Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, YA, Lite Horror, Fantasy Classic, The Old Kingdom
Previous books in the series/by the author reviewed: Sabriel
Rating: Highly Recommended YA Fantasy with All Age Appeal. LISTEN TO AUDIOBOOK!!!!
Here’s the TL;DR for my review (SPOILERS!):
- Good characterization. Lirael is a painful introvert, and Sammeth is struggling with PTSD following an assassination attempt.
- Spooky Worldbuilding. Lirael is a librarian in a library for the arcane- so she’s basically a bookish ninja who has to fight against demons and rogue spells which have escaped their exhibits in the library.
- The plot’s strong… but it ends with a hardcore sequel hook. This book is REALLY book one in a two part duology with ‘Abhorsen.’ ‘Lirael’s’ plot in no way stands on it’s own.
- The pacing is spotty. Part 1 of the book revolves around Lirael in the Library of the Clayr fighting an escaped demon… a plotline which isn’t brought up ever again in the book (or the next book). In short Part 1 could have been broken off and published as a novella all on it’s own.
- If you can’t empathize with these Young Adult characters, you might have trouble getting into this book. The characters of Lirael and Sam really carry this book.
I’m re-reading this as a part of the r/Fantasy bookclub.
This is one of my favorite books of all time, if not my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it so many times that even now, at least five years since last I read it, I basically still have every single plot point memorized and can even quote some of the dialog and lines. So, yeah, I’m biased. Bear that in mind going forward. I’ll do my best to be impartial, but I can’t.
Coming back to this as a well-read adult, I can see flaws in this book which I never did before. But coming back now I love it in new ways which I never did before.
Growing up, I loved this book for it’s awesome protagonist Lirael.
She’s a bookish, depressed teenager who feels like a black sheep amongst her white sheep relatives. Lirael is a Clayr, and her main inner conflict is the fact that she lacks the ability to foresee the future like all the other Clayr. She was constantly isolated and alone because of this, for even though she had many loving family members Lirael just wasn’t one of them. Simply put, compared to the Dursleys who hated Harry Potter and treated him poorly, Lirael’s relationship with the other Clayr is healthy even though they patronize her. At the time, and now, I value the fact that the author didn’t take the easy way out and make the Clayr seem despicable like most/all other YA authors would do in order to isolate their protagonist.
Lirael is also a librarian who works in the coolest library ever. The Library of the Clayr is more of a museum than anything else, for even though it does contain books it also contains a ton of artifacts and captured demons as well. Lirael’s first mission is to defeat a Stilken, a human/praying mantis demon which Lirael accidentally freed. This first trial showed Lirael being proactive, taking responsibility for her mistakes and putting her life on the line to solve them, but never getting the glory for it. She’s just an unassuming, teenaged library ninja who smites demons and files books.
Lirael isn’t alone. Her advisor/sidekick is the adorable Disreputable Dog, a friendly talking mutt with mysterious origins. The Dog will give you eldritch secrets if you give her belly rubs. She’s just cute. When I first read this I never had a dog, but now that I have a dog I love her all the more. She’s fun, loyal, sarcastic, and always has Lirael’s best interests in mind even when Lirael doesn’t. (And Lirael doesn’t always have Lirael’s best interests in mind- see me mentioning depression earlier.) I wish the Fantasy Genre had more characters like the Dog.
Sam is the Prince of the Old Kingdom, son of Sabriel. Raised in distant (and safe) Ancelstierre, he has an almost modern sensibility. We modern day people can see and understand Sam, because Ancelstierre is an Britain-like location and we Earthlings can understand Britain where we can’t understand the High Fantasy Old Kingdom. But when we first see Sam, he is attacked by a necromancer and nearly killed. This gave him a phobia about necromancy- a problem when he’s expected by his necromancer mother, the Abhorsen Sabriel, to become her apprentice necromancer, the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. Suffering from something almost like PTSD, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place: disappoint a family he loves or do what he truly wants, be coming a magical artificer.
If you’re a fan of the first book, we briefly get to see Sabriel and Touchstone in this novel. They get to express their frustration that the Old Kingdom just won’t stay fixed, and that they constantly need to fight to maintain it. They love their kids in Sam and Elimere, but they can’t stay home with them because they constantly need to go out to fight the undead which keep popping up and undermining their rule. They have transformed from a pair of fairly generic heroes to some frustrated middle-aged parents who feel very bad about the fact that they have to let other people raise their kids while they go off adventuring. (I thought that Sabriel and Touchstone got more characterization in this book than in ‘Sabriel,’ which is ironic given that they pop up for all of two scenes in this book.)
