I was inspired to write this review by this tweet.
YA is an interesting genre. Nix’s previous books (which I adore) have given us a very typical YA heroines. They are morally clear, they have self doubt which they work through, and they are generally good.
In Clariel – which a lot of Nix fans didn’t like – we don’t get that.
Clariel is a prequel to Sabriel – Nix’s first “Old Kingdom” book. It’s set a couple of hundred years in the past. Clariel is related to the Abhorsens and the King. She is a child of privilege. Her mother is a skilled goldsmith and her family has moved to the capital so her mother can take up a greater role in the Goldsmith’s guild. Clariel wants none of it. She spends the whole book whining about not be able to run away to the forest.
Clariel is not likable. She is not per se good. She is completely self centered and self interested. She bitches and moans about everything. Her finishing school, her magic lessons, what she has to wear. She has no concept of her own privilege and just wants everyone to leave her alone to do what she thinks she wants. She isn’t a born hero who understands that service to the kingdom and people is more important that her personal wants. I really didn’t like her.
And that’s great. We don’t get a lot of female protagonists who are unlikable. So many of our YA heroines tread close to Mary Sue territory. What does it say when we don’t give girls the space to be fallible? When they always have to be the hero? Nix took a chance by giving us something different, people didn’t fall for it, but I think it makes his truly heroic protagonists shine brighter because now we know how they could have gone wrong.
Does the walker chose the path, or the path the walker? This is the central question of Nix’s Old Kingdom works. Clariel’s story shows that Sabriel and Lirael’s choices (along with Touchstone and Nicholas, etc.) matter. Fate may open a door for each one of them but they had to walk through. Clariel is Sabriel if she stayed in school, or Lirael if she stayed in the library. We can appreciate their choices more when we know that they actually had options and weren’t just pawns of fate.
In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion (which you need to read right after you read the Abhorsen trilogy) a young man dies. Someone wonders why no god sent someone to protect him. The hero of that book responds that maybe that god did send someone, and their protector failed. That the gods had sent numerous champions out into the world, only to watch them succumb because they were only human. Clariel struck me as one of those. A champion with great potential sent to her fate by great forces but in the end still subject to her fallible humanity.