Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series was the first YA fantasy series I ever picked up by myself, without Scholastic’s pressuring. Beginning in 1995 with Sabriel, Nix introduced readers to the exquisitely detailed world of the Old Kingdom where wild Free Magic and its controlling counterpart Charter Magic reign. The two are incompatible and corrosive to each other and can be used simultaneously only by the Abhorsen, charged with maintaining the border between life and death. Much of Nix’s series revolves around the pressures of ancestry and inheritance in the case of these magical abilities. Each of his four novels – Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen and now Clariel – follow these titular young girls as they discover their Abhorsen powers and, more often than not, grapple with their destinies.

Clariel has been a decade in the making and serves as a prequel of sorts, showing the kingdom before it became a wasteland reserve for the walking dead, in relatively simpler times but on the brink of a magical windfall. Nix’s protagonist is, once again, a fiercely strong-willed character with a clear idea of what she wants her future to be. A hunter and naturalist above all else, Clariel desperately wants to live a quiet life in the Great Forest. But the powers that be—nominally her mother, a renowned Charter Mage—see fit to send her to the royal city of Belisaere to attend a boarding school and learn Charter Magic. Clariel’s life in Belisaere, however, is filled more with political intrigue than magic. The King is in self-enforced grief-stricken seclusion and the current Abhorsen, ironically enough, prefers hunting over his duties to the kingdom. Naturally, one Guildmaster Kilp is plotting to overthrow the King in the name of order and progress, and just to make it interesting, he is also in league with a devilish Free Magic creature.

The basic characterization of Clariel follows much of YA’s typical rebellious teen angst. However, Nix does justify this genre cliché by giving her the hereditary trait of berserker rage, meaning that she is prone to perform inhuman feats of strength fueled by uncontrolled anger. The downside is that she’s also more susceptible to the pull of Free Magic. She is notably uninterested in any budding teen romances and can even be read as asexual, but when it comes down to it, Clariel pretty much just whines. A lot. And that isn’t so much a reflection of the decade I’ve put between myself and these beloved fantasy novels as of Nix’s fairly lax approach to what is a greatly anticipated addition to a series touted for its depth of character and incisive depiction of teenage girls.

Subtitled The Lost Abhorsen, Nix is in no way tightlipped about the trajectory of Clariel’s antihero story. As a relative of the King and the current Abhorsen, Clariel is singled out for her wealth of untapped magical talent, although her lack of ambition slows her progress. Her breakthrough comes in a covert operation to rid a seaside village of an ancient and dangerous Free Magic creature. Clariel touches the beast, which should be enough to kill her, but miraculously confronts the evil infiltrating her mind and bends it to her will. From that point forward, Nix makes it clear that this contact with rogue Free Magic may ultimately derail Clariel’s ascension to Charter Magic greatness.

While enjoyable in its own right, Clariel is small-scale compared to the epic clashes between Abhorsens and Free Magic necromancers of the previous installments. Nix has Clariel maintain control over the magic dueling within her long enough to quash Guildmaster Kilp’s plans in a too-neat finale only to abruptly end the novel there. We are left with Clariel on the verge of being overcome by Free Magic and on the road to necromancy. Rather than tell what is the patently more interesting arc in her downfall, Nix chooses to reveal in a pithy one-page afterword that Clariel will become Chlorr of the Mask, a powerful antagonist from Lirael. And, up next, Nix plans to return to chronological writing with a sequel to Abhorsen, rather than fill the 600-year gap in Clariel’s journey. Ultimately, the long-awaited Clariel reads more like the beginning of a thrillingly dark origin story that Nix has expressed no intention to write.

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