by Garth Nix
Finally the reviews have returned to the Old Kingdom! Lirael is the sequel to Sabriel, taking place about two or so decades after the first book. Within that time Sabreil and Touchstone have gotten married, Touchstone has claimed the throne and they have had children. They've also worked very hard to make the Old Kingdom, a place where Sabreil seemed unable to go 20 feet without attracting some undead ravening monster, into a place where people... You know... Live. I kinda wished we could have seen some of that, but I'm also sure it would have gotten repetitive after while. You know find undead monster, sally forth, force undead monster back into death, repeat. Maybe in a short story or two in the future?
But honestly they've been pretty successful in transforming the Old Kingdom from a fear ridden hell pit into a fairly pleasant place to raise your family (if you hate electricity anyways). The Capital no longer is an armed camp living under siege. Trade and Travel are now normal events that don't end in screaming and bloodshed. The network of charter stones has been mostly repaired. Allowing for villages and farms to be rebuilt. In turn allowing for the people of the Old Kingdom to live lives that are not defined by unending terror of undead monsters creeping about in the dark. It's not all sunshine and roses though as Sabriel having become the Abhorsen (the state Necromancer), is often running from one trouble spot to the next trying to root out the remaining die hard Free Magic sorcerers and necromancers who seek to undo all their work. In short through with a lot of work and a bit of luck Sabriel and Touchstone have created a fairly decent kingdom from the wreckage we saw in the last book but there's still a lot of work to be done.
The Necromancer Hedge hates this with every fiber of his wicked being (in case you're wondering... Yes, I did enjoy writing that). He plots to undo these hard won gains of the royal family by digging up some long forgotten evil and... Well basically killing everyone really. I actually kinda like Hedge, despite his omnicidial urges. As much I can like a psychopathic, mass murdering asshole anyways. He's clever, patient and while he clearly prefers to send someone else to do the dirty jobs... He ain't afraid to jump on to the front lines and do his own killing. He's also smart enough to develop connections south of the wall, making political allies in merry old Eng... I mean Ancelstierre!
Actually that's only part of what makes Hedge an interesting villain, as it's part of his adoption of insurgent tactics to fight the royal family. Hedge's pursuit of outside allies in his struggle to return a reign of terror and death to the Old Kingdom is a common tactic of successful insurgencies and rebellions. See private organizations be they terrorists like the IRA and Al Qeaeda or more conventional rebellions like the Continental Army or Garibaldi's Redshirts can rarely match the resources and power of a state. There are ways around this but the easiest way is to get your own state sponsor to help you make up the difference. Whether it be Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of France, the USSR or the USA, a competing state government can provide you with supplies, weapons and money which you need to wage a war, putting you on a more even footing with your enemies. The second part that Hedge has put into play is creating a safe zone where your enemies can't or won't go. This gives you a place to plan, train and refit. Granted training his army isn't an issue for Hedge because he's a bloody Necromancer and his armies are made up of undead monsters and dead spirits stuffed into fresh corpses. Hedge's safe zone is a region called Red Lake where the power of the royal family does not extend and the Clayr (I'll get to them) can't see into. I don't know if Mr. Nix did this on purpose but if he did, he deserves praise for applying fairly modern tactical studies to magical fantasy and making it work with aplomb!
Hedge has also rather cold bloody marked out the biggest obstacles to his plan and works very hard to remove or completely eliminate them. Those obstacles being the Royal Family with Touchstone as the King and focus of the Charter Magic network and Sabriel as queen and Abhorsen... And their youngest child, a boy who is considered the Abhorsen in training. Deciding to avoid direct confrontation with the Royal Adults instead using minions and politics to divert them and tire them out. Hedge elects to go after the boy himself, the Price Sameth, aka Sam and he finds himself running into Lirael, who is our main character (graciously sharing the book with Sameth in my opinion) and is our main view point character. Let me talk about her a bit.
I know I rambled on about Hedge but this book is about Lirael. The book opens with her growing up into a young lady and deeply grieved with that fact. Why would this bother her? Because she is a daughter of the Clayr, a mystical family known for their ability to see the future. They generally develop this ability at the onset of their teen years and Lirael... Hasn't. It doesn't help that Lirael never met her mother, who disappeared shortly after Lirael's birth. Additionally the Clayr raise their children in communal fashion, which while it has it's virtues, ensures that Lirael never gets the attention she kinda needs to reassure her that she is actually a member of the family. Instead she's just kind of left knocking about the childern's dorms feeling sorry for herself as each one of her friends graduates into a life she can't understand and leaves her behind. On top of this is the fact that Lirael has problems socializing and she doesn't look like the rest of her family. They're all ice blondes and she has hair dark as midnight. You know, I am somewhat sympathetic to Lirael, I mean I often feel kinda on the outside of groups due to various things (I found later this can be a common feeling among hearing children of deaf parents or the children whose parents are from one culture but raising them in another) but you know... At least I never any doubts as to whether or not my family loved me and considered me one of their own. Frankly that's a terrible fate I wouldn't wish on anyone.
