read Sabriel, the first in the Old Kingdom series, back when I was a teenager, and it quickly became one of my favorites, full of unique magic, truly scary bad guys, and even a little romance. So I’ve been following the whole series as it comes out. This was a prequel, and I was looking forward to seeing the Old Kingdom in its heyday and the evolution of some familiar characters from the main series.

The Premise:

Clariel is the daughter of one of the most notable families in the Old Kingdom, with blood relations to the Abhorsen and, most important, to the King. She dreams of living a simple life but discovers this is hard to achieve when a dangerous Free Magic creature is loose in the city, her parents want to marry her off to a killer, and there is a plot brewing against the old and withdrawn King Orrikan. When Clariel is drawn into the efforts to find and capture the creature, she finds hidden sorcery within herself, yet it is magic that carries great dangers. Can she rise above the temptation of power, escape the unwanted marriage, and save the King?

Here there be spoilers.


Discussion: I expected a lot from this book. I loved Lirael and Abhorsen as much as I loved Sabriel. But Clariel took me forever to read because I never really got immersed in it the way I did with the others. Looking back, I think there were only a couple reasons for this, but they were big enough that they really kept me from enjoying it.

This is not a story about how a girl becomes a hero. This is a story about how a girl succumbs to temptation and learns about the darkness inside her. And this premise is awesome, or at least it should have been. The rest of the Old Kingdom books follow accomplished Charter Mages and Abhorsens who fight the dead and keep Free Magic from destroying the world. This is the first time we’ve been close to someone who feels little affinity for the Charter and is drawn to the power and freedom of Free Magic. We actually see and understand what makes this darkness so tempting.

Except the character meant to guide us into accepting this downward spiral ended up being shallow and uninteresting. We are introduced to Clariel, whose only goal is to go back to the forest where she feels at home. She hates the city and doesn’t care about its politics or the ambitions of her parents. A familiar fish out of water or teen struggling to find a place where she belongs trope. Unfortunately, the things she hated and therefore ignored were far more interesting than her actual goal. Returning to the forest always felt superficial and ungrounded to me.

Maybe I would have connected with her more if I’d known why she wanted to go back to the forest. If I could have seen her in her element before she was taken out of it, would that have made her more sympathetic? Instead of seeing Clariel where she feels strong and in control of herself, we’re left with someone who is discontent and aimless, and we have to trust that she knows what’s best for her future. But it’s hard to build trust with a character who isn’t paying attention to anything but herself.

As an extreme introvert, living alone in a forest normally would really appeal to me. But I still need to know why. As a writer, I recognize this as motivation, a significant third of the goal, motivation, and conflict that make up a good character. As a reader, leaving this out made Clariel feel shallow and unanchored. Clariel’s goal was too obscure and didn’t mean anything within the scope of the story. Especially since this seemed to be the only story Nix was telling for more than half the book. All the true conflict was background to this. Yes, we did eventually learn a possible reason she wants to return to the forest, that it has something to do with her very nature, but it was too little, much too late for me.

This was very different from the solitude and obstructed goals Lirael experienced in her own book. The two girls seemed to have similar problems. They both wanted things they couldn’t have, they both wanted to be away from other people. But Lirael, when forced to wait for what she wanted, chose to focus on bettering herself. She drove herself until her skill and knowledge earned her what she hadn’t been given. Clariel just whined and made plans that never went anywhere. There was a moment when she thought to herself, “Maybe I have to earn the forest” and I said, “Finally!” but her next thought must have been “nah” because she just went right back to doing nothing.

It also helps that Lirael was supported by some clever and interesting characters, whereas most of the characters in Clariel felt like caricatures. As if Nix took one trait for each and blew it up into ridiculous proportions. Her parents, the villain, and even Clariel herself felt this way for most of the book. Her anger over her situation and the unfairness of it all combined to form a flat rage that did nothing to make me sympathize with her. One of the things I’ve loved about the Old Kingdom series is its uniqueness in magic, and geography, and characters. And in this it fell way short of the mark. The one character who showed up and had the wisdom and authority to point Clariel in a direction (any direction) had one scene and then was gone until the end of the book. And the only other character I was interested in didn’t grow a backbone until it was too late to do him any good.

This book did expand the world I fell in love with in Sabriel, at least a little. We got to see some of the Old Kingdom’s history and so we begin to see how the city could have fallen as far as it has by Sabriel’s day. And we also get to see more nuance with the Abhorsens, how they’re chosen, and what it takes to actually be the one person in the whole kingdom tasked with keeping the dead down.

In Conclusion: I’m glad I persevered to the end. Mostly. The last half of the book was where the story actually became what it was supposed to be, a look at Clariel’s descent into and justification of Free Magic. This was what I had wanted to read, a story about how someone could become evil, the choices and events that led them to that place. Too bad it took over two hundred pages to get there. In the end, I felt like this just did not live up to its potential or the legacy left by the first three books. It could have been so much more than it turned out to be. A lot of times I recommend people start a series by reading the prequels because they provide good context for the rest of the books and are usually worthwhile stories in and of themselves, but that isn’t true for this one. If you want to read the Old Kingdom books, start with Sabriel. For my part, I am still looking forward to Goldenhand, which came out last year. It is supposed to continue the story of Lirael where we left her in Abhorsen. Hopefully it will leave the problems of Clariel far behind.

3 Comments

  • Shara White August 2, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    Garth Nix was an author I never managed to get around to, even in the height of my book reviewing days. I always saw his stuff on the shelves, and the covers appealed, but I guess I never heard enough about his work to give it a go. I’m sorry this was a miss for you, but I’m glad it didn’t turn you off from continuing to explore this world or his work!

    Reply
  • Weasel of Doom August 2, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    I tried reading “Sabriel” a while back, but just couldn’t get into it 🙁

    Reply
  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier August 6, 2017 at 2:21 pm

    I think I enjoyed this one more than you did, but I agree that it lacked the spark of The Old Kingdom trilogy. Haven’t picked up Goldenhand yet, unfortunately.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Nancy O'Toole Meservier Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: