Review: Clariel by Garth Nix

Cover of the Australian edition of Clariel. I like this cover better than the cover of the US edition.

So, this is another book that I’ve read for my Myster Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this story about?

Seventeen-year-old Clariel loves being the forest around the town of Estwael, and dreams of becoming a Borderer so she can live in the forest and serve the kingdom. However, her parents bring her to Belisaere, the capital city, which to Clariel feels like a prison with too many people and not enough trees.

Clariel schemes to get away from the city as soon as possible and return to the forest around Estwael. Unfortunately, others have their own schemes, and they involve Clariel. Her parents want to arrange either an apprenticeship or marriage for her. King Orrikan III refuses to rule AND refuses to appoint a regent to rule in his place, and since his heir Princess Tathiel is missing, power-hungry people have stepped into the void – and since Clariel is a cousin of the king and one of his closest living relatives, they want to control her. And though the kingdom has been safe from ravages of necromancers and Free Magic creatures for a long time, there is now a Free Magic creature active in Belisaere itself, and it too has an interest in Clariel…

What sex and/or violence is there in this story?

There is no sex, though there are quite a few references to characters’ off-page sexual activities, as well as various expressions of sexual interest. This story never dwells in gory details, but there is definitely substantial violence in the story, including on-page murder.

Hey Sara, before you even read this book, let alone wrote this review, I know you wrote a spiel about another book in the series.

I did. Here it is:

Cover of Lirael (old US edition, not the new US edition)

I read Sabriel, the first book in the Old Kingdom series … when I was about ten or eleven years old. I read Lirael when I was about sixteen years old.

Though I did not identify as asexual when I was sixteen, and Lirael, the protagonist of Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr, is not an ace character, I really related to her, and I think it was partially because I subconsciously took her story as a metaphor for my experiences which I would later describe with the word ‘asexual’.

Lirael is born among the Clayr, a group of people who have the Sight – a limited ability to see the future (though not all futures which they see come to be). Clayr on average first develop the sight at the age of 12, though some develop it earlier, and there are rare cases where it will not develop until they are 16 years old. Developing the Sight considered a major rite of passage among the Clayr, complete with a ceremony to mark the change, and it is considered one of the top things which distinguishes a child from an adult.

Lirael, at the age of 14, still has not gotten the Sight, but all of her peers has. She believes that she is broken, that something is wrong with her. When people learn about Lirael’s distress, they tell her that she is just a late bloomer.

Is the parallel between experiencing the Sight and sexual attraction obvious yet? Is the parallel between being a Sightless adolescent Clayr and an ace clear yet?

Does Lirael ever develop the Sight? Spoiler: No. And Lirael must come to terms with the fact that she is never going to experience something which she has been taught from childhood that all Clayr experience. She must find a different path to adulthood.

When I was sixteen, I still thought of myself as a late bloomer with regards to experiencing sexual feelings, but I think I also sensed on some level that I just might never feel those feelings the way most people did.

For this reason, it made intuitive sense to me that the Old Kingdom series would have an ace protagonist at some point. At the time I wrote this, I had yet to read Clariel. However, if you are reading this, and you did not get access to this by hacking into my computer, that means that I have read Clariel by now, and that this is being incorporated into the review.

Okay, so now talk about Clariel.

Clariel is set about 600 years before Sabriel. In Sabriel, the Old Kingdom has practically fallen – it had been two hundred years since there has been a monarch, the country is overrun with Free Magic, necromancers, and their slaves summoned back from death, and the once mighty Abhorsen family is no longer powerful enough to guarantee the safety of its own children, which is why the Abhorsen sends his child to grow up in Ancelstierre, not the Old Kingdom itself. By contrast, Clariel is set during the peak of the Old Kingdom’s prosperity, when necromancy and Free Magic are so rare that even the Abhorsen is not worried about them, and the nobility looks down upon studying Charter magic because that’s something for servants to do. However, in the very overconfidence amid the prosperity of the Old Kingdom, as well as the political instability caused by the king’s refusal to take responsibility, one can see the beginnings of the decline of the Old Kingdom. In other words, if Sabriel is set after the fall of Rome, then Clariel is set during the Pax Romana.

