TW: suicidal ideation.
This review contains spoilers.
Like its predecessor Sabriel, Garth Nix’s Lirael is a classic fantasy tale of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Its eponymous protagonist is, when the novel opens, fourteen, and profoundly miserable because she has not yet gained the gift of the Sight, the ability to see into the future that is the birthright of the mostly-female extended family and community that is the Clayr. She’s discovered contemplating suicide by a couple of senior Clayr, and to take her mind off things is offered a job in the Clayr’s Great Library, an appropriately magical and dangerous locale. Over the next few years, she inadvertently summons, and then befriends, a powerful magical being known as the Disreputable Dog, releases a monster into the Library and learns to bind it, and finally rediscovers a forgotten magical skill that holds the key to her heritage and her destiny. To complete this process of self-discovery, though, she must leave the home she’s known all her life and venture out into the Old Kingdom, in search of a young man from the mundane land of Ancelstierre, where magic doesn’t exist, who is unwittingly digging up something better left buried.
Something that struck me on this, my umpteenth re-read of Lirael, is how much Lirael’s journey to self-actualisation is tied to her heredity. The key discovery she makes in the novel is that she is the daughter of an Abhorsen, the Old Kingdom official who lays the powerful Dead that plague the kingdom to rest, working to foil the plots of necromancers. The post of Abhorsen is a hereditary one, and by a couple of other signs Lirael figures out that she (and not the hapless Prince Sameth, who we’ve seen repeatedly avoiding his studies of the necromancer’s text The Book of the Dead) is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting; and that, therefore, she will probably never have the Sight.
Lirael’s whole backstory is analogous to that of the bookish social outcast, the lonely high-school teen; one of the things the novel is addressing is the sense of inferiority young geeks often feel. You might not fit into the crowd now, Nix is saying, but there are other things you can do, other ways in which you are special. But it’s striking that the purpose Lirael ultimately finds for herself originates not in any particular skill or anything she’s worked to achieve, but in her parentage – in something she has no control over. It is basically an accident that this lonely young woman ultimately becomes one of the most important people in the Old Kingdom. The text works hard to conceal this, showing us her magical skill, her courage, her self-reliance as evidence of her worthiness. But that’s what it boils down to.
This somewhat undermines Nix’s core message about the possibility of finding belonging and purpose as a (former) geek social outcast. You can find self-actualisation even if you’re not popular – but only if you happen to be related to someone important. But it also implies an exceptionalism that plays into some pernicious real-world geek social fallacies: Lirael’s birth, and subsequent Chosen One status, makes her not just different to, but better than, the Sighted Clayr. What geeky teenager, after all, would rather be a Sighted Clayr than Lirael, who gets to explore a huge and mysterious magical library, and ends up becoming part of the royal family? Again, I think this is a tendency that the novel is trying to resist: none of the Sighted Clayr characters are shallow or cruel or gossipy the way they might be in a contemporary teen drama (apart from possibly the brusque and impatient Aunt Kirrith), and Lirael’s discovery of her parentage isn’t a magical panacea for her grief for the life she always thought she’d have. But it’s still there.
This emphasis on hereditary power is of course endemic to the fantasy genre; I suspect that Lirael‘s problems come from its participation in that genre rather than any particular authorial ideology (although opting not to scrutinise the power structures you’re working with as an author is an ideological choice in itself). And it’s handled better here than it is in other high fantasy texts; we can at least believe in Lirael’s personal ability to take on the role her birth has assigned her. Less excusable is the novel’s prose, which, in a marked departure from the accessible and relatively modern voice of Sabriel, has a portentous, overwritten quality which I imagine Nix feels is appropriate for his fantasy setting. (There probably is an argument for the difference in tone between the two novels: Sabriel was raised in Ancelstierre, which is early-to-mid-1900s in vibe, whereas Lireal belongs to the considerably more medieval Old Kingdom. But that’s not an excuse for the writing to get worse.)
Ultimately Lirael is still a novel that’s special to me; one I still enjoy, and one I’d still be moderately happy to press into the hands of another young person in the knowledge that it treats its female protagonist with respect and sensitivity. But it’s interesting – and, I’d argue, pretty important – to consider what kind of ideological considerations underlie beloved texts, and especially beloved children’s texts; if only so we can learn a bit about why we are who we are.