For the last week or so, I’ve been re-reading books #2 and #3 of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, Lirael and Abhorsen (the first book, for those interested, is Sabriel). I’m still early in Abhorsen, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the world building in the series. Nix’s world isn’t revolutionary in the realm of fantasy fiction, but it’s got some unique twists to it that make it a playground worthy of comparisons to Middle Earth, the Star Wars galaxy, the world of Harry Potter, and the like. It’s got an internal logic and sense of history complete to the point that you could take it as a platform upon which to tell any number of stories.
That’s an accomplishment worthy of celebrating unto itself, but what I’ve really had fun digging into this go-round is the balance of power in Nix’s Old Kingdom on a fundamental level.
Here’s what I mean in an example that will probably be more broadly understood: the balance of power in Tolkien’s Middle Earth is fundamentally the struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. You can see this a lot in the creation stories of The Silmarillion (Melkor is the absolute evil antithesis to the absolute good of Iluvatar and the Ainur) but it’s apparent even in the more shades-of-grey characters of The Lord of the Rings. What causes pain? People diverting from a noble path and seeking their own selfish gain. When do the heroes succeed? When they behave most virtuously. Sauron is the embodiment of malice, and he can only be meaningfully opposed by good, selfless, noble men (and elves and dwarves and hobbits). Boromir is a walking embodiment of the fight between good and evil. And Tolkien makes it clear that you should want to be on the side of good.
On one level, Nix’s Old Kingdom is set up very similarly. In this world, there are two kinds of magic: Charter Magic and Free Magic. Charter Magic is ordered, and stable, and drawn from the collective strength of the Charter (think the Force if it only had a light side). Free Magic is borne of pure will, and is corrosive and dominating. It breaks the normal flow of life and nature, and is in some real way inimical to order. It’s chaos that’s temporarily channeled by pure force of will.
But here’s the really interesting thing: Free Magic isn’t inherently evil. True, it’s feared because it’s almost exclusively used for evil, but there are also hints all over the place that Free Magic is the one true elemental force, and the Charter is a specific and binding ordering of that chaos into something that is broadly beneficial. Free Magic is inherent in the majority of the most powerful spells and magical items in the Old Kingdom, even (SPOILERS!) in the founding of the Charter itself. Its unbounded nature just makes Free Magic wildly dangerous to use.
So unlike Middle Earth, the root of the Old Kingdom isn’t a faceoff between good and evil, it’s a faceoff between the chaos of extreme individualism and the order of… well, order, and a belief in the benefit if mutualism. To put it into even simpler terms, the Old Kingdom books are an exploration of free will, but they have an idea of what expressions of free will are prone to life and what expressions are prone to destruction.
It’s worth pointing out that the books never go so far as to suggest radical communism. Instead, the Charter is a sort of guideline for the proper application of free will. It’s still a dangerously powerful force that can eviscerate people who misuse it, but it’s laid into an order that (for the most part) protects those who use it from unintended consequences. It’s a willing sacrifice of some part of individuality under the recognition that looking out for one another proved healthier for all involved, and that’s a message tied into the world’s origin story (when that’s finally – and very gradually – revealed).
So the Old Kingdom is really cool, it’s unlike pretty much anything else I’ve read, and Nix has used this rich playground to tell some really fun stories. Go read Sabriel.