Since this is a prequel, I think a reader who had never read any other novel in the series would have no trouble reading Clariel first.

Even though it is almost 400 pages long (in hardback), I read this in two days. I totally got sucked in.

So, Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = most asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I rate this as a 3.

The first sign of Clariel’s (a)sexuality is this passage, early in the novel:

They had talked about solitude an self-sufficiency once, Lemmin and her niece, soon after Clariel had first chosen to lie with a young man and had found herself quite separate from the experience, and not caring one way or another about repeating the act itself or the emotional dance that went with it.

“Perhaps I don’t like men,” Clariel had said to her aunt, who was pulling garlic bulbs and delighting in her crop. “Though I can’t say I have those feelings for women, either.”

“You’re young,” Lemmin had replied, sniffing a particularly grand clump of garlic. “It’s probably too early to tell, one way or another. The most important thing is to be true to yourself, however you feel, and not try to feel or behave differently because you think you should, or someone has told you how you must feel. But do think about it. Unexamined feelings lead to all kinds of trouble.”

Clariel examined her feelings once again [a year later], and found them unchanged.

A few chapters later, it comes up again:

“I … I like to go my own way, without needing anyone else.”

“Very few people need no one else,” said Ader.

“I mean I don’t need to be with someone, married, or tied down.”

“Marriage need not be a shackling together of the unwilling,” said Mistress Ader. “But it is not impossible that you are a natural singleton.”

The term “natural singleton” appears a few times in the story. It seems to be the term that the Old Kingdom uses for adults who have no urge to for sexual or romantic relationships (in other words, aromantic asexuals, since this culture does not seem to distinguish sexual and romantic interest). I am quite happy that the Old Kingdom culture has any kind of vocabulary for people who do not experience sexual feelings, and it makes sense to me that it would not perfectly align with our own.

In a later passage, we learn more about Clariel’s sexual experience:

Clariel’s own sexual experimentation with a twenty-two-year-old Borderer the previous year had happened out of curiosity, not love, or even very much desire. She had liked Ramis well enough and he had certainly desired her, but though she had slept with him three times to be sure of what she was feeling – or not – she had not particularly cared when he was posted away, and neither had she sought out a new lover.

Throughout the novel, whenever a scene comes up in which, in general, the heroine would be expected to deal with romance or romantic feelings, Clariel essentially says “Nope. I still have no interest in this sex and romance stuff.” I like that the writer repeatedly restated it during relevant scenes, since it was a) consistent and b) really drove home the point that Clariel really has no inclination for sex or romance. One of the more interesting scenes of this type was this one:

“Thank you,” said Clariel. “I hope I do get to fly with you. You’ve been a good friend.”

Bel mumbled something and the tips of his ears turned red, the blush easy to see on his pale skin. Clariel noticed the blush and perceived she was meant to hear the mutter, no doubt a protestation about “mere friends” or something like that. Bel wanted more, obviously, but she did not. She liked his company, and he was a friend, as she judged things, proven by his actions. But she felt no passionate attraction, no giddy desire. She’d never felt that, though she’d heard enough about it from other young women in Estwael. She had always presumed it just came upon them, but she did wonder now if it might grow from a small spark of friendship. But it didn’t matter. Not now.

“A good friend,” she repeated.

“I know,” sighed Bel. “If I had a denier for every time I’ve heard ‘let’s be friends’ I’d be richer than Kelp.”

“Come on, Bel,” said Clariel, suddenly cross with him. “Denima was falling all over you. She’s prettier than me, and smarter too, I’d say.”

“I wouldn’t say so,” said Bel stiffly. “Either one.”

“I’m just not … not interested in men,” said Clariel.

