Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Review: Clariel by Garth Nix

I've been sitting on a review of Clariel for a while because as a longtime fan of Garth Nix, it was a fun return to a story universe I love. I've updated this review since originally writing it to reflect other reviews I've read and expand on things I didn't get into before.

A Bit of Background

You know that A in LGBTQIA+? That would stand for asexual and aromantic. Asexual is an umbrella term for a number of identities on the ace spectrum, but it basically means someone who does not experience sexual attraction. They might be sex-repulsed, sex-ambivalent, or sex-positive. Sex-ew, sex-meh, or sex-yay. 

Someone who does not experience any romantic attraction is aromantic. Differentiating between sexual and romantic is important for people; people frequently say, "They're super hot and I'd love to sleep with them, but I'd never date them." 

Some other identities on the ace spectrum are demisexual, someone who experiences no sexual attraction until a deep emotional or romantic bond has been formed with another person. There's also gray-ace, which means an asexual person who only rarely experiences sexual attraction. These I.D.'s also apply to aromantic-spectrum people, with demiromantic, grayromantic, and more.

So, let's talk about asexuals in Young Adult fiction!


A lot of YA centers on romance. I don't remember the last time I read a YA novel without a romantic subplot. Even Clariel has a subplot in which Clariel rebuffs the romantic advances of her fellow student. (He whines about the friendzone. She snaps at him.)

It is easy to see why there is a lack of representation in YA. YA deals a lot with issues like puberty, hormones, first relationships, first sexual encounters, and discovering sexuality. Because people just assume these experiences are universal, often because they haven't heard of asexuality, portrayals of asexuality are not as common. 

Sometimes, when a book has a romantic, non-sexual relationship, reviews will even accuse the author of "neutering" the relationship or of being disingenuous in representing teens' priorities. (Not my words. I'm referencing think pieces and blog posts which I refuse to link to.) Those people tend to interpret the call for more asexual rep in YA as a masked call for censorship.

Freedom, independence, and reader perceptions

I went through the Amazon reviews for Clariel before I bought it. Many people complained about Clariel's solitary nature and her desire to live on her own as a Borderer. To me, her desire to get back to the forest where she grew up and live independently, escaping an arranged marriage to a jerk in the process, is somewhat related to her asexuality. Her aunt, who also chose a life of solitude as an herbalist, is said to be "just" like her -- ace and happily living outside the bounds of heteronormativity. This is the life path Clariel has seen modeled by another person, so she knows it's not an impossible pipe dream. Being a solitary person herself who hates the city, crowds, and social niceties, she wants to pursue an independent life like her aunt, doing what she enjoys with other Borderers but living on her own. 

Basically, viable options for women and queer people exist in this world outside of heterosexual marriage for reproduction. Yet her desire for freedom and independence was the characteristic reviewers and consumers complained about the most. 

-obligatory oversized badass cover-
Another sentiment I used to encounter a lot when I was active on the NaNoWriMo forums is that asexuals (as well as rebellious princesses) should grow up and "do their duty" rather than running off or seeking other options for themselves. It's a bit gross that seeking to preserve one's sexual autonomy and identity is considered immature, lazy, or selfish. "Just buck up and submit to years of marital rape and unwanted pregnancies, already! It's your duty!!!" Yeah, no. 

Anyway, I wanted to talk about Clariel because it is only the second representation I personally have seen of an asexual character in written fiction.

At the point of writing this review, the only other ace character I'd encountered was the mother from The World According to Garp. She is an aromantic asexual...and a rapist. Her asexuality is used mostly to justify her feminism, which plays to the stereotype of asexuals and feminists being "unnatural man-haters." Representations of terrible people aren't always bad representation, but it was the book's attempt to portray her rape of a disabled man under her care as positive that grossed me out.

