"Lirael," Garth Nix (Abhorsen Trilogy 2)

Pros: Riveting; very real characters; wonderful themes and plots
Cons: “To be continued” (AGH!); slightly choppy writing
Rating: 5 out of 5


First posted 6/17/2002

There’s a reason why I don’t purchase many books that are part of series any more. I’ve grown tired of those three words, “to be continued.” I loathe cliffhangers, where you’re in the middle of an exciting situation, turning the pages as quickly as you possibly can – and then it ends. It can be years before the author puts out the next book, if he ever does, and by then you might not remember to keep an eye out for it.

Lirael is a Sequel

I wasn’t thrown by the fact that “Lirael” was a sequel. I’d read its predecessor, Sabriel, and it didn’t end at a cliffhanger or “to be continued.” I thought this was a rare and wonderful bit of restraint on the author’s part. I even believe that you can read “Lirael” without reading “Sabriel” first. I think that Garth Nix did handle most issues and include most pieces of information necessary for someone coming to this book without having read the prequel.

I think it’s a good thing, however, to have read the prequel, for several reasons. First, “Sabriel” is a beautiful book! Why would you not read it first if you could? Second, there are a few references here and there in “Lirael” that you’ll catch if you’ve read “Sabriel” first. Not urgent, high-impact ones, but they are there nonetheless. Third, although the main characters from “Sabriel” are not the main characters in “Lirael” (this book is set roughly 15 years or so after the first), they do make appearances. You’ll feel much more familiar with them, and feel that you have a much greater understanding of and connection to them, if you’ve watched them go through everything in the first book.

“Lirael” too did not end on a cliffhanger. Unfortunately, however, it did end on a “to be continued.” I’m at least thankful that it came during a lull in the action rather than at an exciting place that would have left me screaming with frustration, but it’s still annoying. On the other hand, this is the only real complaint I have with the story. [Note added later: the next book, “Abhorsen,” is out now, so you can just go ahead and purchase the books together and not have to wait like I did!]

The Great Charters and the Library of the Clayr

In “Sabriel,” l, we explored something of the system of magic that exists in the Old Kingdom. To recap a little, there’s Free Magic, a very dangerous (and outlawed) sort of magic. There’s Necromancy, which is sort of a kind of Free Magic, and which is responsible for the fact that so many terrible dead creatures stalk the land. Then there’s the Charter, an ordered flow of magic activated by symbols and marks. The Charter is used fairly safely by uncorrupted people. In “Lirael” we learn still more about this mysterious Charter – how it formed, who is responsible for it, and some unusual ways in which it can be used.

In “Sabriel” we found out that several of the “Great Charters” exist purely within three bloodlines. One of these is the line of the Abhorsen, the necromancer whose job it is to put the dead to rest instead of raising them. One is the royal line, only just reestablished within the pages of “Sabriel.” The third is the Clayr, people who can See fragments of the future. We found out very little about the Clayr in “Sabriel,” other than meeting two of them briefly. In “Lirael” the Clayr take center stage, for Lirael, a girl of 14 when the book starts, is a daughter of the Clayr.

However, unfortunately for her, it seems that she might never be a full Clayr. She doesn’t look like the other Clayr, and no one ever knew who her father was. Worse, in addition to the fact that she already sticks out like a sore thumb among the other Clayr children, she hasn’t developed the Sight. Among the Clayr you cannot be considered an adult until you have, so she’s stuck forever among the children. Finally Lirael at least finds something to distract her from her plight – she becomes a librarian.

You have to understand that the Clayr’s library is something astounding to behold. It’s so old, and has so many odd and potentially dangerous artifacts within its walls, that librarians go armed and carry devices to activate in case of emergency that will bring help. Lirael finds occupation in the exploration of this place – its secret halls, its lost rooms – and this is how she ends up releasing a dangerous creature of Free Magic, which she must find a way to bind again. She does find a friend to help her, though, in the person of the Disreputable Dog, a magical creature she thought she was creating – but who is something much more than that.

Thus begins an adventure that will lead Lirael to ancient magics preserved just for her use. It will lead her to travel with a young Prince of the royal line who also bears the blood of the Abhorsen, and who is believed to be the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. He has problems of his own, however, such as a pathological fear of Death and necromancy, which makes learning his duties rather difficult for him.

To make matters worse, a friend of his from Ancelstierre (a kingdom to the South that has no magic) decided to visit him, and has been shanghaied by an old and powerful necromancer who serves a terrible evil. Lirael was Seen by the other Clayr helping this young man, and so she ends up joining the Prince on his illicit quest to help his friend. Soon they find themselves facing an ancient evil that wants them both dead, and the only people who might be able to help them, the King and his Abhorsen Queen, are busy in Ancelstierre with their own problems!

Destiny and Birthrights

On the outside the plots in this book are simply beautiful fantasy and horror fare. On the inside, they are much more than that. This book explores matters of destiny and birthright. It explores the difference between what we want to do and what is expected of us. It tackles issues of fitting in, normalcy, and estrangement. On top of all that it’s an absolutely riveting read, packed full of exciting action, wonderfully “real” people, tension, humor, fear, caring, and so much more.

The writing is perhaps slightly choppy. There are some very minor point-of-view shifts that shouldn’t have happened, and some poorly-disguised exposition at various points. But none of this really matters. The rest of the book is so good that you’ll hardly notice any flaws it has. It’s gripping. It’s enthralling. It’s… well, go get a copy and you’ll understand.

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