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Lirael: Librarians are Badass!
Many, many years ago I read a book called "Sabriel" (to give you an idea of how long ago, everyone else at the time was just getting into a little book called "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince"). I remember liking it, enough that not that long afterwards, I purchased its two sequels, "Lirael" and "Abhorsen." Then, as I am want to do, I forgot about those two books, not bothering to read either of them...until recently, when I decided to finally read "Sabriel"'s sequel, "Lirael."
And, as with many things I get my hands on but forget to read or watch until years afterwards, I wish I had read it much earlier. "Lirael" is a fun and interesting combination of fairly conventional teen fantasy tropes with some interesting and intriguing twists along the way to keep the reader on their toes. I defintely plan to not let years go by before I finish this trilogy with the final book, "Abhorsen."
The series takes place in the Old Kingdom, a medieval realm where magic is very much real. Specifically, it comes in two varieties: Charter Magic, an organized system based on conjuring with a series of runes known as Charter Marks which describe the world, and the chaotic Free Magic, which is primarily concerned with necromancy and other unpleasant. The role of the Abhorsen, one of three important magical bloodlines in the Old Kingdom, combines the two, using Free Magic not to raise the Dead up but to send them back into the realm of Death. Sabriel, the protogonist of the previous book, is the current Abhorsen in "Lirael", having earned the title in her own book.
The titular protagonist of this book, Lirael, is a daughter of the Clayr, a large extended bloodline of women who have the ability to see bits and pieces of possible futures. Unfortunately, even as she grows much older, Lirael is never gifted with the Sight, making her feel like an outcast, something which is not helped by the fact that she doesn't know who her father is (most Clayr get pregnant off of travelers, but generally mothers tell their daughter who their father was, something Lirael's mother didn't do before she disappeared), and that she doesn't look at all like a Clayr (being dark haired and pale skinned while Clayr are traditionally blond haired and tanned). However, she finds a place for herself in the library of the Clayr, and a good first chunk of the book is detailed with Lirael developing considerable magic skills, enough that one day when trying to create a magical sending of a dog to have as a friend, she inadvertently sets free a quite different creature, a friendly yet mysterious entity who calls herself the Disreputable Dog and who looks like a small black dog but quite distinctly is not one.
About a quarter of the way into the book we are introduced to our other main character, Sameth. Sameth is the son of Sabriel and Touchstone, king of the Old Kingdom. As his sister is being groomed to take over for her father as ruler, Sameth is expected to take over for his mother. After a traumatic experience where he is forced to fend off a necromancer and several Dead, however, Sam develops a crippling fear of Death, which extends even to the bells and book he's supposed to be training with. After receiving a letter from his friend Nick, a resident of the country of the non-magical country of Ancelstierre (and who therefore doesn't believe in magic) who has crossed the Wall between the two countries and who may have stumbled into danger, he takes it as a chance to shirk his responsibilities in order to rescue his friend. Accompanied by Mogget, an ancient Free Magic creature who has been bound (none too happily) in servitude to the family of the Abhorsen in the form of a small white cat, Sam soon blunders into the Dead forces of the necromancer Hedge, who seems to be enacting a complex and over-arching plan that could mean the end of the Old Kingdom and possibly the world.
Inevitably, our two main characters meet up, but I was surprised at how late this happens--in chapter 37 of 44 total chapters. Much of the book is designed as setup for Lirael (and to a lesser extent Sam). This isn't all that much of a problem, except it makes it seem that the book is only really starting as it starts to wind down (to be continued in "Abhorsen"). Reflecting back on the book I read, Lirael's chapters of her going exploring with the Dog and teaching herself Charter Magic didn't feel like padding (Sam's chapters of him feeling miserable at how much of a failure he considers himself to be did to a certain extent), but the book still seems to be oddly paced, somewhat alarmingly frontloaded with set up with only the barest glimpse of the eventual pay off.
The other big problem with the story is Garth Nix's occasional tendency to over-explain. Yes, this book is aimed at teenagers, and the world of the Old Kingdom is rather complex, but I find that books that trust their audience a bit more have a tendency to be smoother reads. Nix also has a tendency to write in a limited third person point of view, then shift to another character's point of view with very little warning, which can be rather alarming and disorienting.
However, the positives outweigh the negatives pretty handily. Lirael is an interesting character, brave and resourceful, while simultaneously being shy and feeling like she doesn't fit into the world of the Clayr around her, which works to humanize her quite well. The Disreputable Dog is also fun, being so charismatic and likable that the fact that she actively refuses to explain what she is is a lot less annoying than it should be. Mogget, although he appears a lot less than the other three main characters, is deliciously fun, as an extremely lazy deadpan snarker who waits until the exact last moment to be in any way helpful, which means that he steals any scene he shows up in. Sam is the weakest of the main characters, spending most of his screen time paralyzed by his inability to live up to his family's expectations but also unable to actively work on changing his lot in life. He did grow on me, and he is definitely as resourceful and determined, but we aren't allowed to see him really shine in this book as Lirael does. Hopefully this will change in the next book.
The plot is intriguingly complex. As I noted earlier, the pacing is rather heavily geared to set up rather than pay off, but we are given hints that something is going wrong and the necromancer Hedge seems to be responsible. The fact that the last chapter seems to imply that something quite different is going on just serves to make the story all the more intriguing. And although the book does on occasion over-explain, Nix is in general a great descriptive writer who is able to create situations, settings, and events that are extremely effective at keeping the reader enthralled.
All in all, a book well worth reading, even if it did have some flaws. I am looking forward to reading "Abhorsen," and I hope to start soon. Definitely check this book out of you run into it--it's relatively independent from "Sabriel," although reading that book couldn't hurt.