Fans of Nix's Abhorsen books have been waiting for a while for him to get back to writing about the Old Kingdom, so news of this book and another upcoming (Goldenhand) was surely welcome - these books cover two different periods of that land's history, with Clariel being a prequel to everything we already know and Goldenhand being the further adventures of Lirael and Nicholas.
The main character is the eponymous Clariel, daughter of a master goldsmith, who is also related to the King and the current Abhorsen. If you've not read the other books, this is a world filled with two types of magic, Charter and Free, with the Abhorsen using the former to deal with the Dead when they won't stay put and also Free Magic creatures, who tend to be destructive. Clariel's mother is ambitious and single-minded, focussed on her craft to the detriment of all else, and the family has recently moved to the capital from Clariel's beloved Great Forest. We know Clariel loves the forest because she tells us this repeatedly, as well as telling anyone else who'll listen in a lovely teenage 'nobody will let me do what I want' way.
I'm sure if I'd read this book when I was a teenager I'd have empathised with Clariel and her plight, as she is pushed into dealing with people she doesn't like and meanwhile trying to make plans to run away, back to the forest where she's going to live as a hunter even though she has no money or resources. The one thing that seems positive is that Clariel's parents insist she continues to study Charter Magic, even though it's sneered at by the well-to-do, even though her study of it seems to consist of one trip to visit a Charter Mage, who then ropes her into a plot to deal with a Free Magic creature living nearby.
Things are generally Going Wrong, with the local governor attempting to usurp power from the King who has himself retreated into semi-retirement after the disappearance of his daughter. We later discover too that both the Abhorsen and his apparent heir are more interested in horses and hunting than in doing their job, so the country appears to be in a bit of a mess. Clariel ends up running from the capital after the governor kills her parents, assisted by her cousin Bel (who also wants to be Clariel's love interest, though Clariel is very clear all along she has no interest in either boys or girls that way) and she then spends some time as a prisoner of the Abhorsen himself. Here we see the return of a fan favourite character, the mischievous and double-dealing Free Magic cat Mogget, who helps Clariel engineer an escape as she tries to take revenge on the governor.
Anyway, my overall thoughts on Clariel: to be honest, I'm not sure it's a book I'll want to read again even though I've re-read the other books in this series. I think it's a book that benefits greatly from a knowledge of the universe in which it stands, which is a difficult thing to get around, and I liked the fact that although there was some pressure internally for a romantic relationship to form, this was clearly something the main character had zero interest in and didn't waver on that. In the end, Clariel makes a big mess and effectively has to be rescued by Bel, which I found a bit frustrating and predictable. Anyway, maybe Goldenhand will be more to my liking?