Clariel by Garth Nix
Feeling a little anxious and homesick at the start of my travels in China, I decided to be nostalgic and finally (finally) have a read of Clariel, the prequel of The Old Kingdom series. As a teenager, I loved The Old Kingdom series, and I am excited to read the next installment when Goldenhand is released in October. I was vaguely aware of the existence of Clariel, but when it was released I was definitely going through a period of skepticism with regards to prequels, so it was only when Goldenhand was announced that I thought I should probably be up to date before the next in the series was officially released.
Although I knew Clariel was a prequel, I spent most of the novel still a little confused as to when in The Old Kingdom timeline it took place. The ambiguity throughout the first half of the novel feels like a deliberate choice from Nix, who sets up the primary question throughout the narrative of ‘who is Clariel?’ From the start, the reader is aware that Clariel must have some significance in the overall series, and the majority of the narrative involves Nix throwing in small clues towards her future identity. I was happy to have worked it out well before Nix’s out-of-world reveal, but it was nice to have the confirmation at the very end of the novel.
I’ll avoid saying outright who Clariel is, but I will say that I thought it was quite bold of Nix to give a backstory to what is essentially a fairly minor antagonist in The Old Kingdom series; there are definitely other characters that would be more at the forefront of my curiosity to find out their past. However, Nix deals with the challenge well, making clear that Clariel has made bad decisions whilst also creating in her a character with whom the reader can sympathise. It definitely serves to bring her character in the series to life, and I was left wondering whether this might not be the last we see of her.
Much as I enjoyed Clariel and returning to The Old Kingdom series, I was reminded of one issue I always have with Nix’s writing: the balance between build-up and resolution. With the exception of Lirael, in which the ending is not a resolution but a set-up for Abhorsen, I have generally found that the resolutions in Nix’s novels seem to happen very quickly and neatly in comparison to the length and depth of the narrative given to developing the conflict. However, the main reason this is an annoyance as a reader is because the quality of the build-up is of such that it deserves a similarly high-quality ending. I look forward to seeing how and if this aspect of Nix’s writing has developed in Goldenhand.
Overall, this was a solid expansion of The Old Kingdom world as Nix reveals what Belisaere used to be before Sabriel takes place. However, there is a sense in which Clariel does feel a little separate from the rest of the series so I was surprised that it is billed as the fourth book of the series. In my opinion, as the series stands at the moment, this is probably the novel which could most easily be left out yet also could be read as a standalone novel. If you have read the rest of The Old Kingdom series, I would say that Clariel is an interesting, but ultimately not entirely necessary, expansion of the world. But that could all change if Goldenhand serves to tie it into the later narrative.