Children and YA / Fantasy / Highly Recommended / Part of a Series

Mini-Review: Lirael by Garth Nix

It’s the first month of the year and already I’m struggling to keep up with my reviews — so you can expect a whole slew of “mini-reviews” coming at you.  Although I did just finish One Day by David Nicholls and looking forward to writing my review of that one.  I’m so grateful to those who recommended it.

But most of what I’ve read lately is pretty “light” so mini-reviews, here we come.  I decided tonight that winter is affecting my ability to read literary-type books.  I read mostly on my commute, which these days involves being wrapped up like a package and shivering at the bus stop.  So reading Dickens and Dumas is just not working.

So, on to Lirael, which I think is a beautiful-sounding name for a book:

Lirael is Book 2 of the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix, a fantasy series I’m loving.  Sabriel, the heroine in the first book of the series, is a young woman who has to rescue her father, The Abhorsen, who is the necromancer for the Old Kingdom.  He’s responsible for protecting the Old Kingdom from the dead, who can escape or be released from Death and cause all kinds of trouble.  Unlike regular magic, necromancy uses a set of seven bells, each one designed with a specific purpose. To save her father (and the kingdom of course), Sabriel is guided by Moggett, a very unusual cat, and Touchstone, a prince who has been imprisoned many years as a statue.

Lirael takes place about 18 years after Sabriel.  The main character, Lirael, is a teenage girl born to the Clayr, a group of seers.  The seers work together to collect and interpret visions, which are then used to govern the Kingdom.  The Clayr live in a community buried within a glacier, and those who are born to the Clayr must wait until they find The Sight, which occurs at some point in their teen years.  Unfortunately for Lirael, she is growing into her older teens and hasn’t Seen anything yet.  She’s stuck in a weird limbo, treated somewhere between a servant and a student.  She’s desperately miserable without The Sight until one day she meets some of the older Clayr, who employ her as an Assistant in the Clayr Library while she waits for The Sight, so she won’t feel so useless.

Working in the library, Lirael sets out to learn as much as she can about magic and explores the forbidden underground levels of the library.  It turns out she’s a much stronger magician than any of the Clayr, yet she still mopes and waits for The Sight.  Finally the Clayr have a vision about Lirael herself, and that vision tells them that Lirael must set out on a quest to save the Kingdom from an enemy necromancer who is raising an army of thousands of dead.

The book also introduces Prince Sameth, the sixteen year old son of King Touchstone and Sabriel.  Sameth and his friends on the other side of the Kingdom border (the non-magical world) encounter a necromancer and a horde of attacking dead.  Sameth confronts the necromancer in Death but is terrified by his experience.  He returns home and is expected to learn the craft of necromancy to protect the Kingdom, but his fight with the necromancer seems to have permanently scarred him.  Sameth has an older sister who is strong and confident and ready to rule the Kingdom.  He’s kind of the simple and inadequate younger brother. But when he learns that one of his friends from the other side has entered the Kingdom and is in danger, he sets off despite his fears to rescue him.

Complicated?  Absolutely.  Garth Nix has created a complex world, with strange and different kinds of magic.  He’s put a fair amount of thought into the Kingdom’s governance structure and how it interacts with the world of humans.  Like Sabriel, this book is a fun read but not an easy read, which I appreciated.

One thing you might not like about the book – Nix creates two main characters who spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves.  Lirael has this incredible talent for magic and is smart and courageous, but all she can think about is that she’s supposed to have The Sight and doesn’t.  Sameth goes off on this quest to save his friend without giving it any thought or preparation, and even though his Kingdom and his parents are in mortal danger, he has a hard time even picking up a book to prepare himself for the role he’s been born into.  He’s selfish and self-centered, a teen who has been given everything and takes on no real responsibility.

None of this bothered me.  In fact, while I wanted to hit these two characters over the head a bunch of times, I love characters that seem realistic (even in a fantasy world) and these two did.  These characters embodied what it felt like to be a teenager.  You can have so many things to be thankful for, like talent or good looks or a loving family, but still feel like you don’t fit in, or you don’t know what your role in life is, or you feel like everyone around you knows what they’re doing and you don’t.  That’s how these characters felt to me – insecure, scared, and very real – and I loved the book for that.

Because of course this is a book not just about a quest to save the Kingdom, but a journey of growth for these two characters.  Nix combines a really creative, detail-rich fantasy story with strong writing and characters you want to see grow and develop.  I highly recommend this book.

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