Lirael has never felt like a true daughter of the Clayr. Abandoned by her mother, ignorant of her father's identity, Lirael resembles no one else in her large extended family living in the Clayr's glacier. She doesn't even have the Sight, the ability to See into the present and possibly futures, that is the very birthright of the Clayr.Nonetheless, it is Lirael in whose hands the fate of the Old Kingdom lies. She must undertake a desperate mission under the growing shadow of an ancient evil, one that opposes the Royal Family, blocks the Sight of the Clayr, and threatens to break the very boundary between Life and Death itself. With only her faithful companion, the Disreputable Dog to help her, Lirael must find the courage to seek her own hidden destiny.
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In Garth Nix' Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr (2001), the second novel in his Abhorsen trilogy, Touchstone and Sabriel are now the King and Abhorsen (anti-necromancer) of the Old Kingdom lying north of the Wall that separates their land of magic and pesky undead from the world of machines and countries in conflict (reminiscent of our early 20th century world). And things are not well in their Old Kingdom. An unknown "Enemy" is manipulating Necromancers into attacking villages with bands of undead "Hands" and "Shadowhands," while at Red Lake something ominous is happening that even the clairvoyant women of the Clayr are unable to see.
All fourteen-year-old Lirael wants is to gain the Sight like the other girls and women of the Clayr. Her black hair and brown eyes already mark her as too different the others, while her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her when she was a little girl. And each year on her birthday Lirael has grown older without gaining the Sight while increasingly younger girls have come into their own. Luckily, she is given a job as Third-Assistant Librarian in the nautilus shell-like ancient library of the Clayr, which suits the increasingly anti-social and magically curious girl. But poor Sameth, the teenage son of Touchstone and Sabriel, is pulled out of his elite boarding school south of the Wall and returned to the Palace at Bellisaere, where everyone expects him to train to succeed Sabriel as Abhorsen, when he is physically and mentally unable to even touch the Book of the Dead. Instead, he prefers fabricating magical "toys," like a nifty flying, mosquito-eating frog. Both young people are good young adult fantasy Ugly Ducklings: they believe that they are flawed and cannot fit in and yet are really gifted in ways destined to become appreciated.
Despite his young protagonists' morose moods, Nix writes his novel with humor and imagination. He has carefully constructed his magical world, in which most of the Free Magic that randomly pulses everywhere is ordered by the Charter, a seemingly infinite set of marks a bit like Chinese characters which adepts write on paper or in the air to make magic. Necromancers bypass the Charter to tap into Free Magic to do unnatural things like transform dead people into cannon fodder minions, while Charter Mages access it to protect the Kingdom, and the sole Abhorsen walks into Death (leaving his or her frosty body behind in the world) and then rings any of a set of seven bells to force the undead back down through the gates set in the river of Death till they reach their proper state.
Nix has great fun with that setting, imagining various nearly sentient magical books, constructs, sendings, spells, and artifacts. The most enjoyable such magical things in the novel are a pair of droll and mysterious talking "pets," the hungry, spunky, and loving Disreputable Dog, and the sarcastic, cynical, and sleepy white feline Mogget, both of whom are much more than they appear to be. The great thing about it all is that Nix often describes the magic with magical prose, vivid, sensual, and sublime, to evoke a sense of wonder, beauty, and terror (which are nearly absent from YA magical fantasy like the Harry Potter series).
Take, for example, the time Lirael loses control of a spell and "She tried to scream, but no sound came out, only Charter marks that leapt from her mouth towards the golden radiance. Charter marks continued to fly from her fingers, too, and swam in her eyes, spilling down inside her tears, which turned to steam as they fell." Even when nothing magical is happening, Nix may summon magic, as when Lirael is exploring the Library and finds herself in "a vast chamber, bigger even than the Great Hall. Charter marks as bright as the sun shone in the distant ceiling, hundreds of feet above. A huge oak tree filled the center of the room, in full summer leaf, its spreading branches shading a serpentine pool. And everywhere, throughout the cavern, there were flowers. Red flowers. Lirael bent down and picked one, uncertain if it was some sort of illusion. But it was real enough. She felt no magic, just the crisp stalk under her fingers. A red daisy, in full bloom."
And at his best, Nix writes suspenseful scenes that develop his world and characters and excite the reader, as when Lirael meets a stilken (a woman-shaped Free Magic entity with silver eyes and arms as long as her legs ending in the claws of a mantis), or when his heroes sail beneath a mile-wide bridge-city and are targeted by a crossbow bolt shooting assassin and a fiery Free Magic and swine-flesh construct masquerading as human.
When I read Lirael several years ago, I found it overlong and burdened by mopey characters, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the audiobook version, largely thanks to the virtuoso reading of Tim Curry. He deftly balances on the Edge of Too Much, reading with infectious relish lines by foul necromancers gloating over how they're about to kill you or Disreputable mongrels getting ready to sink their teeth into your calf to snap you out of your funk or snarky magical cats asking for fish after just failing to help save your skin. And isn't there a hint of Dr. Frank N. Furter in his Mogget?
Sabriel is a fresher and more self-contained book, whereas Lirael really makes part one of a duology completed by the third volume in the "trilogy," Abhorsen. But fans of imaginative and dark young adult magical fantasy and of Tim Curry should enjoy this book.
- Jefferson "I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics."
This thread of the story is close enough to Sabriel to be an old friend, but far enough to be new and interesting. Excellent as sequels go, Lireal doesn't burden the returning reader with reruns of Sabriel. It's a great stand-alone story, too. Tim Curry is the kind of narrator who could enthrall by reading a cereal box.