Lirael by Garth Nix (#2 in the Old Kingdom series) (HarperCollins Children’s, first published in 2001)
This review contains spoilers for the first book in the series.
I was a bit sad when I realised that I would not see much of Sabriel in LIRAEL. Instead, the book starts fourteen years after Sabriel and Touchstone have defeated Kerrigor and restored the Old Kingdom, and the focus of this book is on Lirael, a daughter of the Clayr, and Prince Sameth, son of Sabriel and Touchstone – so thankfully, we do get to see just a tiny bit of Sabriel! I guess I don’t normally expect this from a series, for it to jump forward until the main characters of the first book are parents and we get to see their children going on adventures of their own! It’s kind of weird but really interesting.
But I needn’t have been sad, because I soon came to love Lirael as a character even more than I did Sabriel. LIRAEL is a longer book than SABRIEL by about 200 pages or so, and I feel like those extra 200 pages are mostly spent on character development. To which I say: YES! I felt like I knew Lirael much better than Sabriel at the end of the novel. When the story begins, Lirael is fourteen years old. She is the only Clayr she knows who has not received the gift of the Sight by this age. She doesn’t look like the rest of the Clayr: where they have brown skin and light hair and eyes, she has pale skin and dark hair and eyes. She is ashamed of her lack of the Sight and she feels like she doesn’t belong. But as the book goes on, she realises that another destiny calls her.
The best thing about this book was definitely the introduction of the Disreputable Dog, a creature that is a blend of Free Magic and Charter Magic, who becomes Lirael’s companion as Lirael fights the loneliness of growing up among the Clayr while she feels like she will never be a true Clayr. The Disreputable Dog is ABSOLUTELY ADORABLE. She talks! She does magic! She helps Lirael when Lirael is in trouble! She gives Lirael a sharp nip when Lirael wallows too much in self-pity! SHE IS MY FAVOURITE CHARACTER IN THE ENTIRE NOVEL. Sorry, Lirael, I love you too, but the Dog wins. She’s just too cute.
I would honestly have been happy to just spend a whole book reading about the adventures of Lirael and the Dog as they explored the hidden depths of the Library of the Clayr, where Lirael begins to work after her fourteenth birthday. The Library seemed like such a cool place, with potentially terrifying and fatal surprises lurking in every corner, and Lirael took such pride in being a librarian. I loved her curiosity and her quiet strength, and her vulnerability and the moments when she would just hug the Dog in her sadness.
I must point out that this book didn’t feel like it had much of a climax anywhere. It builds up a Big Bad that is hopefully going to be defeated in the third book, ABHORSEN, so LIRAEL is mostly just laying out the preparations for that book, by showing us Lirael growing up and feeling lost about her place in the world, until she realises there is a unique path that she alone can take. It also shows us Sameth, who is burdened by his family with the role of Abhorsen-in-Waiting when he is absolutely terrified of Death and cannot even think of touching The Book of the Dead, which all Abhorsens must study – because he suffered a traumatic encounter with a powerful necromancer the first time he ever went into Death alone. LIRAEL shows us how Sameth and Lirael’s destiny intertwine in unexpected ways, but the novel stops before anything really big happens.
Fortunately, I solved this problem by just going straight on to reading ABHORSEN. And I would say that even without a proper climax, LIRAEL managed to be exciting and never once dragged, even at over 500 pages. I fell in love with Lirael and her Disreputable Dog, and though I had trouble warming to Sameth, who could be an absolute idiot at times, I sympathised with his trauma and I delighted in watching him discover that there could be more to his destiny that he too realised. I loved that the book gave us two heroes who always thought that their fate had to be one thing that they just couldn’t seem to achieve, who crumbled under the expectations of their family because of this – but then they find that their life has some special purpose meant only for them after all.