The Plot Summary

Clariel's plan for her life is derailed by her mother's ambitions when they move to the city. Suddenly she has to dress right, go to etiquette school, and pretend to like the boy to whom she's betrothed (despite never having experienced sexual attraction in her life). As she plots her escape, Clariel begins to suspect there's something sinister behind this young man's perfect, respectable mask. But she's no angel herself. As an Abhorsen, Clariel is a distant royal cousin, and she's inherited the berserker gene of the royal family. She makes headway in controlling her berserker rages, but discovers an affinity for Free Magic, the primal, addictive magic wielded by necromancers and dark sorcerers. 

When murderous plots threaten those closest to her, Clariel seeks the help of others. But no one seems to care. Desperate, she turns to Free Magic to save the King and avenge what she's lost. Can she survive the toll such power takes, or will she lose her soul to her darker instincts?

Horror Fantasy, Grey-Morality, All the Things I Like Basically

That...pretty much sums it up. Also, there's a dragon in Clariel. The main character is pretty much a badass, if misguided. AND THERE'S A TALKING CAT-DEMON.

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Mogget's a fan favorite, the little monster.

Garth Nix's Old Kingdom-verse falls in the genre of horror-flavored dark fantasy. Eldritch horrors, demons, the undead, scary scenes, and more dot the landscape of this unique world. It was fascinating to see what that world is like hundreds of years before the dystopian anarchy post-zombie-apocalypse of Sabriel: a prosperous, bustling society where magic is considered uncivilized and the Abhorsens, "good" necromancers who banish the undead, are a quaint relic of the past. 

Clariel throws a bit of a wrench in all that. Fans of Garth Nix will recognize her as the character who becomes Chlorr of the Mask, an ancient, undead sorceress who haunts the main characters of Lirael and Abhorsen. You'd think that knowing where Clariel ends up would decrease the tension, but for me it had the opposite effect. It made certain passages and decisions more tense because you could see the far-reaching implications of her actions. For instance, there's one moment when she could have turned back and left everything behind -- but she chooses not to because she wants to stay and protect her friend. They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and that pretty much sums up this book. 

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While this is a "villain origin story" within the wider world, Clariel is the anti-heroine of her own book rather than the "bad guy." There's still a long way to go between Clariel at the end of this book and Chlorr of the Mask. Also, so far we've only seen good characters and sanctioned Charter Magic in the Old Kingdom books. Nix has never written a protagonist who walks on the dark side or who is even tempted by Free Magic. 

The rest of the books cast Free Magic as evil, but Clariel presents it in a different light: as a force of nature. There are magical beings that exist outside Charter Magic, as well as people like Clariel who lack an affinity for the "good" magic and are more attuned to the "bad" magic. Rather than good and bad, which is reductive, it's more accurate to call them "structured" and "free." Much like Clariel doesn't fit in with the highly structured society and longs to be free, the more ancient Free Magic exists at the borders of the ordered Charter Magic. 

"Free Magic is not necessarily evil as such, it is merely unconstrained, though this difference may be hard to understand" - Clariel, Garth Nix #sabrielsarmy:

The Free Magic of this book is chaotic, uncontrolled, and destructive, but Free Magic beings are depicted more as wild animals than willfully evil demons. A wild animal isn't evil for mauling humans that mess with it; that's within the range of what it does. Clariel messes with these creatures, and well...she learns the hard way that though Free Magic creatures can be useful, but she can't force them into empathetic, human-like behavior. Their very nature resists control. In any case, the worldbuilding that Clariel adds to the Old Kingdom saga is great. 

About that ending...

So, people have tended to hate this book for negative asexual/aromantic representation. I'd like to address this, since I'm doing a more in-depth review. First of all, now that you know that, don't immediately pull out this book to rec to your ace friends. It gets enough hype and other books need love. Pick something else, like maybe this book about mermaids.

There's a problematic scene towards the end which also ruined this book for a lot of people. Clariel's friend professes his romantic/sexual feelings for her, which she rebuffs. There's some drama involved. He grows a lot during the book, and their friendship is important to Clariel. At the end of the book, he admits that he still has those feelings for her, and says he knows her feelings but is willing to make it work if she wants to. 

When he hugs her, Clariel feels a flash of an unfamiliar feeling -- like maybe she has those feelings, too. She wonders if it's new or something she'd previously pushed down. Either way, she ignores it and continues to do her own thing, because as we've established, her desire for independence is important to her.

