“Clariel” by Garth Nix Book Review

Clariel book cover - image from Forbidden Planet
Clariel book cover – image from Forbidden Planet

Five Great Charters knit the land.
Together linked, hand in hand.
One in the people who wear the Crown.
Two in the folk who keep the Dead down.
Three and Five became stone and mortar.
Four sees all in frozen water.

When I discovered that Garth Nix was writing a prequel to the Old Kingdom series last spring I was so excited; this is probably my all time favourite fantasy series, and I re-read it at least once or twice a year. Of course I pre-ordered the book (in both paperback and kindle versions – that’s how serious I was about this book) and then bought the first three books on kindle, so that I could re-read them before the prequel came out in October last year.

When Clariel was posted through my letter box eight months later, I was as giddy as a toddler on Christmas morning, and yet also filled with growing apprehension; what If it wasn’t as good as the original trilogy? I put Clariel on my shelf, downloaded the kindle pre-order and then put it out of my mind until over the Christmas period, when I realised how much reading I had to catch up on.

I started out by reading Sabriel, Lirael & Abhorsen first, and if you haven’t read them you must! I first read them when I was at university and had been waiting nearly ten years for Nix to write a sequel or prequel (gosh that’s a horrifying thought- where did the time go?!?!). If you haven’t even heard of this series I will give you a brief description of the original trilogy:

Image from Amazon
Image from Amazon


The Old Kingdom series starts with Sabriel, and is set in a country called Ancelstierre, which seems to be comparable to  early 20th Century England in terms of technology, fashion and culture. Sabriel is 18 years old and attends an all girls boarding school called  Wyverly College, which is just outside the wall that separates Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom. The Old Kingdom is described as an almost mythical place where magic is practised and strange creatures roam the land, its seasons don’t follow the same pattern as Ancelstierre and time between the two countries doesn’t seem to pass at the same rate; it is mentioned that most Ancelsterrians don’t believe the stories told about the Old Kingdom, but the inhabitants near the wall are more accepting, being so close to the border they have experienced and seen things that defy explanation. Sabriel is learning charter magic at Wvyerly: the charter is the source of good Magic in the Old Kingdom, and is a never ending stream of marks which Charter Mages can dip into to create spells for protection, create glamours, make fire, the possibilities are endless.  Sabriel is awaiting a visit from her father’s astral form, but he doesn’t appear. On her way back to her dorm Sabriel senses death and encounters a dead creature that has been enchanted to pass a message from Sabriel’s father. Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen; he is a necromancer tasked with ensuring that the dead stay dead, protecting the land from free magic (the bad magic) creatures. The abhorsen can travel in death and uses bells & an ensorcelled sword to put the dead to rest. Death is described as a wide river, in a strange twilight land leached of colour; there are nine gates or precincts through which the river flows, where there a number of obstacles to overcome, include the dead revenants that may be hiding to attack the living. Sabriel’s father has been trapped in death by one of the greater dead, and as the Aborhsen-in-Waiting it is up to Sabriel to protect the  realm, and try to save her father. Sabriel had a long journey to reach her fathers house, and must battle many enemies on her way; it has been many years since she was last in the Old Kingdom and it soon becomes apparent that the Kingdom is in great danger – the royal family was murdered and the Kingdom has been left without a ruler for two centuries, dead and free magic creatures roam the land, preying on the villagers, and someone has been breaking the charter stones, anchors for the great charter. On her travels Sabriel is aided by Mogget, a bound free magic servant of the Charter in the form of a white cat, and Touchstone, one of the former Queen’s royal guard, who had been kept in stasis for 200 years; both companions are hiding information from Sabriel, and she must learn if she can trust them to free her father, and save the Kingdom from an enemy who has been gaining strength in death for many generations.

Map of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom - image from  shmoop.com
Map of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom – image from shmoop.com
Image from Amazon
Image from Amazon


Lirael has never felt as though she fitted in; as a Clayr she should be tanned, with blond hair and light blue or green eyes, not pale skinned, dark haired and dark eyed. The Clayr, who live in a great glacier between two mountains, are one of the main charters of the Old Kingdom; their purpose is to see the future or possible futures, but Lirael is 14 years old and still hasn’t received the sight, despite most Clayr coming into their powers at the age of 10. As a way of distracting herself from the pain of being an outsider, Lirael begins to work in the great library; when she accidentally releases a Stilken, a deadly free magic creature that stalks its human prey, Lirael sets out on a path that will change her life, and help her understand her where she truly belongs.

Image from Amazon
Image from Amazon


Aborsen is the final part of the Old Kingdom trilogy, set 20 years after Sabriel, and carrying on immediately after the events of Lirael, it brings together all the characters and concludes the story. For the most part. Garth Nix has said he is working on a sequel (yaaaay). I’m not going to say more, as it would involve spoilers from the other two books.


Clariel takes place 500 years before the events of Sabriel, when the Kingdom was still ruled over by the Royal family, although the current king has withdrawn from governing in all but name and the various Guilds are the true powers in the cities. There are no dead or free magic creatures roaming the land, but the power struggles taking place represent great danger to the land; Charter Magic is practised only by servants and commoners, unless it is required for a highly valued skill, such as when the Goldsmiths create jewellery. Clariel is 17 years old and has been brought to Belisaere the capital of the Old Kingdom against her will. Her mother has just been invited to join the High Guild of Goldsmiths, so the family left the rural town of Estwael and moved to the city, where Clariel most learn to navigate the politics and subtleties of court life. Clariel wants to be a bordered, a warden of the forest, but her parents insist on enrolling her into a finishing school, in an attempt to contract an advantageous marriage. All Clariel wants is to be allowed to go back to her home, and live out a quiet life in the forest, she has no desire to live at court, dislikes interacting with people, politics or false flattery, but her parents insist that she remains with them. Clariel has anger issues, and at times behaves like an insolent child, but you can understand why, as almost a grown woman, she should fight against being forced into a lifestyle she has no desire for, and being paraded around in the hope of attracting a suitable husband. An opportunity arises for Clariel to help in the capture of a dangerous Free Magic creature, and in exchange she will be given all she needs to escape the life she hates and go back to the forest that she loves; but there are unknown forces at work, which will impact on Clariels life in ways that could not be foreseen. “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”

I really enjoyed Clariel, and thought it was a worthy prequel to the trilogy; there was a lot more politics and less action than in the other three books, and it was a bit slow to start, but that is understandable given the time and circumstances of the book’s setting. The world in which Clariel takes place is very different from the  Old Kingdom of Sabriel. I won’t necessarily be including this book in my bi-annual re-reading of the Old KIngdom books, but I will probably read it at least once a year. To be honest, my favourite books of the series are Sabriel and Lirael, and I read those far more often than Abhorsen. I have read that the next book should be out this year; it is a fantastic series, so if you haven’t come across it, and like fantasy, give it a try, and let me know what you think.




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