In chronological terms, Goldenhand marks the grand finale of The Old Kingdom series (unless Garth Nix returns with another sequel, which would not surprise me). This fifth instalment picks up pretty much where Abhorsen left off. Lirael is now Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and everything is coming up roses. With her enemy defeated, a new family to love, and a fulfilled cosmic destiny to celebrate, it seems Lirael can now enjoy a well-deserved happy ending.
Not so for Nicholas Sayre, however. South of the Wall and convalescing from a bad case of demonic possession, Nick still feels the pull of the Old Kingdom. Despite being a young man of scientific principles, he admits there might be more to magic than hokum, something he dismissed the Charter as during Abhorsen. Still troubled by his experiences under the influence of the Destroyer, Nick struggles to find peace. Also, his thoughts keep returning to Lirael, in the wistful hope that they might meet again.
I liked this book a lot more than Clariel, which has in some ways bumped my rating upwards. The main success of Goldenhand is that it reads true to the mood and messages of the original trilogy. It is not a tangential departure from the characters we know and care about, and it does not fall into the trap of tired regurgitation. I really liked Ferin, who is the one significant new character this book introduces. Though Goldenhand is in many ways a victory lap, or a final farewell to beloved friends, Ferin’s presence helps this book stand on its own feet.
“You have done great things,” said Vancelle. “And all of us in the Library are very, very proud of you.”
“Thank you,” said Lirael. She fought back the tears in her eyes, because though she no longer felt she was one of the Clayr, she still felt she was a librarian and always would be, no matter what else she had become as well.
As mentioned, my four-star rating is less a reflection of this book’s inherent quality, and more a comment on how much better it is compared to Clariel. I confess, Goldenhand is a simple narrative, offering less to discuss than the previous instalments of the series. I was not disappointed by it, but I will not be singing any rapturous praises.
Romance seems to be the theme Nix most struggles with as a writer. The simple love story in Sabriel works, but only because the romantic elements are limited to an incidental subplot that draws no attention to itself. Clariel offers something messier, but again it is not a focal point. Goldenhand makes the romance more overt, with questionable success. The uncomplicated approach of ‘You love me? Great! I love you too,’ works in Sabriel because the characters involved are mature, disciplined individuals who have understated relationships with their emotions. Lirael and Nick bring more volatile personality traits to the table, which makes such tidiness feel less than realistic.
I was also a little sad that the focus of this novel was not the relationship between Lirael and Sabriel. This is not to say I dislike the Lirael/Nick dynamic, but I think the unusual sisterhood between Abhorsen and Abhorsen-in-Waiting had the potential to offer something much more interesting. Given that Lirael and Abhorsen were in large part characterised by Lirael’s desire to be part of a ‘true’ family, it seems a shame to see this complex theme discarded in favour of an inoffensive but unremarkable YA romance.
For fans of the original trilogy, this book may come as nothing short of relief, redeeming the series from Clariel‘s failings. It is by no means a read to be avoided. I do hope the author never releases another sequel, however. At this point, the extended narrative is beginning to fray around the edges, and the writing seems of lesser quality. I think any attempt to stretch things further is likely to run up against the law of diminishing returns.