Plot/Pacing: Good… but there’re problems. This book is basically two books stitched together. Part 1 takes place entirely in the Library and doesn’t feature Sam at all. It’s compelling reading (by far my favorite in the book if you hadn’t guessed), but the trouble is that none of the plot threads introduced there (the Library, the Stilken, the Sight) weave back into the resolution of parts 2 and 3. Parts 2 and 3 is where the REAL plot of the ‘Lirael/Abhorsen’ duology is introduced, so including Part 1 seemed kinda stitched onto the plot like Frankenstein’s Monster. I had a similar problem with ‘The Poppy War,’ where there was a major mood clash between the parts of the book. The only plotline which is solved is the ‘Lirael’s parentage’ plotline, the solution for which is just sort of shoehorned in last minute in a not-very-satisfying manner.
Setting: I love the Library; it is easily my favorite location in all of fantasy literature. It’s a spooky place filled with clockwork robots, books of sorcery and chained-up demons, built into the side of a glacier. At the heart of the Library is the ancient crypt of the Clayr, which is defended by monstrously powerful spell sendings. If you go exploring in the labrythine halls of the Library, you never know what you’ll find. Will you find an underground greenhouse filled with a field of poppies? Will you find endless stacks of books, defended by ghostly spell-servants? Will you find a recently-released monster which has to be defeated before it kills someone? The Library is massive and mysterious, and it’s never explained why it’s so strange. The library is so cool it’s practically it’s own character.
The Old Kingdom is more spooky than ever, and that’s saying something given how spooky ‘Sabriel’ was. This book features refugees from a southern war coming up to the Old Kingdom. They are smuggled against the wishes of the Queen Sabriel of the Old Kingdom. These refugees are being systematically butchered and turned into zombie slaves, in order to serve as laborers for the antagonists. This is just terrifying. This is the sort of thing which necromancer Nazi’s would do. You just know that if magic were real, real people would do evil shit like this. Sabriel has to go south to Ancelstierre to staunch the flow of refugees, while it’s up to Sam and Lirael to figure out and stop the plans of the bad guys. This is a great setup for the plot, getting rid of the heroes of the first book so the heroes of this book have to step up to solve the problems.
But at the same time the Old Kingdom is more alive than ever. In book one, the Old Kingdom seemed like it was on the precipice of utter annihilation, nearly destroyed by centuries of Kerrigor’s rule. Well in book one ‘Sabriel,’ the heroes defeated Kerrigor and now the Old Kingdom is recovering. There are now many towns and cities and trade goes between them, instead of each city being a fortress which no one leaves for fear of being eaten. The kingdom isn’t quite flourishing, but it’s clear that the brutality of twenty years ago is slowly fading thanks to the continued hard work of Sabriel and Touchstone.
The Old Kingdom isn’t a static place where nothing ever happens, trapped forever in Medieval Stasis; it’s a real place which can and does change if the people there work hard enough. But just as things seem to be about to get better for the Kingdom once and for all, this unpleasantness with the zombie refugees pops up and refuses to go away again.
This review is getting insanely long. I could go on about how it got some many more things right (the failed rescue at the end of the book really did a good job of upping the stakes for the next book, the introduction of Chlorr is an excellent villain, the death of Sprout humanizing Sam, the family dynamics between Sam and his sister/Lirael and her aunt is very relatible…).
I’ll wrap this up. Suffice it to say the author does a lot of things right with this book, but this book isn’t perfect. From a clinical perspective is this one of the Top Ten Best Fantasy Books of All Time? No. If you asked me to, the critic in me could probably find a half-dozen other problems with this novel (Hedge is a mediocre villain, Orannis is a mediocre villain, Sam needs more agency earlier on to be truly compelling, Mogget needed more time in the sun…).
But for me, this is one of my favorites. I hope I can convince at least one person to give this series a try. Start with ‘Sabriel,’ and if you like it move on from there. Also, read the audiobooks. Seriously. They’re read by Tim Curry, and are some of the best audiobooks of all time.