Australian author Garth Nix anticipated the boom in young adult literature almost 20 years ago with Sabriel, a dark and delightful tale of a young woman from a long line of necromancers tasked with making sure the dead stay dead. Sabriel and its sequels Lirael and Abhorsen were set in two neighboring countries divided by a mysterious wall: to the south, unmagical Ancelstierre, roughly analogous to 1920s England — and to the north, the Old Kingdom, saturated by magic and menaced by the roaming Dead.
The last book in the trilogy came out in 2003, but Nix is returning to that dangerous realm in his new novel, Clariel, set several hundred years before the events of the original books. Clariel is a young woman of noble family and great magical power, but all she wants is to escape the stifling capital city and live freely in the beloved forest of her childhood. When that freedom is repeatedly denied her, Clariel chooses a dangerous path.
"I had just written a couple of paragraphs introducing a character [in Lirael] and I wondered where she came from, what was her back story," Nix tells me in an email interview. "So I wrote that question in the margin of my manuscript book. It just took me a long time to answer that question."
What was it like to return to the Old Kingdom, after more than a decade?
I guess because I've been constantly thinking about Clariel's story and other stories in the Old Kingdom since writing Sabriel in the early 1990s, it never felt like being away to me. It was just that Clariel's particular story had to get to the head of the queue of stories in my head. That said, once I moved from just thinking about it to actually writing, I did have to go back and re-read the earlier books to make sure that I was properly back in that world. I generally don't like re-reading my books, but enough time had gone by that I could do it with a certain amount of distance.
What strikes me about Clariel is how hemmed in she is — at one point, she says "I am a card to be played." Sabriel and Lirael (the heroines of the original trilogy) are both young women who are, essentially, shoved out into the world and left to figure it out for themselves. Clariel might have been better off if someone had just dumped her in the forest and said, we don't know what to do with you, so go live your life.
I think she would have been unquestionably better off if left alone to work things out herself. It is the pressure of other people's needs and expectations that hem her in and cut off many of her choices. Clariel tries to make her own way, and makes the best choices she can in the circumstances, or the best choices she knows how to make. I wanted to explore that idea, which I think often happens in real life, of people ending up somewhere they don't want to be despite their best intentions and efforts.
Garth Nix is the author of the Old Kingdom series, the Shade's Children series and several other works of young adult fiction.
And as a followup to that, without spoiling too much, do you think Clariel would have become what she eventually became had she been allowed to go off and follow her desires? Was there something in her that would have led her down that path anyhow?
I think she has a certain potential which is only realized because of what happens. If she had been allowed to go and live the life of her choice, I think she would have been a very successful forester or Borderer, and lived a much happier and fulfilled life. Probably almost entirely without magic of any kind.
Just a general fan question – the idea of bells that control the dead is so fascinating, how did you come up with it?
This is kind of a retrospective answer that I've come up with due to lots of readers wanting to know, I think it is probably accurate but it is a reconstruction. Way back when writing Sabriel in 1991 or thereabouts, I knew I wanted her and the Abhorsen family in general to be kind of anti-necromancers, who used necromantic magic — but not for evil and power, but to restore the natural order of things, to make sure the Dead stayed dead. I wanted this magic to be distinctive, not like anything that had gone before, and I was exploring various beliefs in different cultures and through history about how to deal with things coming back from death or evil spirits in general. One prominent example is exorcism "by bell, book and candle." Candles didn't sound too narratively exciting, magic books were all through so many fantasy books, but bells ... bells feel magical anyway. Around the same time, I was reading Dorothy Sayer's excellent murder mystery The Nine Tailors, which features named bells in a church. So I put together the idea of named bells with magic and shortly wrote down Ranna, Mosrael, Kibeth, Dyrim, Belgaer, Saraneth and Astarael, and so the seven bells were born ...