Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books have been the story of a primal battle between chaos and order. There is “The Charter,” a force that orders the universe into bloodlines and symbols, an infinite well of power which is the basis of life. And then there is “Free Magic,” drawing its power from outside “The Charter” and interweaving that power with Death itself.
The original trilogy of Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen concerned great battles in which the forces of chaos threatened to overwhelm and destroy the forces of order. In Clariel, Garth Nix uses the trappings of the rich world he has created and its mythology to tell a very different story, one about what happens when the forces of order threaten to destroy chaos.
There is no great fight happening in Clariel. The main drama, for which people die and kill, concerns a relatively straightforward royal succession crisis. Not exactly a spirit from the beginning of time threatening to destroy the universe, as almost happened in Abhorsen. Instead of concerning themselves with the struggle to survive, people have become obsessed with demarcating their social status, concocting complicated clothing rituals and tea ceremonies in order to reaffirm the neurotic order they have conjured. Even the Charter, itself the source of all this order, has been subsumed into social categories of “employer” and “servant.”
The Abhorsens themselves are numerous—strange after the original trilogy, when the blood had been whittle down to 3 people. But they barely think of the Dead that are their birthright at all, instead creating a town full of Abhorsens and spending all their time on ritualized hunting.
There is no battle, only order, order, order, and it is a terrible world with little to fight for but desire. It produces people like Clariel: berserkers, chaos incarnate. It drives Clariel from her home, pushes her into situations she is not emotionally prepared to handle. It traps her in cages, trying to order her and resisting her efforts to remain free. There is no room for a woman like Clariel in this world, and so she retreats from it further into chaos, destroying herself in the process.
People good and evil are duped and betrayed. Loved ones die pointless deaths. To fight, in a too-ordered system, is to itself become a problem which demands destruction to maintain the system’s integrity. But without the battle to live and love, all humanity has is its own petty obsessions, and it creates nightmares like what the title character (who only ever asked to make her own path, away from the choking order) is destined to become.