Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, September 27, 2021

Monday, September 27, 2021: YA Maximum Shelf: Terciel & Elinor

Katherine Tegen Books: Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix

Katherine Tegen Books: Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix

Katherine Tegen Books: Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix

Katherine Tegen Books: Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix

Terciel & Elinor

by Garth Nix

The sixth book in Garth Nix's YA series The Old Kingdom is a gripping novel filled with dynamic characters and terrifying creatures. This prequel can act as both introduction for new readers--with its fully developed world, excellent plotting and enchanting cast--as well as a delightful return to Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom for those already in love with the series.

When Terciel was about eight years old, an old woman calling herself his great-aunt took him from his life as an impoverished orphan and brought him to her grand house in the Old Kingdom, a land to the north filled with magic, necromancy and the Dead. Terciel, a "brown-skinned, dark-haired" boy, knew nothing of magic. Even so, when Tizanael brought him to her home, he already had the Charter mark on his forehead, a magical symbol that allows Charter Mages to identify other Charter Mages. He also had the bells: "One moment they had not been there, and then there they were... the bandolier, with the [seven] mahogany bell handles... crawling all over with glowing Charter marks." A decade later, Terciel is Tizanael's Abhorsen-in-Waiting, training to use the bells to control the Dead and keep the country safe from necromancers and Free Magic.

Nineteen-year-old Elinor Hallett also has the Charter mark on her forehead. But her mother, a distant and imposing woman, taught her that the mark is a "disfiguring scar" that was horrifyingly branded on Elinor by her own grandmother. The young woman has been kept in relative seclusion all her life, her only friends her governess, Mrs. Watkins, and Mrs. Watkins's uncle, Ham, who is "ostensibly" the manor's groom. Ham teaches Elinor the tricks of his original trade: circus performer. "Slim, strong, swift, and dexterous" Elinor excels at tumbling, swordplay and knife-throwing. Her education has been limited to the theatrical arts with Ham and those things a lady must know, taught to her by Mrs. Watkins.

It never occurs to Elinor that there might be more to the world than what she's been taught. Certainly, she has imagined leaving the manor and going on the road with the circus, but never has she thought her scar might be imbued with magic or that the woman who gave it to her was a powerful magic user herself. Elinor remains ignorant until her mother falls ill. When she falls into "a state closely resembling death" and doctors are unable to help, Elinor begins to take over the household. Quickly, she discovers that she is destitute.

As Elinor reels from this revelation, a wind blows in from the north and a young man shows up at her door. He is "tall, and thin, and strangely pale," with hair that is "black and shiny as polished ebony." She does not know that this young man is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, nor does she know that his pale skin is a sign of his walks in Death. She also does not know that he is there to banish the Dead creature inside her mother. But when "the creature who wore her mother's body" comes after her and Terciel, with "legs... little more than bone, with strips of hanging flesh," Elinor learns there is terrible magic.

As with the previous books, history and familial lines are important in Terciel & Elinor, which gives the uninitiated plenty of new and exciting information. It also offers those in the know the great fun of making connections from this earlier time to characters they've already met. Nix's Old Kingdom is such a wholly developed world that reading the prequel as a fan of the other books feels a bit like seeing an old friend or settling into a hot bath. Elinor and Terciel are strong-willed, determined characters who act as foils to each other even as they pine for one another. Both have a goal: Terciel to become a strong, capable Abhorsen, and Elinor to figure out who she is by traveling north. Their individual expeditions bring them closer to their goals--and each other. It's a bittersweet love story, because readers of the series know that Elinor will die giving birth to their child, but that knowledge doesn't stop the relationship's development from being powerful. And more important than Terciel and Elinor getting together is their individual growth while they are apart: their travels and the many happenings along the way are exhilarating, frightening and deeply compelling. Terciel & Elinor is an excellent addition to the series, and readers will hope that Nix gives us much more of the lovers' story. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Katherine Tegen Books, $19.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 12-up, 9780063049321, November 2, 2021

Katherine Tegen Books: Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix

Garth Nix: Reading the Wall

Garth Nix
(photo: Wendy McDougal)

Garth Nix is the author of the Old Kingdom fantasy series, and of many other bestselling children's and YA novels, short stories and series. More than six million copies of his books have been sold around the world and his work has been translated into 42 languages. The new book in the Old Kingdom series is Terciel & Elinor, coming from Katherine Tegan Books in November. Here he chats with Shelf Awareness about known and unknown stories, Wikipedia and the power of doors and walls.

In the prologue of Sabriel, the first of the Old Kingdom novels, you write, "The woman who had staggered into their forest camp was dead, only holding on to life long enough to pass it on to the baby at her side." This is Elinor, Sabriel's mother. Why did you want to tell Elinor's story?