One reading of this is that she was just repressed all along and isn't really asexual. This says something very negative about asexual people outside of fiction, which is why many dismiss this book. On the other hand, this signaled to me that Clariel is demiromantic. So, I've...kind of headcanoned that pretty hard. Quietly. To myself. Because this book is almost universally hated among asexuals.

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Charts seem useful here.

Much like how a demisexual doesn't experience any sexual attraction until after forming a deep emotional or romantic bond, demiromantic people don't experience romantic attractions or inclinations until forming an emotional connection. Clariel feels no romantic pull towards her friend until after they've been through the shit together, matured together, and formed a unique platonic bond. It's possible she might be demisexual, but the feelings she mentions having in that moment weren't about physicality or sexual attraction. It seemed more like an emotional moment, where a platonic hug stirred romantic feelings.

Clariel's only relationships before this were for casual sex, which she ultimately ended because she didn't care for it and was just exploring her sexuality. She had no emotional bond with her sexual partners, and so wouldn't have figured out she might be demiromantic before now.

This ending is confusing or offensive for someone who was told that Clariel is an asexual aromantic character. I also have no idea what Garth Nix intends for the character, and if he intended to write an aro character, he failed pretty damn hard. 

But reading Clariel as a demiromantic ace makes a lot of sense to me. As in, everything she experiences -- from the casual sex for purposes of "so what's the big deal here oh ok well that was overrated bye" to the "where the fuck are these feels coming from" to "wait a moment, am I really just repressed? IDENTITY CRISIS LIKE WOAH oh no ok I'm fine now" exactly mirror my life experiences as a demiromantic person. 

If you don't agree with that interpretation, she could also be gray-ace or gray-romantic, with this being one of the few times in her life she experiences sexual attraction. I also saw the moment as her wondering whether she was repressed, questioning herself briefly, and then figuring she's not and going on her merry way...rather than the author's Word of God that she's a repressed allosexual. Third person close. It can get a bit messy in moments like these.

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source and more pictures

Headcanons or, what this books means to me...

Her asexuality isn't her one defining trait. However, it's important enough that reviewers who have condemned this as bad rep without even considering the possibility of Clariel being demi or gray do it a disservice. In the end, it's up to reader interpretation, and I share the frustration that it was not made clear enough in the book itself. This is simply my own, admittedly biased, take. 

I'm biased because I read this book at a serendipitous time when I really NEEDED to read something like it. I am that antisocial loner who would be happier if I lived alone in the woods doing my own thing. Mainly, though, I related to Clariel's struggle to separate herself financially from controlling parents and find independence. Would I sell my soul for independence? Probably. My parents have also tried to persuade me to date and marry a guy who would be good for the family and push a relationship which wasn't super positive. They also didn't want me to move away or get a job which would give me a measure of independence for myself and...basically, at the time I read this it felt like this was the Story of My Life minus the creatures and talking cat. In retrospect I'm not sure whether all the parallels will hold up to a re-read, but I'll always have a soft spot for this book. 

This book pissed off a bunch of people and my liking it is NOT a blanket endorsement. People not liking it is 100% understandable. This is why I have redacted my star rating, which is based on a "would you recommend?" system. I loved it, but I'm an outlier here and I don't know if I would recommend this to people or whether you should either because of all the negative reactions to it from others. This character is a very particular type of ace and a very particular type of gray-moral-lone-wolf-protagonist, and definitely shouldn't be upheld as The Defining Ace Book for F/SF especially since it isn't #ownvoices. Nix followed a couple stereotypes of asexuals, and just because I AM that stereotype doesn't mean everyone else is or that all your ace friends will magically relate to this character. And apparently there's also some twist on Clariel in Goldenhand which is bad. I haven't read it so my review and interpretation are not influenced by that context. Which is probably a bad thing, but...

I ALSO WANT TO KEEP MY HEADCANON OK? My headcanon is also a valid interpretation, of this book as a standalone at least, and I don't see any other demiromantic characters or demiromantic aces out there, so just LET ME HAVE THIS. I'll read Goldenhand sometime. Probably. Maybe. Not right now. Honestly maybe not ever if Nix is just going to stomp on my childhood memories.

