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The Old Kingdom Chronicles by Garth Nix | Book Review

Sometimes the real world is either too bleak if you are old, or too limited if you are young, and so you want the flight of fantasy to take you to the lands where life is more magical. Not simpler by any means, but richer in terms of adventure, in terms of drama, where every life doesn’t necessarily end in death.

We recently discovered another author who has made his claim to fame writing about magical world of old kingdom where sweet sounds of magical bells wield dangerous powers over lives and death.

We are talking about the Old Kingdom series by Australian writer Garth Nix. It consists of following full length books and is supported by some short length features published over years:

As you can see, the books are written and published with a very large gap between them and that makes them quite a good read standalone as well as in the series. These have also been published as Old Kingdom Chronicles, The Abhorsen Trilogy, etc. in various parts of world, including the audiobook format.

Book Plot:

This magical world can be best described by the children’s rhyme:

Five Great Charters knit the land.
Together linked, hand in hand.
One in the people who wear the Crown.
Two in the folk who keep the Dead down.
Three and Five became stone and mortar.
Four sees all in frozen water.

Essentially, Charter magic is their equivalent of God and Free magic equivalent of evil in very rudimentary terms. As we say ‘Thank God’ in our day to day conversations, they say ‘Thank the Charter’!!! Both charter and free magic are the forces of nature that spring from the same fountainhead, but are so radically opposite in nature that they cannot help but clash, with golden fire on one side and white flames on the other.

In this world, there is a special family by name of Abhorsen, who have the distinction of combining both charter magic and free magic to wield authority over the realm of death. The function of the Abhorsens is to ensure that all dead beings are peacefully gone away where they belong, and do not make their way back to the land of living under power of evil necromancers or other free magic creatures.

Let’s look at the stories one by one…


Like every good story, Sabriel starts with Sabriel’s near-death upon birth, from which she is rescued by her father, the Abhorsen. When we meet Sabriel again, she is the youngest living descendant of the family of Abhorsens, an “Abhorsen-in-waiting” herself, a dark haired teenager who is about to finish school. But, fate has something different planned. She has grown up in Ancelstierre, an entirely different, normal world which is separated from the old kingdom by the Wall, which keeps all magic restrained within the old kingdom. All her knowledge and skill as a charter mage (magician who derives their power from the charter) is what she learnt in the safe environment of her school.

But she is suddenly pulled back to the old kingdom by a mysterious messenger from her father, who is in grave danger in life and trapped in death. The only person who can rescue him is Sabriel. She starts the journey to this enigmatic kingdom across the Wall, through unknown roads and unforeseen dangers. As all quests go, this journey is what will make her life, and what she will make her life…

After all, “Does the walker choose the path, or the path chooses the walker?” – This is a question that all Abhorsens must find an answer for…..

Sabriel finds her answers and rises to the challenges before her. She may or may not be able to rescue her father, but she almost brings the entire kingdom back to life during this adventure, including the king.

At the end of this story, the children’s rhyme above can be explained as:

Five Great Charters knit the land.
Together linked, hand in hand.
One in the people who wear the Crown. – The king’s family, now represented by Touchstone
Two in the folk who keep the Dead down. – The Abhorsens, now represented by Sabriel
Three and Five became stone and mortar. – The Wall
Four sees all in frozen water. – The Clayr, who live in the mountains and have the gift of seeing the future, and who play a significant role in the next books….

Here is the audiobook found available for free on YouTube.


The second book in the series is placed in time about 12-14 years after Sabriel’s first adventurous journey in the old kingdom. At the end of the first book, old kingdom had a new king called Touchstone. Nowadays, Sabriel and Touchstone are happily married and have two children – Ellimere and Sameth, who are both at school in Ancelstierre.

But this is the story of Lirael – The daughter of the Clayr.

In their mountaintop abode surrounded by glaciers, the Clayr live in the world of their own. The gift of sight is what matters to a Clayr, and so when Lirael finds herself lacking the sight- even at the age of fourteen – while her younger cousins have the gift, life becomes unbearable for her.

But then just when she wants to end it, fate gives her a chance – a chance to work as a library assistant in the ancient library of the Clayr. Work brings responsibilities and opportunities to develop herself as a charter mage. Eventually, the library gives her a magical companion called ‘The Disreputable Dog’, who is literally an embodiment of free and charter magic intertwined. But, Lirarel’s fate has much more in store with powers and responsibilities beyond anyone’s imagination including herself.

Parallel to Lirael’s story, we also learn about the evil that has been at work in the Old kingdom and Ancelstierre, putting in motion a complicated, long-term plan that will result in freeing an ancient captive with supernatural powers.

Will Prince Sameth be the key puppet of this evil master and carry his plans through? Who will be the next Abhorsen? And where will Lirael fit into all this?

Here is the audiobook found available for free on YouTube.


The story of Lirael and Sameth continues in this third book as they finally find their calling in life and above all the courage to make choices and follow these through, come what may.

We finally find out that the evil power is called Orannis, the Destroyer, who was one of the original Nine supreme magical elements. The five charters also came from these original nine. The entire world of old kingdom has come from the original Nine in some way or another including the ancient bloodlines and the seven bells of Abhorsen. When the first groups formed in the beginning, seven of the Nine who were against free use of magic for destruction won over Orannis, bound it, cut it into half and buried it deep into a prison guarded by magic. As he sings in his own song:

I’ll sing you a song of the long ago.
Seven shine the Shiners, oh!
What did the Seven do way back when?
Why, they wove the Charter then!
Five for the warp, from beginning to end.
Two for the woof, to make and mend.
That’s the Seven, but what of the Nine—
What of the two that chose not to shine?
The Eighth did hide, hide all away,
But the Seven caught him and made him pay.
The Ninth was strong and fought with might,
But lone Orannis was put out of the light,
Broken in two and buried under hill,
Forever to lie there wishing us ill.

