Goldenhand was never going to be a neutral read.
I was so excited to snap up a signed copy at Forbidden Planet recently – seriously, I should just not look at the Signed Copies shelf there, it is always full of temptation – firstly because, like the rest of the Old Kingdom books, it’s a beautiful book, and secondly because, without straying too deeply into the realms of sentimentality, Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen are books that have affected my worldview quietly and unshowily for a long time. Especially Lirael, which is important, because Lirael is really Goldenhand‘s central character: I’ve always identified very heavily with Lirael.
Anyway. I think loving books can make me more critical of their sequels, not less. And so it is with Goldenhand.
The main issue with Goldenhand is its pacing, which is very odd indeed, especially given the taut pacing of Sabriel. The book follows two storylines, alternating between them with deadening regularity: Ferin, a nomad from the lands to the north of the Old Kingdom, travels south, battling Free Magic creatures and sorcerers to bear a message of utmost importance from Lirael’s long-dead mother to the Clayr, the women who See the future in ice; meanwhile, Lirael herself, having rescued Nicholas Sayre from the Free Magic creature he fought in The Creature in the Case (squeezing in a plug for that novella) and worried about the strange and potent mix of Free and Charter Magic that seems to have taken up residence within him after her old companion the Disreputable Dog rescued him from Death, flies north to the Clayr’s Glacier herself, to consult with the Librarians who she once worked among there.
It is not by any means a complicated plot. The segments following the flight of Lirael and Nick are interesting only because we’ve met these characters before, and because of some admittedly rather endearing romantic tension (more on which later). And Ferin’s journey is…competent, but we’re never really given a reason to be interested in her. I kept waiting for the plot to start, which is never a good place to be when you’re halfway through the page count of a novel.
And then…things kick up a gear. Ferin delivers her message of Doom (armies massing in the north! Chlorr of the Mask attacking the Old Kingdom!), and everyone starts realising that they should probably do something about it pretty quickly, and suddenly this involves travelling to the Empty Lands beyond the Great Rift, which from hints we’ve been given in the earlier novels seems to be a pretty big deal, and there are only a hundred pages or so left, so I’m assuming that there’ll be another book after Goldenhand.
It feels like pretty much the whole plot of the book takes place in the last 100 pages. To be honest, those last 100 pages redeemed Goldenhand in my eyes, at least a little, because we got to see some of Nix’ stark, elegant worldbuilding, untouched by any preconceptions.
Oh, and because of Lirael and Nick.
As I said before, I’m very biased about Lirael: I like her, and I like how Nix handles her romance – her first romance – here. I like the initial awkwardness between her and Nick, the aching embarrassment and misinterpretation. I like the fact that she and Nick do such a lot of snogging, and that that’s OK. I like that Lirael puts her job – which is, after all, saving the Old Kingdom from evil Free Magic creatures – first. I like the sense we get that Lirael really deserves this romance, after all her loneliness – because she does, she really does. One of the things that Nix is great at is capturing normal teenage experience – especially female experience – and putting that into a fantasy setting, without diminishing either character or setting; that’s probably what makes the Old Kingdom books so quietly compelling, that the experience they render is so quotidian but also so unusual in fantasy of their type.
I want to talk a bit about Ferin now, because she, and the depiction of her culture, made me a little…uneasy. Ferin comes from a culture vaguely modelled on Native American/Siberian tribes; which is to say, their sorcerers are called shamans, they live in clans named after animals that live on the steppe, and they spend their lives attacking the other clans.
In an interview for Strange Horizons, Nix says that
Introducing Ferin in Goldenhand was definitely in response to the conversation that has been ongoing in YA literature circles: we do need more diversity.
Here’s the thing: as a representation of a non-Western culture, the nomads of the north just feel a little…thin; a cliched representation of the other. (It doesn’t help in this regard that I’ve just started reading Embassytown by China Mieville, a writer who has practically built a reputation on genuinely different representations of cultural difference.) There’s no thought to the nomads of Goldenhand: culturally, they are Not Like the Old Kingdom (read: Not Western), so they must, obviously, be diverse.
It really doesn’t help that the tribes are all serving the evil whims of Chlorr of the Mask: even if they are doing so out of fear, it feels very like the Evil Southern Black People serving Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Incidentally, I had exactly the same problem with Clariel: yes, Clariel is aromantic/asexual, and that’s good; but then she turns into an evil supervillain because she can’t relate to anyone. Not so good.
Goldenhand‘s a really mixed bag, and I can’t help thinking that the change of publisher (the Old Kingdom series is now with Hot Key Books, instead of HarperCollins) might have contributed to that. But I also can’t help hoping for another instalment in the Old Kingdom series.