I don’t like this book cover as much as the Australian book cover for Clariel.
One of the things I like about the ace and aro representation in Clariel by Garth Nix is that it’s complicated. It’s actually one of the more complex representations of asexuality and aromanticism I’ve found in prose fiction so far, even though Clariel does not have the highest asexuality content rating. In this post, I’m going to go into some of those issues in more depth.
Have you read Goldenhand?
No, not yet. I know that the character Clariel also appears in Goldenhand, and I’ve read that it throws Clariel’s asexuality/aromanticism in a different light than Clariel, but I have not read about it in detail because I’m trying to avoid spoilers right now. I do plan to read Goldenhand. In the mean time, I think it’s worthwhile to record my thoughts about ace/aro representation in Clariel before I read Goldenhand.
I am aware that Goldenhand may completely upset my interpretation of Clariel’s ace/aro qualities. However, even if Goldenhand says “Clariel is really a repressed heteroromantic heterosexual who needed to be fixed by a (male) One True Love after all, ha ha you suckers who thought she was aro ace!” I am mentally capable of removing canon from my personal headcanon (I will be unhappy if Goldenhand pulls off that terrible bait-and-switch, but the comments I’ve seen from one ace reviewer indicate that Goldenhand is not that blatantly awful).
So basically, this post is going to be you saying all of the things you didn’t say in the original review because you were trying to keep the spoilers out?
Mostly, I did think of one more thing to address which does not require going into spoiler territory – namely, Clariel’s Aunt Lemmin. So, this part of the post is still spoiler-free.
I’ve seen some people say that Aunt Lemmin is also an aromantic asexual. I do not rule out that possibility, but I am also not convinced. It seems that the evidence for Aunt Lemmin being an aro ace is that she is a happy spinster, and I think she may also be referred to as a ‘natural singleton’ (which seems to be the Old Kingdom term for someone who is not interested in forming long-term sexual or romantic relationships). On the other hand, it is well established in the Old Kingdom series that the Old Kingdom accepts casual sex to some degree (it’s shown in Clariel itself, as Clariel observes and tries to avoid her peers’ hookup culture). And when the term ‘natural singleton’ first shows up in Clariel, it is in reference to pine martens who still come together briefly to mate. Thus, it seems to me that the social category ‘natural singleton’ does not exclude the possibility of casual sex, and nothing in the story indicates that Aunt Lemmin avoids sex.
In fact, it is Aunt Lemmin who tells Clariel that she may just be suppressing her sexual feelings, and that she ought to be really, really sure that she does not feel any inclinations towards sex, because it would be so terrible if she were sexually repressed. While it is possible for aces to have such sentiments, to me, it is slight evidence that Aunt Lemmin is not ace.
In short, it actually makes more sense to me that Aunt Lemmin is not ace (the idea of her being aro is more plausible to me).
So is the spoilers galore section of this post going to start now?
No. Because I recently re-read Sabriel and Lirael, and I must comment on them.
Oh come on, if you don’t want to know about what I think about Sabriel and Lirael after the re-reads, you can skip this section.
Anyway, in the beginning of my re-read of Sabriel, I thought ‘this was better than I remembered’. Then, when I got to the second half, I remembered why I did not like it when I read it nearly twenty years ago. To the extent that I like it now, it is to a large extent because of it’s connection to the other Old Kingdom stories – if it were still a standalone novel (as it was when I first read it) I probably would still dislike it today.
Lirael, of course, is more interesting – and I actually have acey comments to make about it.
In my review of Clariel, I claimed that Lirael was not an ace character. After I wrote the review, I learned that there are a few fans who headcanon Lirael as being grey-ace, and having re-read Lirael, I can see where that headcanon is coming from. Whenever Lirael is in a potentially sexual situation, she recoils and tries to get out it. Furthermore, she shows no positive interest in sex, or ever exhibits sexual attraction. In fact, the description of Lirael is a lot like the description of Clariel!
However, there are some key differences, which is why Clariel is generally considered to be a canon ace character and Lirael is not.
The explanation for why Lirael acts the way she does in potentially sexual situations is that she is shy and does not believe that men could really want her. Except … that does not match how she acts on-page. Yes, she is shy, but in one scene where a ‘handsome’ man shows clear sexual interest in her a) she considers good looks to be a minus, because good-looking men are more likely to expect her to say yes to sex (hmmm) and b) she is not shy at all about turning him down, though she does it in a roundabout way. To me, it seems that Lirael isn’t avoiding sex because of shyness/self-confidence issues – she genuinely does not want sex at that point in her life, and is willing to put in some effort to avoid it. Does that mean she is ace? Not necessarily. But the fact that she does not experience sexual attraction even to ‘handsome’ men implies that, at the very least, she may not be heterosexual. Of course, I know that in the next book, Abhorsen, she does get romantically matched with a male character (I do not remember the book well enough to offer any nuanced commentary).
Are you going to re-read Abhorsen too?
No. I do not recall liking it because I felt the story was not that interesting. A lot of it is about Orannis, and Orannis is pretty boring.