Orannis has now found evil servants who are using dead humans to dig his tomb with two hemispheres and unite him in Ancelstierre, where the charter magic is very weak. Once whole, nothing will be able to stop him.

Though Lirael doesn’t have the gift of seeing the future, she can see the past. She finds out how Orannis was bound in the beginning, they need the power of all seven who wove the charter. These were the same spirits that now reside in the seven bells of the Abhorsen, namely:

  • Ranna, the Sleeper
  • Mosrael, the Waker
  • Kibeth, the Walker
  • Dyrim, the Speaker
  • Belgaer, the Thinker
  • Saraneth, the Binder
  • Astarael, the Weeper

With Sabriel and Touchstone killed in Ancelstierre, and the apparently unbeatable power of Orannis, what use are two inexperienced children like Lirael and Sameth? After all, whatever is left of the great charters, is what lingers in the blood after so many generations. Will this hand-me-down power be enough to bind the destroyer? And where was the Eight, when the Seven went to battle Orannis the Nine?


Most stories are about making of heroes, but sometimes the part about making of the villain or anti-hero is also equally interesting. This prequel to the three books mentioned above tells us how a bright, seventeen-year-old girl called Clariel became Chlorr of the mask and terrorized the old kingdom for almost six hundred years, before Sabriel and her family fought her repeatedly and won over her.

When we meet her, Clariel has just moved to the capital Balisaere, where the old king Orrikan rules all but in name and the real power is being coveted by various mercantile Guilds and the Guildmaster of the Goldsmiths Klip has a plan to use Clariel and her mother Jaciel as puppet regents in his bid for the throne. Jaciel is the daughter of current Abhorsen and hence the king’s cousin with a claim to the throne in absence of princess Tathiel.

While Jaciel is an exceptionally talented goldsmith, Clariel has no significant interest in either that trade or charter magic or city life. She wants to live on her own in the great forest. In this day and age, charter magic is frowned upon as a tool for servants and Clariel has never received proper training in it. But soon she discovers the presence of free magic in the capital and the encounter only leads towards unleashing a part of rage buried within her. Thanks to her ancient bloodlines, she has a rage that comes over her occasionally, making her a ‘Berserk’, and she learns that she can control free magic creatures with this fury of her.

But none of this helps her when her parents are killed and she is imprisoned by Klip. She is rescued by charter mages who take her to her grandfather for safekeeping, but the old man locks her up. In desperation Clariel strikes a deal with Mogget to engage two free magic creatures who are imprisoned in the house of Abhorsen.

While she does get her revenge on Klip and rescues the king, her life will never be the same again. The young and inexperienced girl of seventeen is lost forever into the power and corruption of free magic.


This is the fifth installment of the ‘Old Kingdom’ series that continues the story of Lirael in wake of the biggest and most dangerous adventure of her life.

As you can guess, she did survive Orannis, but with great losses. And when we meet her in this book, even though she has a close-knit family around her now, may be for the first time in her life a real family, she is not quite at peace with herself. She is now the “Abhorsen-in-waiting”, training with Sabriel and her life has a very defined purpose to fulfill.

In a parallel story track, we meet a young and brave girl Ferin, belonging to nomadic tribes of North, who is on the path that is full of free magic creatures, shamans, witches and warriors from all nomadic tribes on her tail. You see, the Chlorr of the Mask has managed to survive for centuries by inhibiting bodies of young women that the nomadic tribes have to offer her or suffer her displeasure. But, since the events concerning Orannis, things have changed.

Lirael’s mother Arielle found shelter near Ferin’s tribe in her last years and she was the one to ‘See’ the future that is now unfolding. She left a message with Ferin’s tribal elders to be delivered to Lirael to guide her through what she must face now.
But with the might of entire North chasing her to end her life, it will take more than a few miracles before Ferin reaches the Clayr’s glacier with her message. And there is also the little matter of Nicholas Sayre and the ‘Creature in the Case’?
Is Nicholas still carrying an untamed part of free magic inside him? And what side will he chose in this battle of the old kingdom verses the free magic influx from North?

As the tagline says: “There is a time for everything and everyone to die…

Views and Reviews

As we said, all these books can be read on their own, but they make more sense when read as a series. We would recommend the reading order as Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, Goldenhand and Clariel for the best possible continuity of the story and sequence of events.

We liked these books because they are rich in imagination and detailing. While the problems of the people in these world are more magical than us, they are also not really different in essence. It is the eternal battle of good vs evil that keeps going on from generation to generation with young blood trying to learn from the old experiences and making choices that in hindsight are not always right. The stories also show how mighty cultures decay into prosperity and greed for power and evil finds a small opening to get in and destroy a whole way of life. The Balisaere described in Clariel is at the stage where the civilization has gone over the peak of the bell curve and slowly declining through indulgence and lack of motivation to preserve the knowledge and application of Charter magic among most of population.

There is also always the question of freedom, whether charter mages had the right to banish the free magic from old kingdom. While we have to agree that all power works best when channeled for greater good, there will always be advocates for free power, in this case free magic.

Garth Nix deals with all these questions through storytelling without any heavy philosophical bits. And although mostly targeted for young adults, the old kingdom series is equally appealing to adults who like a little magic in their fiction, while pondering over serious questions of life.


An enjoyable series of fictional adventures… 🙂

Over to you:

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