It’s a bit surprising to me to see the disappointed reviews of this, because I quite enjoyed it. Of course, it’s a different world to the one Sabriel enters, and different even from the world that Lirael and Sameth have to navigate as Sabriel and Touchstone work on restoring the Old Kingdom. This one doesn’t feature any contact with Ancelstierre, and is set before even Touchstone/Torrigan’s time. So naturally, the concerns of its people, the politics, are all quite different. It’s interesting to see an Abhorsen clan which is much larger than that of Sabriel’s time, but which is decidedly weaker; it’s interesting to see in Sameth the diffidence of earlier Abhorsens.
But in fact, I like Clariel herself rather more than Lirael or Sameth. She has goals and she pursues them, and she doesn’t have to take on responsibility, but she does. Of course, all her choices go wrong, unlike Sabriel or Lirael’s. If you think about the guiding words of these books, “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” — you could almost say that Sabriel, knowing her choices, chooses her path. Clariel’s path chooses her, because she’s not given the information she needs to make her own choice. In neither case is there really an alternate way, but Sabriel’s path is knowing and Clariel’s is forced.
It’s interesting to get a look at the bloodlines in the land and how they work out in a time of peace. Because of the strength of Sabriel and her father, and Touchstone and Sabriel’s rule, it’s easy in the trilogy to think that when the bloodlines are in the right place, everything will be alright. Clariel shows us that it isn’t, and gives us a picture of the other troubles of the Old Kingdom. There are no Dead creatures here in this book; instead we see the Abhorsens and Charter mages needing to deal with the other threat, of Free Magic.
One thing I really loved, on a character-level, is that Clariel is explicitly asexual. She’s not interested, she’s not going to change her mind for the right person or something, and like many ace people, she’s even experimented a bit to try and figure out how that all works. It’s awesome that she doesn’t really have conflict about this, and while people think she may be mistaken, nobody’s pushing her to “fix” it, or guilting her because she doesn’t want that.
In a way, the story feels very incomplete, because it’s just a fragment of a life, a tiny piece of the history of the Old Kingdom, and it doesn’t connect up the dots between this book and the original trilogy. There is plenty of room for many, many more stories, even ones featuring the same characters, should Nix choose. But we do have the shape of Clariel’s life sketched out for us, between this book and the original trilogy; I think it may be more satisfying seen that way, rather than read as a stand-alone.