Friday Book Review – Lirael

lirael best cover

The angst is strong with this one.

In the beginning, both of the main characters are feeling all Woe is Me I’m-a KILL Myself, and Lirael comes very close to actually doing it. Sameth just couldn’t interest me emotionally, and I started glazing over his part of the story rather early on. Quite simply, everything about him disappointed or bored me.

There was one thing I thought was pretty cool, though. He is essentially the exact same character as the princess who is fleeing an arranged marriage. Exactly. The same. The only difference is that it’s not about marriage. Everyone and their mum (including his, of course) expects him to be the Abhorsen, and he is deadset against it. He weeps and flails and runs away. The trope is carried out without making any kind of inference that the princess running from unwanted marriage is any different from prince running from unwanted adult profession. The circumstances are different, but not because of the character’s gender.

So it’s nice to see that a boy can whine and be afraid, and do stupid crap, and not be considered emasculated. I didn’t like him, but I never thought of him as less male than anyone else.

However, as awesome as all of that is, he’s still the whiny runaway princess and I don’t like that trope in any way shape or form. Shame.

Lirael has a great deal more to do, and she’s also more mature. And, as she is the titular character, gets more “screen” time. After she tries to kill herself, she gets a bit of a talking-to, and then she is given a job in the library. Once she starts teaching herself Charter magic, a lot of her angst bleeds off into action. Which is realistic. It’s harder to feel sorry for yourself when you’re busy. And once she’s busy, she’s actually kind of cool. She even makes herself a mascot. She continues to be understandably upset about not being like everyone else (which is worse when everyone else has a number of things that they literally all have in common), but that mellows out from suicidal to just the sadness version of a berserk button.

Although I might have liked to sweep this under the rug, I have to talk about the ways this book makes the series sag in a little. First, are the unnecessary and awkward parallels to Sabriel. Rather than just continuing the story with the next generation (which is itself a good choice, since Sabriel ends with her character arc and romantic subplot complete), Lirael also contains elements that were already used/explored. Mogget returns (eventually), which could have just been a recurring character. But then there’s also the Disreputable Dog, who is less cryptic than Mogget, but has much the same voice and pretty much the same narrative function. So the mascot element is repeated. It does explore a little more, though. The parallel of Sabriel and Touchstone to Lirael and Sameth, though, I felt was just treading back over the same book, except that the first time was infinitely better. [Abhorsen and Prince, level-headed girl and whining angsty boy, girl rescues boy when he is quite helpless, girl thinks boy is a prat… And they almost have a romance by narrative mandate, but Lirael cuts that off first by being uninterested, and then realising that she is Sameth’s aunt.] That bothered me a little.

But the saggiest bit of the series when putting the two books together is the inconsistent story planning. The first book had a contained story, and the second definitely doesn’t. Most of it is the moaning beginning, reluctance to answer the call, and a cliffhanger lead to the next book. These characters and their tsumi behaviour do not need more set-up than Sabriel. Her character only took about two chapters to establish, IIRC. The story didn’t even feel complete. It just felt like a very, very long establishing shot. Not much happens, and there is not a common or centric goal.

There are different ways to write a series. One is to write one large story split between books; these often end on cliffhangers. Especially if they imitate radio and magazine serial continuity. Another way is to write a number of contained stories with an overarching plot. Sabriel was written in the style of the latter, and then Lirael shifted gears to the former. This is such a jarring departure that I don’t know if I want to read the next book, since the new expectation makes the series look like this:

  • Sabriel (Book 0.5)
  • Lirael (Book 1)
  • Abhorsen (Book 2)
  • Clariel (Book why the hell did it take ten years?)

A lot of people really love this entire series, which makes me wonder what it is I’m missing. It’s all very grey-palette to me to begin with. I don’t want to dislike the series, but I just don’t enjoy reading it. I’m a sad cookie.

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