In Conclusion...

This update turned out way longer than I thought it would be. I recommend reading the other Old Kingdom books, especially if you like more traditional heroes rather than a walk on the dark side.


  1. Awesome review, I really need to get to this book but I feel i have to go back and read the trilogy again since it has been so long since I have read it. I think asexual should be talked about more or put in more books. What is wrong with having a solitary nature, I can understand this and relate to this a lot I am surprised that some complained about that. You know to be honest I have never really known what asexual is other than Asexual reproduction. If it was written about more maybe some would not be confused when it comes to the subject, I think this would have helped me if I knew more about it while growing up.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree; more representation would go a long way. I feel like the A in the lgbt+ list doesn't get a lot of attention in media because the concept is alien to a lot of people.

      But, I think you could totally read Clariel without having to go back and read the first trilogy! Clariel is a prequel that takes place about 600 years before the original books, so it's not hard to get into or anything. Mogget also features, which is nice. :)

  2. This had me thinking about several things. To begin with, I haven't read any book with an asexual protagonist yet, but I would. Actually, I would, so long as their asexuality was not the driving force behind the narrative. That is to say, I wouldn't want to read a whole book full of, "why don't they ever want to have sex?" questions from other characters, as that would to me be like a whole book of, "why is he gay?" It would become a gimmick. But to read an narrative wherein desiring or having sex, (or avoiding it) is not an issue would be fine by me, and in fact, somewhat refreshing. Though sex and sexuality are natural topics, and can play significant roles in the nature of characters in a story, I think these days it is sometimes overused as a dramatic device or to create tension, (as it were.) I had a disagreement with a friend of mine a while ago about a TV show I watched, where the two protagonists are a male and female, both heterosexuals, but sexual tension is not a part of their relationship or part of the show. My friend argued it defeated the purpose of having a hetero male and hetero female together if the show lacked sexual chemistry. I maintained that we don't always need sexual chemistry or tension from characters, regardless of orientation. I don't personally find it as interesting in a story, even off to the side, as most people seem to. Truth be told, though I have never written a character that is asexual into my fiction, I almost always seems to write about moments and occurrences in their lives which are not sexual. Though there is nothing wrong with sex or sexuality as an integral part of a story, I got to thinking I rarely make use of same as a writer. As a reader, I often find its thrown into the things I read just because somebody said the narrative needed more sexual tension, and that makes it worse. So while a novel about an asexual avoiding the societal assumptions about sex might make for an interesting read for me in its own right, I think I'd be just as likely to enjoy a story with an asexual protagonist if it allowed development of other aspects of plot and character more room to blossom, without the sexual component that a lot of fiction (I have read) seems to require.

    1. I completely agree. Non-sexual bonds can be interesting to watch and compelling to the reader or viewer, for different reasons. Your comment put me in mind of two shows I've seen recently: "The 4400" and "Broadchurch." In "The 4400," the two protagonists are a man and a woman who are on a team together. It's a bit like a cop show, but they work for the government to track people with powers. They have no sexual tension and both enjoy fulfilling romantic relationships with other partners. However, in that case, the platonic bond between the male and female lead is clearly stronger than the romantic or sexual bonds they have with others, but it is explicitly not sexual, which is interesting. On "Broadchurch," with David Tennant, he and the female DS have that "forced to work together but they hate each other" that never develops into the predictable "hate each other turns into sexual tension." They genuinely have huge issues with each other. They become friends eventually, though. I bring that up because, like you said, people tend to assign more interest or value to sexual tension and sexual relationships in media, which is reflected in the stereotype that because asexuals' relationships may not contain sex, their lives have less meaning and their relationships are less valid.

  3. Oh wow. I have to go read this now. I love Garth Nix and asexual representation is very near and dear to my heart.

    1. Garth Nix is awesome!!! :D I hope you like Clariel. Do you have any other recommendations in the way of asexual representation?


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