My younger son reads a lot of SF & Fantasy. Ever since he polished off the Ranger’s Apprentice series in 3rd grade, we’ve had multiple librarians recommend Sabriel by Garth Nix as something he might like. But despite multiple exposures, he’s never been interested and it never quite made it to the top of my reading priority list.
This month, the Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club selected Sabriel as one of their group reads. I decided to try to be more social about my reading in 2017, so finally took the time to read Sabriel.
Like many of the others reading along, I think I would have loved Sabriel if I had first read it as a tween or young teen. I liked the world/magic system, but as an adult found the writing just adequate with a few too many Deus Ex Machina Moments. I wish the audiobook had been available, because I think it would have enjoyed it even more as an audiobook.
The edition I got from the library was an omnibus with Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. And while I typically find my enjoyment diminishes if I read multiple books in the same series sequentially (or too many books in exactly the same genre in a row), I was hooked enough that I decided to just continue on once I finished Sabriel. I would definitely recommend making sure you have access to Abhorsen (the 3rd in the trilogy) before starting Lirael because the two almost seem to be parts of the same whole separated by a cliff-hanger and arbitrary volume length constraints. The continuously escalating action keeps the pages turning, the Disreputable Dog is charming, but the writing is still choppier than I prefer.
Goldenhand is the fifth book in the Old Kingdom series (well, the fifth-and-a-half if you count The Creature in the Case, which has some bearing on the events of Goldenhand). Set some time after Abhorsen, it follows two main characters as they head for the Clayr's Glacier, where a community of women focus their hereditary gift of Seeing the future through the ice of the Glacier: Ferin, a young woman from an analogue of a Native American culture to the north of the Old Kingdom who's delivering a vital message to the Clayr; and Lirael, now Abhorsen-in-Waiting, who's flying north to the Glacier with Nicholas Sayre, concerned about the potent and unprecedented mixture of Charter and Free Magic within him and wanting to consult the Library of the Clayr where she once worked.
I love the original Old Kingdom trilogy, Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen: I read them when I was younger and they've kind of insinuated themselves into my worldview quietly and unobtrusively. So there was always going to be a high bar for Goldenhand, as there was for Clariel, which came out a year or so ago.
And, as expected, I have mixed feelings about it.
I think the big issue with Goldenhand is really the pacing, which is frankly bizarre. For a good half of the book very little actually happens: it's just travelling, and, yes, Ferin is running from some Free Magic creatures, but, honestly, we don't know why or why we should care. Meanwhile, Lirael and Nick are having embarrassed misunderstandings, which is adorable but plotless, marking time until Ferin gets to the Glacier.
And then...they do reach the Glacier, and everything kicks up a gear. They find out, suddenly, that a host of the Dead and of the nomads in the north are marching on the Old Kingdom, and that the necromancer Chlorr of the Mask is behind it all. They find out that, for contrived reasons, someone is going to have to go to the Empty Lands north of the Great Rift, where there isn't even air to breathe. I mean, all of this is a pretty big deal, and there were only a hundred or so pages left, and I started wondering if (and hoping) there was going to be another book to cover it all.
Nope. The main action of the book takes place in the last seventy pages. It's good action, mind you, as fast-paced as Sabriel, but the weirdly-spaced pacing leaves it feeling rushed and underwhelming - if only Nix had cut some of the filler earlier in the book and expanded those seventy pages.
I also think, perhaps, that Goldenhand is overshadowed by the events of Abhorsen: the binding of Orannis and the Southerling emergency. After all, how the fuck do you follow up what's essentially the aversion of a devastating nuclear war, a long-laid plan to destroy everything that is? How do you pick up with the characters who survived that and not have it be an anti-climax?
Not like this, anyway.
The other thing I really don't like about Goldenhand is its use of a culture that's obviously thinly modelled on a Native American one (in that Ferin's people live in tribes named after wild animals, have shamans and spend their days attacking other tribes) without any attempt to depict it accurately. I'm emphatically not claiming any kind of knowledge of Native American culture, but this just feels like a lazy attempt to introduce some cultural diversity into the Old Kingdom books without doing the necessary research, or taking the time to create a backstory and a rich culture for this new land. It's neither a fully-realised fantasy culture nor a properly-researched analogue of a real-world one, which is a crappy and problematic place to be.
OK. Despite all appearances, I didn't actually hate Goldenhand. Lirael is one of my very favourite characters in fiction, so that was probably impossible. Particularly, I loved Lirael and Nick's romance: fraught, as I said before, with misunderstandings and awkwardness and uncertainty - we feel Lirael's social awkwardness almost painfully. If there's one thing Nix is great at, it's rendering teenage experience - particularly female experience - into fantasy without making either teenagerhood or fantasy feel underserved. I love that Lirael and Nick literally want to snog all the time, and that that intensity of feeling (which is very teenage) isn't treated as frivolous; that it's balanced out by Lirael's dedication to her duty as Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and she doesn't lose sight of that duty.
The ending made me cry, a little bit. Goddammit, Lirael deserves this romance.
Goldenhand's really a very mixed bag, but that's not going to stop me picking up the next one. (If there is one.)
So, I love Sabriel and enjoyed the other earlier books about the Old Kingdom that I’ve read. I was intrigued by this one, especially since it sounded like it would tie together some of the strands from the other books. Which it did! And the story here is engaging enough. But I found my enjoyment hampered by two facts: I expected a depth and richness that I didn’t find here, and I think this book could have used another round of copy-editing. A small thing, and not Nix’s fault as such, but also jarring enough to bump me out of the story a couple of times.