So, it turns out I’m continuing the letter format here, but only because it felt rude to write to Sabriel and then not to write to Lirael and Abhorsen. Sorry if it gets annoying, but, as I’m sure you all know, books have feelings too.
If I enjoyed the tense, non-stop adventure of your sister volume Sabriel I am nonetheless grateful that you are a very different kind of book. Not only were you published six years after Sabriel, you also tell the story of the Old Kingdom fourteen years into the reign of King Touchstone and his Abhorsen queen Sabriel. And while there is yet another Big Bad brewing in the background, you are much more concerned with broadening our view of this incredible world, and then introducing us to all the newly relevant characters and manoeuvring each of them into the correct place for Abhorsen to deal with.
Which is to say, Lirael, that you are my favourite of these first three Old Kingdom books.
Mostly because I really like your namesake Lirael herself. It’s her fourteenth birthday when you introduce us to her and it’s not a happy occasion, serving only to remind her that she has yet to gain the Sight that will make her truly one of the Clayr and an adult. Already unusually dark-haired and pale-skinned amongst the white-blonde, brown-skinned Clayr around her, Lirael feels her difference keenly. She’s a quiet, introverted type, prone to despair, without friends or closer relatives than an aunt she feels no fondness for. I don’t know if it’s the way she’s written, or the mood I was in when I read this, but she’s a character I immediately felt heaps of empathy for. She seems very real to me.
“… it was not uncommon for librarians to lay down their lives for the benefit of the Clayr as a whole, either in dangerous research, simple overwork, or action against previously unknown dangers discovered in the Library’s collection.”
And, like many of we odd types, she finds a place working in a library. A Great Library no less, where climbing ropes and swords are as much a part of a librarian’s daily kit as pens and keys, (seriously, you couldn’t have enticed me in any more successfully had you been offering free cake!). In the Library she finds work that enables her to forget more easily all that she isn’t, as she satisfies her desire for knowledge and hones her Charter Magic skills. She explores mysterious and forbidden areas and reads dusty, forgotten tomes, and if you had been about nothing more than this, I’d have been happy. But you’re not one to be outdone by Sabriel and you soon have Lirael accidentally releasing malevolent creatures and, far more importantly, a benevolent one called the Disreputable Dog.
(The Disreputable Dog is fabulous. A joyous, impatient, adventurous, funny and affectionate delight. And the friend that Lirael sorely needs. I could go on and on about just how much I loved her, but it really would be indistinct ramblings, so let’s just say I love her, and she is another big reason why I love you, and move on, shall we? All the hearts).
You’re a lovely chunk of a book and you’re generous with the time you allowed me to spend getting to know Lirael, her people the Clayr and the Disreputable Dog, before introducing me to Sabriel and Touchstone’s son Sameth, and daughter Ellimere. I’ll admit I struggled to like Sam. He’s a well-drawn character with his own set of concerns and he is interesting, but I didn’t warm to him until I moved onto Abhorsen. This is absolutely not your fault. Your young characters are beautifully drawn, and you give both Lirael and Sameth plenty of room to wrangle with the problem of inherited expectations. Maybe I simply don’t like Sameth as much as Lirael because if I were in his position I would have been just as afraid.
I love how much more I’ve learned about the workings of Charter Magic in reading you. The magic of the Old Kingdom feels like it should be real and I am not a little in love with the idea of a net of magical symbols running through and around everything, both describing the world and binding it. I am fascinated by this magic wrought by creating chains of these symbols, using them to illustrate what the magic-worker wants to happen and how, with master marks used to increase the strength or efficacy of the spell. You have left me wondering how the more dangerous Free Magic is performed, however, and I’m not sure you ever plan to enlighten me, do you?
The necromancers and Free Magic creatures within your pages are the most perilous enemies Lirael, Sam and their friends face, when they’re not dealing with the reanimated Dead in one form or another and I enjoyed that you took your time to build up the tension. You introduce us to the necromancer Hedge and sorcerer Chlorr of the Mask in your prologue, but then use them sparingly and to great effect to create a sense of menace. The political situation across the Wall in Ancelsteirre does this too. The situation involving Southerling refugees and the growing strength of the ‘Our Country’ party at first seems to have little to do with the brewing trouble, except as a possible distraction, but it soon becomes clear that the two countries are more entwined than anyone realised.
If Sabriel was a terrified full-tilt dash for safety, you are a strenuous hike that allows your reader time to appreciate the scenery. You are also a two-part climb. Sabriel stands alone, but you and Abhorsen are sharing your story between you. Thankfully, being a reader who is always late to the party is an advantage here: I was able to put you down, stretch, go and get another drink and dive straight into Abhorsen. Don’t feel abandoned, I have only left you temporarily. I promise I’ll be back. Like I said before, you’re my favourite.
Hugs and Kisses,
I don’t know whether it’s just the blue of your cover, but you’re my favourite volume visually as well. You’re moody and dark, and you feel heavy in my hands. You are, in all ways, a Quality Book. Don’t ever change.