Lirael has never felt at home among her people, the second-sighted Clayr, because she has never been granted the Sight herself. Her only consolations are her work in the great library of the Clayr and her companion the Disreputable Dog, a strange and magical creature who bounded into her life when a spell went awry. On her nineteenth birthday, however, everything changes. Lirael discovers a strange inheritance waiting for her in the ancient caves, while the rest of the Clayr realize that she is key to solving the mystery of a dark power that blocks the sight of the Clayr. Accompanied only by the Disreputable Dog, armed only with a destiny she doesn’t know how to use, Lirael is sent forth.
Meanwhile, Prince Sameth of the Old Kingdom is facing his own problems. He’s expected to succeed his mother Sabriel in her role as Abhorsen, the mage who wields seven magic bells to undo the work of necromancers and lay the Dead to rest. But a near-deadly encounter with a necromancer has left Sameth terrified of his calling. When he discovers that an old school friend is in trouble, running away to rescue him seems like a welcome relief. Instead, Sameth fiunds himself drawn not only into Lirael’s destiny, but into confrontation with the dark powers he was hoping to escape.
This is certainly a very enjoyable book. The prose isn’t brilliant–Nix has a mildly annoying habit of using exclamation points in the narration–but it’s certainly sufficient. The characters are all pretty well-characterized; the author has a knack for portraying realistic immaturity in his protagonists while keeping them sympathetic. Nix also makes a couple of plot choices that do not follow the standard Adventure Fantasy Formula ™, something I very much appreciated.
The real triumph of the book, however, is the world it creates, which is easily one of the most compelling that I’ve encountered in a while. It’s a study in contrasts: the structured world of the Clayr’s Glacier, which has a very “high fantasy” feel; the darker Old Kingdom, where the Abhorsen fights constantly against necromancers and the Dead; and Ancelstierre, the country across the mysterious Wall on the Old Kingdom’s southern border, where magic does not work and instead people use World War One-level technology. In fact, some of the most compelling sequences take place around the border, where Ancelstierran soldiers defend the perimeter with magic that officially doesn’t exist, and whether you fight with machine guns or swords can depend on which way the wind is blowing.
And then there’s the realm of the dead. Lirael has metaphysics that would technically be called “funky.” Death has nine Precincts, each with its own dangers, and all filled with a river that carries souls deeper into Death. Sometimes spirits resist the current, and force their way out into Life again. Or they can be compelled to rise and serve a necromancer. It seems very like a pagan view of the afterlife, but it’s not–because the underworld is only the beginning. Ultimately the river carries souls out through the Ninth Gate, beyond which there is no returning. What happens then, the book appropriately leaves a mystery.
It’s the job of the Abhorsen to see that this order is honored. Guided by The Book of the Dead, and wielding both Charter Magic (an invocation of the Charter, which describes the entire world), and Free Magic (which is strange and at best ambiguous, a left-over from before the Beginning when the Seven Shiners forged the Charter), the Abhorsen can walk in and out of Death at will, subduing spirits with seven magical bells: Ranna, the Sleeper; Mosrael, the Waker; Kibeth, the Walker; Dyrim, the Speaker; Belgaer, the Thinker; Saranel, the Binder; and Astarael, the Sorrowful.
The one big problem of the book, unfortunately, is Lirael herself. Everything comes easily to her. She learns magic without much pain or effort. No less than two fabulous destinies are practically dropped into her lap. A large portion of her travels are spent sailing down the river on a magical boat, safe from any roving Dead. When she encounters the necromancer who nearly killed Sameth, she escapes without a scratch. This might not be so much of a problem in another book, because Lirael is a genuinely likable character, with a practical streak that’s quite charming. Unfortunately the secondary character, Sameth, suffers vastly more than Lirael and so becomes much more compelling by comparison. The odds against him seem greater, so you cheer for him more; and because he has more problems, he becomes more sympathetic. “I don’t fit in because everyone else has the Sight and I don’t” is a truly sad and empathy-inducing situation; but it rather pales before “I’m expected to hold all the forces of the dead in check but I’m absolutely terrified because I was nearly killed by a necromancer and I still carry the scars, and I’ve got an infected wound and I’m fleeing for my life from a horde of the Dead and barely staying ahead of them, and I think I accidentally killed two people in that town back there, and oh yeah, my horse just died.”
I mentioned earlier that Nix had made some atypical plot choices; one of them was in a having a classic running-from-his-destiny character (Sameth) get a rebuke/reality check about the immaturity of shirking your duty and running from your destiny. This I really liked. But having it administered by Lirael rang a little hollow. When she was mentally shaking her head over Sameth’s self-pity or urging him to be courageous and face his fears, I was actually rather annoyed at her, because she hadn’t suffered anything half as worthy of self-pity, and she had never known such fear.
Some people may feel uneasy at the themes of walking into death and compelling spirits, and the fact that the Abhorsen uses the same bells that necromancers do. However, I don’t consider this to be problematic. First of all, the afterlife presented in Lirael is so foreign that obsessive concern over details doesn’t seem to have a point. Furthermore, the Abhorsen’s purpose is to act as an anti-necromancer; to make sure that the dead do not return to the world of the living, but find eternal peace.
Otherwise, the book’s morals are pretty much okay. It’s mentioned that the Clayr are fairly permissive when it comes to taking lovers–Lirael herself is not the product of marriage–but it doesn’t enter into the story much, and I didn’t find it too troublesome. There is some violence, and a cartload of creepiness connected with the Dead, so it’s definitely in the YA category.