by Garth Nix
So here we are, back in the Old Kingdom. The nation that holds back the pure chaos of free magic and necromancy with a combination of charter magic and state sanctioned necromancers called Abhorsens. Let me break that down a little for people who never read Mr, Nix's series or have missed the reviews I've done on the other three books. The world of the Old Kingdom is awash in a dangerous magic called free magic; while usable to humans it is a corrupting and twisting influence. There are also creatures completely made up of free magic with their own desires which are often (but not always, free magic creatures are unpredictable) dangerous to... pretty much all life as we understand it. Necromancy is the most dangerous form of free magic, it involves reaching or travelling into death (which is a supernatural place as well as a state of being) to pull out spirits who refuse to move on and control theml often by stuffing them into bodies to do their necromancer’s bidding. Sometimes however, a spirit or a necromancer becomes something infinitely more scary then even a free magic spirit: a greater dead. A spirit that has refused the call to pass and eaten so much life and gained so much power that is not even recognizable as a human being anymore nor does it think or act as one.
Lirael returns as the main protagonist of the story, she is a shy girl who left her home in a glacier full of her future-seeing relatives to become someone who can gaze into the past and a necromancer. Not just that but an Abhorsen. As a student of Sabriel (the current Queen and head Abhorsen) she serves to keep free magic creatures and the Dead (and those who would wake them) under control and at bay. This book takes place some time after Abhorsen, where Lirael averted the literal end of the world. It's a good thing she's had time to rest because while this new threat is a bit smaller in scale (being only the possible end of civilization) it's still nothing to sneer at. The Lirael in this book has clearly grown into her powers and position. While she's still shy and a bit of an introvert (there's nothing wrong with being an introvert mind you), she is way more comfortable asserting herself. Especially on important matters and willing to fight to be taken seriously. Which is a lucky thing because it's time to go home again. Not only is she going to have to return to her childhood home, but she is going to receive a message from someone in her past, someone she has a lot of baggage with and she's going to have to untangle some emotional issues... while in a crisis situation. Lirael is not allowed to do anything at a relaxed speed.
See, this book incorporates the events of the short story of Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case, which I read but didn't review because... It's a short story. Nicholas Sayre is also a returning character from prior books (he got most of his screen time so to speak in Abhorsen) a friend of Prince Sam of the Old Kingdom he's actually from Ancelstierre, or as I like to call it, most certainly not England! Magic doesn't work in most of Ancelstierre. Between the two kingdoms is a massive wall made of charter magic which helps regulate the flow. On the flip side, nothing machine-made survives in the Old Kingdom (Nicholas learns this when his clothes flat out rot off his back in a few hours). There is however a borderland between the two nations where both technology and magic can work... Imperfectly and inconsistently. Because of this, relationships between the two nations are often... full of misunderstandings. Because of this, Nicholas kind of got himself possessed by a spirit of free magic older than the world itself and almost ended existence. Luckily Lirael and friends were there to prevent this but there were lastingly... aftereffects. Nicholas found himself filled to the brim with free magic, this is bad (see corrupting and twisting effects) to prevent this a charter mark was placed on him (people who can do charter magic have a magic marking on their forehead). It was supposed to be a simple seal but it's turned into something more. Nicholas's charter mark and his connection to the charter isn't sealing away the free magic but appears to be almost filtering it, turning Nicholas into a walking, talking source of charter magic. This suggests all sorts of interesting things about the relationship between charter magic and free magic (especially when we know free magic came first, and charter magic was an intentional creation). It also serves a handy role in the story because Lirael is going to have to go outside of the Old Kingdom to deal with a threat.
The threat is Chlorr of the Mask returning. Honestly she's frankly a step down as a villain from Hedge. Which is ironic because Mr. Nix's has put a lot more effort into Chlorr, even writing her a prequel novel which I believe was supposed to set her up as a tragic villain but had the opposite effect on me. Let me put this way, imagine you run into someone who despite having good intentions made a series of increasingly bad choices and ruined their lives. You would consider that tragic. Now imagine that same person given an opportunity to rebuild that life turns around and makes the same series of choices. You could be excused for throwing up your hands and calling them an idiot. That's Chlorr. So instead of being excited that she has returned, I find myself sighing and asking if maybe Mr. Nix would be better off not exploring his villains to much? Ironically Chlorr gets very little screen time and so serves almost as a plot device within the story instead of a character. Which doesn't help me feel the tragedy here, if anything it makes Chlorr feel like a rather standard dark lady (man, I miss Hedge!). This is easily Mr. Nix's biggest misstep in the book.
