tl;dr: Stick with the first three books in this series: Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen. I don’t know what Nix is doing with these later ones, but he’s not doing it super great and it’s a total bummer.
Goldenhand isn’t a waste of time, but it does not hold up to the originals, especially the first two.
The Back Story
For five years I was a seventh grade English teacher. One of the best parts of the job was hearing my students’ book reports and reading their book logs. I had a built in data-pool and instant access to titles to explore (or avoid) for 180 days a year.
My first year of teaching, one of my students gave a report on Sabriel. It was a delight to watch because he had that excited frustration that a reader gets when a book is so good and you can’t find the words to explain it so you just want to thrust it at someone and say “Please, just read it! Trust me!” I could tell that he loved it and immediately recognized that eagerness to share it with others. I got a copy soon after and was not disappointed.
Nix created something original using the familiar when he wrote Sabriel. Almost 500 pages of intense description, world creation and history with strong plot and characters. And an amazing kick-ass female lead.
When Lirael came out, I thrilled at the brick sized paperback. Again, almost 500 pages continuing the Abhorsen story line. Lirael was even a more compelling character than my beloved Sabriel and I was so happy to live in her world. Nix again took his time to create her story and weave it into Sabriel’s world. So much mystery, the same familiar magic and more characters who were an absolute delight to read.
He finished up with Abhorsen. Not quite 400 pages this time and the font and page size was bigger, but still a satisfying read. Lirael and Sabriel’s stories are added to the history of all the Abhorsens and while I wanted to read more and more and more about them, I was content with what Nix had created for us.
It was massive, it was well written, the female characters were awesome, and whenever anyone asks me for a book recommendation for a niece or cousin or family friend’s kid, this trilogy is always my immediate response.
Perhaps not wanting to leave the Old Kingdom and knowing there were more stories to tell, Nix published Across the Wall, a book of short stories. I grabbed it and it was a nice companion to the three.
And then he threw Clariel at us. I was disappointed in a way that only happens when a creator somehow manages to make his original work become less by screwing up with new stuff. (Looking at you, Star Wars Episodes 1-3.)
Feel free to read my review over on Goodreads.
Ugh, it was such a drag. I found myself wondering if Nix had even written it himself. It didn’t follow any of the strengths of the original three and I was sad and confused. How could someone who created such an amazing trilogy of books somehow lose his mojo when writing the backstory of one of his characters?
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when someone on the Cannonball Read FB group suggested the original three. There were a bunch of us who had read them and were all “YES!!!” and someone reminded me about Goldenhand. I had completely forgotten that Nix was working on book five, and even better, it was done and out. I snagged it from my library and hoped it wasn’t another Clariel.
We’re in hardcover here, and I immediately knew it did not measure up to the page count of Sabriel and Lirael. This was my first indication that this was not going to hold up to its sister books. Those first two books especially were not the kind of YA to talk down to its readers with large font and large pages. These were physically solid books that were not fucking around. You were going to work to read them. Abhorsen grew in page and font size, and while it lagged behind, it wasn’t trying to scrimp on ink. Clariel fell into the big font and pages that seem to be the norm of YA. Yes, I want readers to not feel overwhelmed by a book, but at the same time, I want them to feel accomplished when they’ve finished a book that is massive both in page count and plot.
The story picks up where Abhorsen ends. I read these a long time ago, but felt like I was brought up to speed fairly quickly. Nix doesn’t take time to retell everything, but throws in a few sentences here and there to remind us what happened.
Lirael is still a delight. She’s shy and awkward and doesn’t quite fit in. Part of her very much wants to disappear back into the library, but she knows she doesn’t belong there. She is in physical pain from mourning her Disreputable Dog and I felt like I could cry with her. Dog’s disappearance meant Nicholas was returned to life, and while there is a great deal of solace there, Lirael aches with emptiness.
The confusion she feels over Nicholas was not my favorite part of this book. On one hand, it makes sense that Lirael is so awkward. It would be off and wrong if she was suddenly self-assured and commanding. But she also read like a young teenager sometimes and it took me out of the story. The same with Nick’s POV when he’s tripping over himself to try and be cool. There were moments when it was a little cute, but other times it felt clumsy, and not because the characters were clumsy.
Sabriel and Touchstone have been forced into a vacation, leaving the kids to run the kingdom. Not the best plot point, especially when it’s echoed later with the Clayr, but whatever. We need to get Lirael and Nick back together. A message is sent from over the Wall, Lirael investigates, here comes Nick, and off we go.
On the other side of these chapters we have Ferin. Here’s a character who I enjoyed, but by the end was very concerned at how close to Mary Sue status she came. There is some serious danger headed down from the North and Ferin is the only one who can warn Lirael and save everyone.
Ferin, like Sabriel and Lirael, is a total badass. She’s was brought up to be the best of everything and does not have time to deal with the unknown or insignificant. She moves toward one fixed point, doing whatever she needs to do in order to get there. There were times where I felt like this should have been a negative trait and more strife should have happened, which is where the Mary Sue comes from. But I also liked her matter of fact attitude. She immediately accepts the facts, deals with them, and moves on. She’s not going to ponder all the what-ifs or dwell on what could be. She assesses a situation, looks at what she has in the moment and moves. It’s really fun to watch. I’m not sure why she didn’t bug me, and this is where Nix’s talent shows. Ignoring Clariel, he writes great characters. I wanted Ferin to succeed and watching her interact with Sam and everyone else on the other side of the Greenwash Bridge was a lot of fun. Sam especially needs to learn to get out of the way because she’s going to take him out when she passes by.
A bunch of stuff happens super fast and the book ends.
The pacing of this book is such a let down because in the first three Nix took his time. And it wasn’t boring! He describes the journey. He lives in Sabriel and Lirael’s heads. He shows you how they’re changing and you see what they are missing. He sets up his plot points so he can reveal them later.
Goldenhand though? Was he told he only had so many pages? There were only short descriptions of getting from Point A to Point B. Maybe nothing of importance happened, but it made me miss the original books. Nix had a lot to say and show and share in them, and it’s not here.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a book based on previous works, but isn’t that a sort of compliment to the author? Nix did an amazing job, so when he isn’t amazing, I hold him to this higher standard. If this book was the first book, maybe I would have liked it more.
Even the final scene was “Eh.” There were only a few pages left and I knew there’d be a happy ending so I was almost skimming to get to the part where everything is fixed. I don’t remember feeling that way in Sabriel and Lirael. Lirael especially had me stressed out because how were things going to get resolved?
This ending felt rushed and way too short. Just hang in there, dear reader, everything is going to be A-OK.
I am glad I read this. I was happy to be back in the Old Kingdom. It was wonderful to see Lirael and get a tease of what’s coming up from her after this book ends.
I missed Sabriel and Touchstone. I guess we’re not supposed to care about them anymore because they’re boring grown ups. I’d like to get another story of everything they’ve been doing since Sabriel ended, but the stories have been turned over to the next generation. Even Clariel went back to the teenage years.
If you’ve read the Old Kingdom books, you’re going to read this one.
If you haven’t yet, read the first three. Love them. Reread them. Hold them in your heart.
Maybe stop after Abhorsen and be content with two books that feel close to perfect and a third and final that is an acceptable conclusion.