Sixteen-year-old Clariel is not adjusting well to her new life in the city of Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She misses roaming freely within the forests of Estwael, and she feels trapped within the stone city walls. And in Belisaere she is forced to follow the plans, plots and demands of everyone, from her parents to her maid, to the sinister Guildmaster Kilp. Clariel can see her freedom slipping away. It seems too that the city itself is descending into chaos, as the ancient rules binding Abhorsen, King and Clayr appear to be disintegrating.
With the discovery of a dangerous Free Magic creature loose in the city, Clariel is given the chance both to prove her worth and make her escape. But events spin rapidly out of control. Clariel finds herself more trapped than ever, until help comes from an unlikely source. But the help comes at a terrible cost. Clariel must question the motivations and secret hearts of everyone around her - and it is herself she must question most of all.
The Speculative Post's Review
While Clariel ultimately garnered a 4 star rating from me (by the skin of its teeth), it was mostly based on the fact that Nix is a strong writer in terms of flow, dialogue, foreshadowing, and so forth. When Clariel is held up against Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen... well, I don’t think it really compares at all. Clariel is a far more basic tale that lacks so much of the creativity and freshness of the previous books. That’s not because Clariel is covering old, much covered ground, but because the book is rushed, overly simplistic, with characters that feel more like cyphers than real people most of the time.
For those of you who haven’t done some research into this title on your own, Clariel isn’t strictly speaking book four in the series, it’s actually a prequel set hundreds of years before Sabriel, and is the first chapter in an origin story about a secondary villain in Lirael and Abhorsen named Chlor of the Mask. Where Sabriel features a kingdom that’s been ravished by political upheaval, and plagued by the walking dead, Clariel features a kingdom that’s seen generations of peace and prosperity. The cost of that peace and prosperity has been forgotten, as well as many of the reasons behind building the Charter.
This should leave us with a glittering book. Nix has taken us into the capital city, a place that’s either been mostly abandoned or left out of the action in previous books. Here it’s a place brimming with life and bustling with intrigue. Yet, Nix skips over so many opportunities to explore and expand this world. The result is the feeling that he’s glossed over nearly everything in Belisaere in the interest of getting to the last quarter of the book… except that now the reader has to be introduced to a new setting, have a crash course in Abhorsen-style magic, and finish tying up the plot in less than 100 pages. Oh, and those pages are the typical young adult wide margins, 1.5 line spacing, with larger print font. So it’s really maybe 50-75 pages of an adult book. Not a lot of space to take the brunt of an entire novel. What saves Nix from an utter disaster is that this is book four: he’s assuming most readers don’t need a crash course in Charter magic or the Abhorsen’s special role in the Charter because we’ll have been drilled in it over the course of the previous books. But if you haven’t read at least Sabriel, you’re going to be in trouble trying to read Clariel as a stand-alone novel.
Of course, when you don’t take the time to really establish your setting, your characters are going to suffer, and this, I think, is the true downfall of the book. You can see that reflected in the breakdown of the overall rating. Nix spends so little time with any character but Clariel that we don’t get to know any of them. Clariel herself is so dedicated to divorcing herself of the situation that she’s in that we get to know her in negatives rather than positives. As in, Clariel doesn’t like this, doesn’t like that, isn’t in a situation where she feels she can use her strengths to advantage, and doesn’t commit to her situation until she’s angry enough to seek revenge against the villain. This does not make it easy to sympathise with her, relate to her, or otherwise enjoy having her for our point-of-view character for nearly 400 pages. In fact, I found her extremely frustrating. Now, knowing that she eventually becomes a villain may make Nix’s approach seem understandable… but the point of the book is not Clariel choosing to be evil for the sake of being evil, but making ill informed choices with unintended consequences. That could have been done with a more enjoyable protagonist, and more over with fleshed out secondary characters.
Overall, Clariel is certainly readable. The are saving graces, but I ultimately found it disappointing when compared to what I expected based on the previous novels.