Clariel is the long-awaited-with-bated-breath prequel to Garth Nix's rather wonderful Sabriel trilogy, which featured strong female protagonists, sarcastic cats and a deeply fascinating magic system involving mysterious marks and a river of Death. If that all sounds excellent, well, it was. Which was why I was rather excited to read Clariel, which is set several hundred years before the events of Sabriel, in Belisaere, capital city of the Old Kingdom, corrupt and hide-bound, a city where Charter Magic has become reviled as servile and where powerful craftsmen seek to usurp the King himself. Clariel, daughter of a goldsmith who's just moved to Belisaere, wants more than anything else to go home to the forests of Estwael and become a forester. But, in the manner of these things, she becomes entangled instead in the intrigues and politics of the city.
I'm not entirely sure how successful this prequel is, either as a novel or as a continuation of the Old Kingdom mythos. Clariel appears to be asexual, which is an interesting choice for YA, and actually made me think about how much I do expect a romance from novels, even those not specifically focused on it, especially given the fact that both heroines of the Sabriel trilogy found love with friends they met on the way. It doesn't, however, stop Nix from dangling the possibility of a romance in front of his readers' noses, which sort of defeats the point somewhat.
Comparing Clariel again with Sabriel and Lirael, it's worth noting that the former is not a very strong character. I think she's supposed to be (as well as being asexual, she's also a beserker - someone who gains extraordinary strength whenever they fly into a rage, which is often); but she's always being rescued, helped, manipulated by someone else, and that someone is often male. How much more satisfying would it be if she rescued herself? If she didn't have the possibility of romance dangling over her head?
To cap it all, much of what made the Sabriel trilogy so interesting is missing here. There's very little Charter Magic (Clariel isn't a strong Charter Mage); there's no river of Death, or bell-ringing (though we do meet a new Abhorsen, which is kind of cool); no Library of the Clayr, no Mysterious and Evil Forces from Beyond the Ninth Gate. No Orannis or Dog or Touchstone. What Charter Magic there is appears to work like electricity, so the Old Kingdom here resembles one of those awful sanitised medieval fantasies where nobody is cold and no room is inconveniently dark and food arrives hot because MAGIC. There are no Dead, so none of that interesting mythology around running water and silver; no diamonds of protection. I understand that this is a different time, a different story, to Sabriel, but it is kind of disappointing.
There is, however, an appearance from Mogget, the sarcastic Free Magic cat, who is hands-down the best character here. I would quite happily read an entire book about Mogget. Heck, an entire trilogy.
I mean, it was nice revisiting the Old Kingdom, which is why this has three stars: for the Paperwings and the sendings and the evil Free Magic beings and Chlorr of the Mask. But if I hadn't read the Sabriel trilogy, I don't think I would have enjoyed this. If you're new to Garth Nix, don't start here.