Thankfully we're not left with her moping about for long as a pair of her cousins realizes that leaving a teenage girl with nothing to do but think about how she doesn't fit in and how her own family feels like a pack of strangers just isn't healthy (you know for people who can see the future sometimes..). So they get her a job in the Clayr's magical library (I'm really kind of jealous of magic libraries in general, but this one is also a museum and at times a zoo... People who can see the future really do get the best shit don't they?). It's here that Lirael really gets moving as she starts learning magic in a big way, fighting monsters (turns out the magic library isn't really safe and these people sent a 14 year old to work in it!) and summons the Disreputable Dog. The Disreputable Dog is a creature of magic that seems to contain some of the essence of canines, of course being magical she is smarter then actual dogs being able to talk, fight and do magic on her own. I honestly love her, she serves as Lirael's friend, teacher and even mother figure from time to time. She even teaches Lirael and by extension us more about the nature and Lirael has the most complete arc of the characters in this book, going from a lost, depressed child to a young women with hard won powers and abilities willing to take great risks to solve problems by the time of the book's end when she is 19. Sameth on the other hand...
We met Sameth as he finishes his last year of school in Ancelstierre on the other side of the wall. This seems to be becoming a family tradition for the Royals, since Sabriel and Sameth's older sister were also educated in Ancelstierre. We don't actually get to see him in school (to be fair we didn't really see Sabriel in school either) since he gets in trouble on a bus ride back from his very last cricket match (sooo English) and well... Sameth did his damnest but he didn't really cover himself in glory. Much like Lirael, his first brush with danger was almost his last and he basically had to run for it. Here there's a difference though, Lirael gathered resources and got herself a mentor, by whom I mean Disreputable Dog, went back and made herself awesome! Sameth... Well it turns out confrontation isn't really his thing. Which is awkward because he's suppose to inherent the title of Abhorsen, a job that is well... Pretty much all about confrontation really!
Which bring us to a problem. I think Lirael is pretty awesome and she easily makes the first string on my own personal monster killing team picks (if you don't have one... Man what are you doing with your life?). It's not that she's perfect, she's has bouts of insecurity, is cripplingly shy and uncertain to the point of being terrified of conservation in social situations but she is able with the help of her mentor push through her weaknesses and do what needs to be done. Sameth... Can't bring himself to admit his problem out loud and ask for help when surrounded by people who want to help him. I get being afraid of disappointing your parents but really. That said I am being rough on a guy who was nearly murdered, while within Death itself (that has to be more terrifying then almost being murdered in the normal world). I'm pretty sure that's got to least leave mental or emotional scars! Part of the blame does have to go to his parents, who honestly are fairly absent. Which no slight on them, since if they ignore a call from work, thousands of people can die in horrifying ways unleashing unspeakable horrors on the world. That kinda means you can't ever turn off the phone to the office really. Still I have to think that if Sameath had a mentor like Lireal did... He be able to confront his fears. That said it's not that Sameth is a coward here! He puts himself repeatedly at considerable physical and mental risks to protect and help others. He sneaks away from his family to help a friend in peril. He is able to outwit enemies and make basic plans, so he isn't an idiot either. He's clearly not just some trembling child who just needs to be taken care of. Which makes a lot of his behavior even more frustrating! There are times when I want to reach into the book and shake him until the rattling forces his brain to actually boot up and engage. It's just that when the objects of his phobia and PTSD are thrown out there he locks up and turns into a gibbering wreck. I understand this and I can sympathize but look I'll be blunt. Speaking as a vet, if you're suffering something like PTSD, Depression or a fear so deep you can't even begin to function around it? Get help. Please. There's no shame in that. Your friends and your family will be thankful. Let me get back to the review.
I liked Lireal more than I did Sabriel. I liked the character's more, I like the villain more, I was excited by the revelations on the nature of charter magic and it's relation to free magic. As well as insights into the origin of the Old Kingdom itself. I enjoyed Lirael's story arc and really enjoyed reading about her travails and triumphs. Sameath I'm less thrilled by but I'm hoping he'll shape up. That said... The book ends on a cliff hanger. Again. I'm going to get a complex like this guys. That said, the cliffhanger is my only real complaint. So Lirael by Garth Nix gets an -A. It's a great book and I think everyone will enjoy it. Just get it's sequel Abhorsen before you crack it open. Speaking of which Abhorsen will be with us soon but first, Vader Returns! See you next week!