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 Kilip. 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.
I will state here and now that I have no prior history with Garth Nix. I somehow didn’t hear about Sabriel back in its initial release in 1995 and by the time the other Abhorsen books came out, I was in college and not really reading anything at that point. Even when I started up with this blog I just never really heard about him. So how did I come to read the 4th book in a 20-year old series, especially since I just got the first book the other day?
1. This just came out two days ago.
2. This is a prequel.
You know me, I’m of the mind that prequels should be accessible to a new audience, and this definitely was. Nix does an excellent job of letting you know what you need to know in a gradual manner. Never once does it feel like an information dump, and he certainly doesn’t leave you to fend for yourself. An author’s note at the end of the book does point out the connection to the main trilogy: it’s there, but it’s loose, it’s a good compromise for what he’s trying to do.
I really like this world that Nix has built. The systems of Charter Magic and Free Magic are both interesting in their own right, and there seems to be quite a bit of depth it – it’s something I look forward to exploring in the other books. Fans of well-thought out magic systems will definitely want to give this a look.
I also have to say that I was rather impressed by Clariel. I fully admit: I didn’t like her at first, but she grew on me. And best of all, she manages to eschew all the major YA tropes, even to the point where she’s actually asexual. You almost never see it in adult fantasy, but in young adult? Damn. The character does come across as a bit unlikable at first -a bit of a brat really – but as you begin to understand why she feels the way she does, you begin to forgive her for those tendencies. It’s almost like a compulsion she just can’t escape. Her story is also ultimately rather tragic. There is no happy ending here, and I can’t even say that it’s optimistic. Talk about something else you don’t see in YA.
At the end of the day, this is one of those books that’s both an absolute breath of fresh air for genre YA, but like the best YA books, ultimately doesn’t really fit the YA label at all. If she weren’t sixteen, I don’t think people would be calling this YA. It feels rich enough and complex enough to transcend its genre and honestly, I feel like that’s the best praise I can give any YA book. In a year where I felt the genre was unabashedly weak, this was definitely a bit of fresh air and it’s going to end up on my best of list. There’s just not enough traditional fantasy done right in this genre.
Verdict: Buy it.
Available: Now (as a side note: Sabriel is currently available on Kindle for $1.99 if you do want to read chronologically!)