Note, reiterated: There’s no such thing as spoilers for a book that’s more than, like, ten years old. Still, if you want to read the Old Kingdom series for yourself untainted, here there be spoilers. You have been warned.
Look, somehow, I can’t start talking about Lirael without making a Steven Universe reference today, so here we are. If I spent most of the book wishing I could grab a ukulele and chase Lirael and Sameth around singing loudly at them, “Why don’t you let yourself just be somewhere different? / Whoa, why don’t you let yourself just be whoever you are?” can you really blame me?
Because this is a book that begins with fourteen-year-old who has not gained the same magical gift of future vision as everyone else in her community. And she looks different from everyone else. And she feels so hopeless because of what she isn’t that she decides she should commit suicide. It’s such a gut-wrenchingly painful place to start: She isn’t like everyone else, so she might as well stop existing.
Fortunately for all parties involved, the arrival of Queen Sabriel and King Touchstone throws a wrench in Lirael’s suicide attempt, and when she’s discovered eavesdropping, hiding in a snowbank, the two powerful twin seers Sanar and Ryelle let her know that they didn’t come into their ability until they were sixteen and advise her to do something with her time besides wait for her gifts to develop. And so Lirael becomes a librarian.
(And, the Library of the Clayr is definitely at least subconsciously part why I wanted to be a librarian for a while there. Sorry, Rothfuss, but it’s still cooler than the Archives.)
It takes Lirael nearly seven hundred pages to begin to see herself as who she is, to recognize and embrace her unique talents. (Granted, she splits those pages with Sameth, but for me it’s her book.) There’s this distinct difference between being told that it’s okay that you aren’t like everyone else, and actually feeling like it’s okay, and Lirael struggles with that difference. The people around her would technically accept her as she is (though their acceptance is passive at best when their lives are so full of their Sight that they have a hard time being present in the moment). Even if it were more active, their acceptance bears less weight until she starts to see herself differently–
Not as what she isn’t.
But as what she is.
And on the other hand, we have Prince Sameth, who is assumed to be the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, destined to take his mother’s place fighting the Dead. Only, he’s terrified of Death, and he’s pretty sure he can’t do the job everyone expects him to do. He’s got this great talent for making things with charter magic–which the people around him ignore because, well, who cares if you can make a charter magic frog thing that can eat mosquitoes while you travel when you’ve got a Grand Destiny to live up to?
Instead of fessing up at any point, instead of feeling safe to tell even his family how he really feels inside, he bottles it up and tries to live to the expectation. If he’s going to be Abhorsen some day, well, he’ll just have to suck it up and figure it out, won’t he?
Except life doesn’t work like that.
How many children end up with all kinds of bottled stress and anxiety because their family expects them to live up to a set of expectations, and they have something else in their hearts? How many artists get shoehorned into more practical jobs and forced to treat their craft as a hobby at best? How many members of the LGBT community try to fake being straight and cisgender because that’s what’s expected, and maybe if they try hard enough, long enough, it will somehow work out?
How many people suffer from depression and harbor thoughts of suicide because we aren’t a little bit more vocal about how much we love what makes them unique? Because we can’t accept them, listen to them, and lift them up?
Sameth puts pressure on himself to be something he’s not because of the active expectations placed upon his shoulders. Lirael puts pressure on herself because of the passive awareness of the societal norms she doesn’t fit. And it feels so good when both let go of what they aren’t, and they start to see themselves for who they really are.
Looking forward to Abhorsen next, because this aunt and her nephew are positively powerhouses in their own right once they cut loose and embrace their own identities.
(Yeah, Lirael is Sabriel’s little sister. Which makes her Sameth’s aunt. And it makes me glad that Garth Nix had Lirael shut down Sam’s little smidge of romantic interest even when they didn’t know it because, well, that would have been awkward.)
As one final note: THE DISREPUTABLE DOG. The Disreputable Dog. Oh, my stars. The Disreputable Dog. 10/10 would pet and provide with tasty table scraps.