I'm always interested in the deeper stories of characters who appear briefly in my books (and in other people's, to be honest). Elinor, who is not named in Sabriel, is very important as Sabriel's mother, but she is important for her absence. Even when I first wrote about her death, long ago in the early 1990s, I had an inkling that one day I would want to know more about her, and the best way to do that was to write her story.

What made you want to tell Terciel's story alongside Elinor's? Is there a specific reason the book is titled Terciel & Elinor rather than Elinor & Terciel?

While Terciel does appear a little more in Sabriel (and in Lirael) than Elinor, he is still an enigmatic figure, and he is also an older man who has been shaped by terrible responsibility and awful tragedy. I wanted to find out more about him, about what he was like as a young man. In terms of the title, Terciel ended up being first because his "-iel" name makes it more immediately obvious it is an Old Kingdom book. However, I did vacillate on this for quite a while, and I also wrote several different beginnings before deciding on the prologue with Terciel as a child being taken away to become an Abhorsen.

Elinor, much like Sabriel, has a parent who overreacts in her need to protect her child. But Sabriel's father is loving and present, while Elinor's mother is aloof and indifferent. Would you talk a bit about this connection between your protagonists' stories?

A child's relationship with their parents is of course incredibly important in shaping who they are. I think it's something I've always been interested in and so I pay particular attention in observing parent-child relationships in real and fictional life. But when writing I don't think about this very much, I am more guided by story instinct than intellectual analysis. I didn't know what Elinor's mother was like, or the nature of their relationship, until I was in the story. 

Elinor has a few similarities with Lyra from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series: she's spunky, eager to learn anything nonconventional and singularly focused on goals once she gets them in mind. How did you go about writing this character?

I tend not to know much about my characters when I start writing, and I learn about them as I go on. With Elinor, I had the initial scene in the greenhouse where she is putting on a play for a nonexistent audience. I knew she was an actor, and it seemed natural for her to be the kind of all-rounder, as a juggler and so on. Everything expanded from there. Also, she is Sabriel's mother, and they share some traits, single-mindedness in pursuit of goals being one of them.

We also learn how Terciel came to be the Abhorsen. Did you already know Terciel's backstory when you wrote Sabriel's? When did his history come to you?

I didn't know Terciel's backstory up until I came to write Terciel & Elinor. Sometimes I do make notes about characters for future use, often many years later, which requires a lot of hunting through my notebooks because I can remember writing something important down but not which notebook I wrote it in! However, I didn't have any notes for Terciel. I did have to check back through the books to make sure I hadn't hinted at his past.

And there's some development of Moregrim, too, whom readers see only as a very, very magical cat in Sabriel. What made you want to flesh out Moregrim?

Mogget, Moregrim, Yrael... a character of many names and shapes. From the beginning he is a very enigmatic creature, and while readers did find out what he is in Abhorsen, much still remains unexplained and unexplored. And still does, which makes him fun to write.

Do you have the Abhorsen's bells memorized? And the Gates in death? Or do you have a cheat sheet somewhere when you're writing?

I do [have it memorized], but I also have to check up on what I've written before to make sure I don't contradict myself. Perhaps surprisingly, the Wikipedia entries on the bells and the gates and precincts of Death are quite useful! I thank the unseen Wikipedia contributors who have garnered all the information from my books for easy reference.

I have always wondered about the world similarities between The Old Kingdom books and the A Song of Ice and Fire series: there is a wall that separates the south from the north, the north is magical, the north holds horrors the south can't comprehend. Sabriel first published in 1995; A Game of Thrones in 1996--I assume there must have been something in the air (or news) around that time. Where did you get your inspiration?

I know both George R.R. Martin and I, and Neil Gaiman for Stardust (the comic books with Charles Vess in 1997 and the novel in 1999), were inspired by Hadrian's Wall in northern England, because I asked them about it when I was preparing a keynote paper for a combined archeology and literature department conference in 2016 at the University of Newcastle called "Reading the Wall: The Cultural Afterlives of Hadrian's Wall." I don't know why it would emerge in our work precisely around that time, but all three of us had since childhood an interest in the history and the fictional representations of Hadrian's Wall, the borders between "civilization" and "wilderness" and so on. As Neil said in his e-mail to me answering my questions for the conference: "I think the idea of walls and of doors informs everything. As long as you can cross them."

Is there anything else you'd like to tell Shelf readers?

I am incredibly grateful readers have continued to read my books, my publishers keep publishing them so well and booksellers sell them with love and enthusiasm, something I am particularly reminded of this year with the release of the beautiful 25th anniversary editions of Sabriel. Books often have undeservedly short lives, they need so much hard work and expertise from other people, and a hefty serving of plain luck, to successfully make the journey from author to reader. I have been very fortunate, and I am thankful. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

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