You think an ancient supervillain who is threatening to destroy the entire world is BORING???!!!!
Yes. The story of Abhorsen, IIRC, is about the protagonists struggling to stop a supervillain devoid of personality, and the characters do not grow nearly as much as they do in Lirael.
Anyway, what make Clariel different from Lirael is that she a) is no more shy about sex than her non-ace peers b) she has done soul-searching to figure out whether she is interested at all in people in a sexual way, and her conclusion is that she just does not want people in a sexual way. By contrast, at least in Lirael, Lirael does not demonstrate any such reflection on her sexuality.
Are we FINALLY getting to the SPOILERTASTIC part of this post?
Yep. If you do not want to expose yourself to SPOILERS GALORE for Clariel, this is where you stop reading this post.
So, some readers claim that Clariel isn’t really ace/aro, or that she is demisexual/demiromantic, or something. What is up with that?
In the novel, Clariel states repeatedly that she is not interested in sex or romance. She also has clearly done a lot of introspection, trying to figure out if she does have some kind of sexual or romantic feelings, and came up with nothing.
Thus, when I first came across the claims that a) Clariel is not really ace/aro after all or b) Clariel is demiromantic/demisexual, I was nonplussed.
It turns out that THERE IS A SINGLE SENTENCE on the penultimate page of the novel in which Clariel says that she had suppressed some feeling towards Belatiel. THAT’S IT, A SINGLE BLOODY SENTENCE. A sentence so insignificant that I did not even notice it when I was reading the novel through the first time, and had to go hunting for to find it after reading the critiques. And in contrast to the specificity which Clariel describes her lack of inclinations towards sex, romance, and marriage, this ‘feeling’ is not specifically described. The context also fails to make it clear whether this ‘feeling’ is romantic, or sexual, or something entirely different. It seems just as plausible to me that this feeling could be sisterly affection towards Bel as anything else.
That said, IF this ‘suppressed feeling’ is sexual and/or romantic in nature, then I would conclude that Clariel is demisexual and/or demiromantic, and thus still under the ace/aro umbrella. I have read comments from demiromantic readers that they felt really validated by Clariel, since they felt like Clariel’s inner journey of figuring out this romance thing was just like their own. I also do think that one of the passages which I quoted in my review has a sentence which hints at possible demiromanticism/demisexuality, specifically – “She had always presumed [giddy desire] just came upon them, but she did wonder now if it might grow from a small spark of friendship.”
I think saying that Clariel is demiromantic and/or demisexual is a valid interpretation of the novel. I also still think it’s possible to interpret Clariel as being an aromantic asexual. The interpretation which I do not consider valid is the one which says that Clariel is not under the aro/ace umbrella at all, because given what Clariel says about herself, that does not make sense.
Now, if it turns out in Goldenhand that Clariel had eventually fallen in love with Belatiel in some sense, I will accept that as canon evidence that Clariel is demiromantic, and I would be cool with that choice for her character. What I would not be cool with is if Goldenhand does the “ha ha suckers, Clariel isn’t ace at all!” gambit which I describe above.
Of course, I am strictly basing this on Clariel. Who knows what I will find when I read Goldenhand? (technically, the people who have already read Goldenhand know.)
So what about the TRAGIC ENDING?
First of all, I have no objection to tragic endings. In fact I wrote this post almost five years ago. Agent Aletha felt that the ending of Clariel was a bit like the “Bury Your Gays” trope, and I can see where she’s coming from, but I do not feel the same way.
“Bury Your Gays” is so widely condemned by LGBTQ+ critics because it is so damn common, especially in mainstream depictions of queer characters. Most queer critics say that, if the survival rate of queer characters were roughly the same as the survival rate of straight characters in mainstream media, “Bury Your Gays” would not be such a big deal.
By contrast … I have read a lot of ace fiction by this point. Most of what I’ve read came by the way of indie publishing, but even among the mainstream ace fiction I’ve read, tragic endings are uncommon. I thought it was ironic that an LGBTQ+ publisher which has an explicit policy of not permitting queer characters to have tragic deaths went ahead and published a novel in which the ace character has a tragic death, but that was ONE instance, not a pattern.
Also … how tragic was the ending of Clariel anyway? She wanted to be free and live on her own in the forest, and she got what she wanted. True, she is exiled from the Old Kingdom, and we all know that she is going to be corrupted further by Free Magic and turn into a necromancer and all that, but … seriously, it could have been worse. I found one reviewer who said that she felt cheated because we did not really see the transformation of Clariel into Chlorr of the Mask, that the novel ends while Clariel still has a sense of mercy and kindness towards other people. Though I did not feel cheated, I understand her point. The ending of Clariel in itself, is not Clariel’s tragedy. Clariel’s tragedy is what happens after the end of Clariel (though the ending of Clariel makes Clariel descent into evil almost inevitable).
Speaking of Clariel’s (eventual) descent into evil…
So what about Clariel turning into an EVIL EVIL EVIL villain? Doesn’t this reinforce the stereotype of aces being psychopathic villains?