“Oohh,” said Bel, blushing again.

“Or women either,” added Clariel. She felt a strong desire to slap him around the ears a bit and if he hadn’t been wounded might have done so. “Think about the situation I’m in, will you! How could I be thinking about … about kissing and bed games with everything that’s happened … that is happening?”

Bel was silent. Evidently he had no trouble thinking about such things, at any time.

There is a supporting character, Guillaine, who like Lirael, was born among the Clayr. She does have the Sight, but it is so weak that she could not fully integrate with Clayr society, so she left and moved to Belisaere. If we keep running with the metaphor ‘having the Sight is the equivalent to experiencing sexual attraction’, then Guillaine is the equivalent of a grey-asexual.

And then … there is the stuff which I’m not going to discuss because it is majorly spoilerful. Some of the thoughts which Agent Aletha has about what the story implies about asexuality/aromanticism were thoughts I had as well when I was reading the novel, though my take on it is a little different. Some ace and/or aro readers may find certain aspects of how the novel presents asexuality/aromanticism to be problematic.

In any case, I am really happy to see such a clearly ace protagonist in a bestselling series.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

I LOVE this novel, issues with the presentation of asexuality/aromanticism aside. Not as much as I loved Lirael as a teenager, but this novel reminded me of how good the Old Kingdom series can be. Since I was left hungering for more, I even went back and started to re-read Sabriel, for the first time in almost twenty years. I don’t think Sabriel is as good as Clariel, but it’s better than I remembered.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Clariel by Garth Nix

  1. Pingback: Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. I’m glad to see a review of Clariel up, and want to share my own thoughts on the book. Brace yourself for a wall of text…

    – A fellow Nix fan myself, I first read Sabriel and Lirael in middle school. I never made the connection between sexual attraction and the Sight myself, but it’s an interesting parallel.
    – Clariel as a novel is very special to me, because it was both my first bit of ace fiction, and more importantly my first bit of ace fiction knowing that I was an ace myself. I had only discovered that I was aro ace a few months prior to buying the book, and seeing an aro ace in one of my favorite book series of all time was an immensely gratifying experience.
    – I kind of disagree with your and Agent Aletha’s criticisms of the book as aro ace representation, though I can see where you are coming from (don’t want to delve into too many spoilers either). I went in, before even knowing that Clariel was aro ace, knowing what the ultimate outcome would be. Kind of like how in a Greek tragedy, everyone knows it’s gonna be, well, tragic, and you’re there to see the how and the why. Also, it kind of hits a sore spot for me about how “proper” aro and ace representation is apparently supposed to look:

    ace community: don’t make an aro/ace/aro ace character asocial, that’s bad and reinforces stereotypes and makes them seem inhuman/alien/villainous/cold
    me, an asocial aro ace: thanks community, for making it clear that people who even remotely share my temperament are an inherent problem and unworthy of representation in the fiction that we are supposed to relate to*

    *This is oversimplified for the sake of brevity. And I respect that you feel differently about it, because it’s good to be critical of the things that we like.

    • Actually, I agree with you more than Agent Aletha (I specifically said in my review that my take on it was different than Agent Aletha’s), but I was unable to make my own opinion clear because of spoiler avoidance. I actually do have a draft of a post discussing what I think about Clariel in more detail where I do not avoid spoilers.

      Another point which is debated which Agent Aletha did not mention is the whole debate about whether Clariel is demisexual/demiromantic or not. I admit that I mostly missed that aspect when I read Clariel, and it was only upon encountering discussion on this point that I went back and checked the epilogue again. I think that, on the basis of the epilogue, interpreting Clariel as demiromantic is valid, but that it is also still valid to interpret her as aromantic because that one line in the epilogue is too vague.

      • Thanks for clarifying. I hadn’t heard about the demi-romantic/sexual interpretation. in any case, I’d love to see your non-spoiler-avoidant thoughts on the book.

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