Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: Clariel

As a heads up, there will be no posts next week since Katuscon is next weekend and I am still swamped with things to do for it! And one of those things is to finishing putting together the panel I'm running, first ever panel and it's called "Notable noitaminA" and it will be 10 am Sunday morning. I'll do an overview of the types of shows in the time slot, how it's changed, and try to highlight some of the cooler shows that have come out it, hoping that some people turn out for it since that is certainly not an ideal time slot.


I was rather confused when I heard about this book a couple of years back, did the Abhorsen series (first book in 1995 and then the second and third in the early 2000s) really need another book to tell the story? I was interested in it, especially once I saw a dragon on the cover of the book, although now I'm wondering if the title was a misnomer (also, Amazon, you cannot have the fourth book in a trilogy, calling it that on the page just makes you look silly).


Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen by Garth Nix




600 years before Sabriel, the Old Kingdom is a place with a king where magic thrives and the undead are uncommon. But this is not a golden age, as the king withdraws more and more the guilds of the capital seek to expand their own power and the Abhorsen, who deals with the undead, prefers to dally around than to combat what threats do arise. It's these games of politics that drag Clariel and her family to the city and Clariel is so desperate to get out of them and back to her solitude that she will do almost anything to get away.

I was a bit surprised to see that this book is set 600 years before the main trilogy (since the Old Kingdom was practically frozen in time for 200 years you can think of it as a 400 year difference too) since practically nothing is different. The country is better maintained with fewer dead and the clothing is a bit different but that is the difference of decades, not centuries. These settings are just too similar for me and made it really hard to believe that there was any difference at all, if Nix has wanted this book to be set a mere 200 years earlier (when the royal family was killed and the undead became more populous) that would have fit just as well which is a bad thing. While reading I was reminded of Tamora Pierce, they both started writing YA before the current boom and I think that her books are a fantastic timeline of just how people started approaching fantasy settings differently over the past two or three decades. Her books also cover a long period of time (about 5o years or so, with it's own prequel 200 years earlier) and the changes we see in that world work much better, it's not a complete change in government, popular beliefs etc but you can see the changes both as they happen and as a result, it's a much more satisfying read for it.


To switch gears, I had a friend tip me off that Clareiel is asexual and I agree, the text seems to be very deliberately written that way (which would make her only the third I've ever read, second lead).  She (or the un-present narrator) however repeat the fact that she's not interested in men or women many, many times and it became rather tedious to read, I suspect Nix was trying to make sure that was the only way to interpret it but I wish it had been done a bit more elegantly. The fact that she's a loner in general doesn't help, I could see some people read these two traits as connected but I don't think that's a failing of the work. It is frustrating but more because there are so few other asexual characters that she has to represent a huge group, a problem for queer characters in general, but I'm left more unhappy at her character but not Nix's idea*.  

There was one area where I felt like Nix mis-stepped and it's a bit hard to address in this review. Clariel has popped up before in the series, it's even mentioned on the book flaps, and her eventual fate is not a happy one. I felt like Nix really wanted to remind people of this fact however since she practically had "THIS CHARACTER IS DOOMED" stamped on her forehead. I felt like her character was oddly constrained and not allowed to grow at all in order to keep putting her in the worst situation she could end up in. Compared to other "fall into darkness" stories I've seen this one was much shorter time-wise, it occurs over two months or less, and I think that might have been part of the problem, that this shouldn't have been a single, standalone book but part of it's own series and then we could see Clariel both triumph and fail instead of continuously failing.


On that note, I think it might actually be best to read Clariel before you read the rest of the Abhorsen series since, while this book does hint heavily that things won't end ideally, you can go in with fewer expectations, especially since this book doesn't actually do what those tag lines tell you. To clarify for readers of the series proper, the thing that Clariel is known for does not actually happen in this book. Clariel makes many poor choices, and those at the end will clearly help lead her to that fate but it doesn't happen. Her mindset doesn't seem right yet, and Nix goes "who knows???" in the afterword when he talks about writing future books which I personally found frustrating, especially considering how many years this book has taken. And that is a flaw, this is an important series of events in Clariel's life but it doesn't cover everything it needed and in some ways felt pointless for it. It's not a bad book, and I can recommend it, but in many ways it was rather unsatisfying.





*also unhappy that even though I knew she was asexual I still kept thinking "oh, these two would make a nice couple!" whenever she and any guy had on screen chemistry. I hate that romance is so present in every work that I can't even divorce that idea from my mind and really makes me feel like I can't even be true to myself if I automatically expect something that is the complete opposite of my life every single time. So again, not a fault of the work at all but it was distressing to realize just how ingrained this was on me, especially since it's not as if most of the books I read are just romances! 

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