There is a stereotype of ace characters being villains because of their lack of feelings. And this is even more true of aro characters, to the point that not wanting romance is code for villain, and characters who successfully engage in romance are almost never villains (see this post). This stereotype is much more prevalent in mainstream fiction than fiction targeted at ace audiences, for obvious reasons. However, Clariel is aimed at a mainstream audience, not a specifically ace audience.
However, Clariel subverts the premise of the stereotype.
The logic of the stereotype is that because the idea is, if a character does not experience sexual and/or romantic feelings, it means they don’t experience feelings in general, which means they don’t experience empathy, or care about other people, and this leads them to being indifferent or spiteful towards others, thus the villainy.
By contrast, some reviewers have summarized Clariel as “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.” The irony is that, if Clariel really were a psychopath/sociopath, she probably would not have turned into a villain at all, or at least would have just been a petty villain. If she did not care about other people or give a shit about other people’s feelings, she probably would have just stolen money from her parents and gone back to Estwael to live in the forest. It would not have been nice thing to do, but it would have let her avoid becoming villain. Or later in the book, if she had abandoned Belatiel in the forest – which is exactly what she wanted to do – yeah, Belatiel probably would have died, but she would have just been a petty villain, not a grand villain. She only stayed with Belatiel *because she did not want him to die*. And in the end, what pushes her into bargaining with the Free Magic creatures was her belief that her aunt was in imminent danger, and that if she did not rescue her, nobody would help her, and that her aunt would suffer and quite possibly die. If her aunt’s wellbeing were not at stake, or if Clariel believed that someone else would rescue her in time, she probably would not have accepted the bargain. Accepting the Free Magic creatures’ bargain, of course, is what sealed Clariel’s fate. It is because Clariel cares about other people, and wants to help them even if she must risk or even harm herself, that she becomes so exposed to Free Magic that she becomes irredeemably corrupted.
That said, this series still follows the generally pattern of the major good characters (with the exception of the nonhuman characters) getting paired up in satisfying romantic relationships, while the major evil characters (not just Clariel – also Rogir and Hedge) are uninterested in romance. This does sting me a little, not so much because of Clariel individually, but because of the pattern. If there had been an unambiguously good major character who was not inclined towards romantic bonds, or a major villain (such as Rogir or Hedge) who demonstrated an interest in romance, I would probably not mind this point.
So what about that quote from Agent Aletha’s review, “We complain over and over that in fiction asexuality is often used to distance the audience from a character, to mark them as other and undermine their very humanity. Is that the case here, making it more palatable for [Clariel] to go to the dark side?”
I am less interested in Garth Nix’s intentions when he was writing the story than how readers react. Prior to working on this post, I only read reviews of Clariel, which mentioned asexuality, but to ponder this question, I went out and read a bunch of reviews from mainstream readers to see how they react, specifically, whether Clariel’s ace/aro qualities make it more palatable to readers that she goes to the dark side.
First of all, on a general note, it seems that the readers who were most likely to enjoy Clariel were readers, such as myself, who thought that Lirael was the best book of the original trilogy. Readers who thought that Sabriel and Abhorsen were better than Lirael, on the other hand, were more likely to dislike Clariel. This make sense to me. Both Lirael and Clariel are more introspective and focused on character and worldbuilding, whereas Sabriel and Abhorsen are more action-packed and ZOMYGOSH-WE-MUST-STOP-HORRIBLE-THING-TRYING-TO-DESTORY-THE-WORLD!!!!!!!!!! (for what it’s worth, my favorite action sequence in the series is still Lirael vs. the stilken, even though the stilken was just threatening to kills librarians and destory of a library, not destroy the whole world). I did not find any reviews by people who had never read an Old Kingdom novel before, and I am mildly curious what somebody who was otherwise unfamiliar with the series would think (I suppose if I waded through enough Goodreads or Amazon reviews I would find such reviews).
Anyway, reactions to the novel are very mixed. Many of the people who disliked the novel cite Clariel as being an unlikable protagonist because she is whiny, self-absorbed, wants to go back to the forest, etc. Would these readers still feel this way about Clariel if she were presented as a heteroromantic heterosexual character? I don’t know. However, some of the same reviewers who dislike Clariel say that they also dislike Prince Sameth for similar reasons, and Sameth definitely is not an ace character, which implies that it is not Clariel’s aceness which puts them off.
For what it’s worth, Clariel did not seem particularly self-absorbed or whiny to me, not more so than a lot of other teenagers (in particular, she did not seem any more self-absorbed or whiny than Lirael). Yes, she has some unlikeable attributes (c’mon, she turns into a villain) but overall I was sympathetic to her as a protagonist.
Anyway, in conclusion, having re-read Sabriel and Lirael, I am … finding it hard to decide whether I like Lirael or Clariel more. Probably Clariel, if only because a lot of Lirael is about Prince Sameth, who I find less compelling as a character than either Lirael or Clariel. I also find the ace/aro representation in Clariel to be overall positive, but with potentially negative complications.
Now I’m bracing myself for Goldenhand.