Still there's plenty to make up for that. There's Ferin, a new character who opens a whole new window on the world of the Old Kingdom. Ferin is not from the Old Kingdom, she is from the north of the Kingdom, from a wild land full of barbarian tribes where Free Magic runs wild and the Charter is fairly unknown. Ferin gives us a fascinating window into what the other cultures of the world of the Old Kingdom do to survive. The different tribes, from Ferin's own mountain tribe to various horse tribes on the rolling steppe have had to adopt their own tactics and strategies for dealing with free magic creatures and users without the protection of the charter. Often by using chained free magic sorcerers or imprisoned free magic creatures, giving us a whole new set of golems and such to marvel at. On top of this, they have to deal with the fact that they were conquered by Chlorr. As far as dark overlords... Dark overladies go, Chlorr isn't that demanding. She just demands that every tribe raise one of their children to be trained from birth to be a possible vessel for her spirit. Basically if her current body dies or grows weak, she destroys it and hijacks a new one. Because of this Ferin doesn't even have a name, it's a nickname that comes from the mispronouncing of her tribe’s word for offering. Her tribe would rather not have to sacrifice one of their own children every generation in exchange for not being wiped out to the last babe however, so when a certain Abhorsen's mother leaves them a message to be delivered at a certain day to my favorite necromancer, Ferin jumps on that job. Ferin herself is an interesting character in that she is someone who is very used to magic and weird shit but is not someone from the Old Kingdom, which gives us another fresh pair of eyes to examine this from. She's also pretty awesome in her own right having no magic powers, few weapons beyond her own grit and courage and still being willing to brawl it out with free magic golems and necromancers. I'm hoping to see more of her. In fact, this book leaves me wanting to know more about the world beyond the Old Kingdom's borders. If this is what lies to the north of the Old Kingdom, what is over the sea exactly hmm?
Another fun spot is the relationship between Nick and Lirael, which honestly is a lot better done for me then the relationship between Sabriel and Touchstone in the first book. These two kids are a bit awkward but not painfully so. Additionally Mr. Nix doesn't keep this dance going on to long, there are no wacky misunderstandings or characters refusing to admit how they feel to each other for painfully overwrought reasons (take notes fantasy writers, dragging it out too long is a pain in the ass). Instead we get two kids, one of whom is painfully shy and the other worried of frightening the other off, talking to each other like adults and realizing their feelings are shared. It helps that there was a private dinner with some really nice wine (make a note of that everyone, not just the writers). It's a relationship that evolves well and believably and works on a professional level since Nicholas is a now a moving power source. I'm honestly interested in seeing more exploration of that idea. It's also through this relationship that we learn more about the Charter and its interaction with free magic. It's the implications that are really interesting though. With revelations given in Abhorsen in regards to the origin of the Charter (that it was willfully designed and created by magical creatures wanting to place free magic under some control for safety’s sake) and how Nicholas' charter mark interacts with his internal free magic. I am left thinking that the Charter stones that power Charter magic all across the Old Kingdom aren't power generators after all but instead are filtration systems. Filtering free magic through the marks of the charter to create a form of magic safe for life as we know it. I'll be honest this just a theory but I think it’s a sound one and getting more information to prove or disprove it should be interesting.
The battles in the book are well done, especially Ferin's running battle against the free magic sorcerers, nomadic warriors, and worse trying to stop her from reaching Lirael with her message. A number of minor characters are introduced and very well written here to give the struggle additional meaning and let us see the view from the ground as it were (not everyone is an Abhorsen or a Royal after all). However the last battles, while engaging and interesting are... rushed. It feels like Mr. Nix was running out of steam when he hit the climax and didn't spend as much time on the end battles and confrontations that he should have. They're still fairly well done just bloodlessly so. Part of this may be that I am just rather hard to please when it comes to writing violence. I want to believe it and most modern writers don't have the experience to do that. It's hard to write something you've never done after all, especially when some of your readers have. Additionally this is not a good place to join the Old Kingdom. You'll need to have at least read Lirael and Abhorsen to really understand the characters relations to each other. Anyways, I found Goldenhand an engaging and fun read but with noticeable flaws, you're not going to find a classic villain here but you will find a good story with good characters here and you know... that is enough. Goldenhand by Garth Nix gets a B.
Next week… The blog that became a best selling novel, the novel that became a best selling film, the film that got our asses back to mars. Next week The Martian!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.