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Review: “Clariel” by Garth Nix

By Appraisingpages @appraisjngpages

One of my favorite literary genres is Fantasy, and it is strange that I haven’t read more books of this type. I plan to remedy this, soon. The reason I mention that Fantasy is one of my favorites in spite of my relative unfamiliarity with series such as Game of Thrones, Sword of Truth, and the like, is because I feel as though I’ve experienced the true essence and beauty of the genre–mainly through Nix’s Old Kingdom series (and, of course, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter). Garth Nix wrote “Sabriel,” “Lirael,” and “Abhorsen,” among other compelling fictions. These are three books that I vehemently recommend as soon as “book talk” comes about in any of my circles. The world Nix created and the intricacies within it are eerie, beautiful, and filled with a charming symmetry. Although this isn’t explicitly a review of the original trilogy, I would say “Read it — 5 stars to all three!” The reason I mention this trilogy so enthusiastically is because it is the same world, albeit centuries prior, in which my most recent read, “Clariel,” takes place. Here is a summary from Goodreads:

“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.


Based solely from the title “Clariel” (I hadn’t done a lot of research before I read it) I thought that this story might follow the journey of someone related to the Clayr, a glacier-dwelling bloodline that can peer into the future. I was wrong! This is not the tale of a far-seeing Clayr, but it is the story of a young woman thrust into a world of chaos, danger, and doubt. Much like the heroines of the original trilogy, Clariel (of both royal and Abhorsen blood) is faced with decisions about who she must become. More than anything else, she wishes to be free of the demands of the city and make a life for herself in the Great Forest. This passion rears its head quite often in the book, and is considered by some readers to be a negative quality found in Clariel’s character.

I’ve read a few reviews that bash on Clariel (the character).  They say she is whiny (…she sort of is). They say she is selfish (…she sort of is). They say she is annoying (eh, maybe?). In some cases that I’ve seen, this causes the reader to dislike her and the book. I understand wanting to connect with a likable character–after all,  surely it is part of the reason we love the Old Kingdom trilogy so much, but I feel strangely defensive when it comes to this book and readers’ criticisms of it–especially when it is given low marks in direct relation to Clariel’s character.

Isn’t a character allowed to hate everything that’s happening to them? And complain about it?

Isn’t a character allowed to be selfish? And make bad decisions?

Isn’t a character allowed to be unlikable? And still have a story worth telling?

Of course they are. That’s what makes them the most real–like you or me. And you might understandably respond: “Well, yeah – but that’s just not the kind of thing I want to spend my time reading. I’d like the main character to be someone admirable, or more relatable in a positive way, at least.”

I get that. But now I kind of hate it. Reading “Clariel” has made me do a lot of thinking about the types of stories I choose to read. I could easily have decided to not read it based off some of those reviews, but I am really glad I didn’t make that mistake. I’ve begun to think about how, when I read a book, I slip into the main character’s shoes. I am experiencing their story with them; I am them in their world. This is, perhaps, why a lot of people love books like Harry Potter–myself included! We want the main character to be successful, because in our own lives–we want to be, too. Involving ourselves with Harry felt good–because he was a mostly good person who had mostly good goals and fought evil like a hero should. If he could, we could! That type of journey is also what we grew accustomed to with the stories of Sabriel and Lirael–which, again– I LOVE. Screenshot 2015-08-17 at 12.00.55 AMClariel is much different, and I’ve determined: it’s okay. Her driving force was not a desire to save the kingdom or to somehow benefit those around her. It was, instead, wholly selfish. It’s frightening to have to connect and care for such a character, because in doing so–we have to admit our own capacity for selfishness. Some of the questions that I found myself constantly asking myself while reading this book were, “Oh god, would I have done that? Would I have reacted in that way? Could I have done that?” Truly, I think that I would have made a lot of the same decisions and mistakes that she did (with her limited knowledge of the kingdom, at least). In my own life, my passion is to embrace, learn, and teach the sciences. If, somehow, my family and my circumstances said “NOPE, gotta go do this instead.” I think I would be similarly sulky and resentful, and I wouldn’t put it past myself to do something selfish to get back what I had lost. This type of self analysis is uncomfortable, and so when you are experiencing it alongside Clariel in her story, it will–undoubtedly–feel uncomfortable. But… it is an important task to complete as a reader and as a human being. Now I more clearly know the type of person I want to be–because I have a better understanding of the person I don’t want to be. “Clariel” helped me see the best and worst parts of my own character.

So, to summarize:

“Clariel” is a lot different than the original trilogy, although it is set in the same, beautiful universe. I would equate it to a constant tug-of-war between a young woman’s passion and her perilous circumstances. I  strongly suggest reading it, but I would read the Old Kingdom trilogy set first. “Sabriel,” “Lirael,” and “Abhorsen” paint a more detailed picture of the universe in which these stories are set–and I want you to experience it in its full glory for as many books as possible!

Part of me wants to give it 4 stars because I enjoyed reading the trilogy (5 stars) more. But that’s a weird reason to mark off a whole star for a book with a solid story of its own. I also really like that this is a sort of “origin” story, in a sense (no spoilers!). I guess I’ll settle at 4.5, because I really did love this broadening of the saga of the Old Kingdom.

Thank you Garth Nix! I love you.


Garth Nix (Visit his website!)

Publisher: HarperTeen / HarperCollins

Published: October 2014

ISBN-10: 006156155X

ISBN-13: 978-0061561559


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