Well all right then.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the end of Abhorsen, last of the Abhorsen trilogy, was so very epic in scale and high in stakes that I simply couldn’t imagine a need for more books in the Old Kingdom series. Admittedly, I did own Across the Wall and in it “Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case”, but I saw that as more of a coda: what happened to Nick after the Disreputable Dog’s intervention.
Then, surprisingly, Clariel was released. I thought little of it – set long before Touchstone was born, it filled in a gap if you knew what you were reading. Just a little one-off story. The same for “To Hold the Bridge”. It’s easy enough to explore a world that’s been created when you can choose any previous point in the timeline to expand. It’s a technique that has served many authors well: Mercedes Lackey with Valdemar, C.J. Cherryh with Alliance-Union, Irene Radford with the Dragon Nimbus, Dragonlance, etc.
I was very wrong.
Clariel and “To Hold the Bridge” were written to set the stage for Goldenhand. The book begins at the same time as “Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” but from Lirael’s side of the story. Which was much appreciated when I realized it. Oh sure, at the end of the story Nick makes it back to the Old Kingdom. But what happens next? That’s what we get to find out.
Of course, the plot has already begun by that point, and it’s business as usual for the Charter bloodlines of the Old Kingdom: no time to rest save that what your body requires, and off to the next crisis. Oh, and we’re introduced to a tribeswoman of the northern mountains who has a message for the Clayr. Specifically, as we later learn, for Lirael. It’s another whirlwind adventure wrapping up to a nice conclusion as per usual.
THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Okay, so. Back in the Abhorsen trilogy, one of the enemies was a necromancer known as Chlorr of the Mask, so called because her face is always hidden behind a bronze mask. She died in the course of those books and became one of the Greater Dead. But she wasn’t banished or sent beyond the Ninth (and final) Gate of Death, and so remained to pose a threat. But she wasn’t always Chlorr.
She was born Clariel. Granddaughter of the Abhorsen in her day, and also related to the royal family. I do slightly regret not rereading that book now, but again, it’s not one of my favorites. Even before she became Chlorr, Clariel was arrogant, obnoxious, and self-centered. And we knew who she would become because in the Abhorsen trilogy, Mogget teases her by calling her Chlorr No-Face, and almost reveals her secret. He says that “she was an Ab-” and silences himself before saying Abhorsen.
That tease was the clue needed to unravel the villain of Goldenhand early on, as Ferin considers the matter of the Witch With No Face. I think Chlorr is the only character in the entire series that Nix makes a point of concealing their face.
Now, for those people who didn’t remember (or read) Clariel, there are additional clues. After Lirael has been overwhelmed with the luxury from Clariel’s grandfather’s hunting palace and is preparing to leave, one of the old sendings brings her special equipment: the cloak, mask, and bottles necessary to imprison Free Magic creatures as had been done in the old days. The mask, of course, looks identical to the one Chlorr wears, save that it still bears Charter marks. So the reader can guess what’s coming.
Garth Nix then pulls a nasty trick on us. He wasn’t content with faking us out in Abhorsen, making us think that Lirael would sacrifice herself and die to reseal Orannis. Oh no, he does it again, making us think she’ll answer the call of the Ninth Gate. Happily, she doesn’t, and she and Nick can give way to the romance that we’ve been teased with since Abhorsen. We also get a more hurried pairing of Sameth and Ferin. Which wasn’t done too badly considering the entire book takes place over the course of two weeks at most. The two spend a good amount of time together and have some chemistry. And Ferin is pretty straightforward, which can only help accelerate matters, especially when you consider that sex is a very common response to near-death experiences.
THIS IS THE END OF THE SPOILERS. FOR NOW.
Is this it for the Old Kingdom? I don’t think so. It may be another decade or more before Garth Nix revisits this series, but I think he’ll wait only as long as is necessary to find a good idea to build a new arc of books off of. I really can’t fault that methodology, as it ensures that he’s not churning these things out purely to make money.
I will say that, based on how he wrote the first trilogy to flow into the second set by way of “Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case”, that this is one of the very few series that I will advocate reading in publication order only. Because Clariel and “To Hold the Bridge” were very clearly unplanned when the Abhorsen trilogy was written, they have little bearing on those events and, even worse, can spoil many things. There’s nothing wrong with publication order, of course, I just tend to prefer chronological order. In many cases it isn’t an issue, but because Sabriel is such a mystery as it slowly introduces us to the world of the Old Kingdom, it really must be the first book any new reader visits.