Garth Nix

Allen and Unwin (2003-2010)

Retrospective by Alexandra Pierce, March 2010

I loathe reading a series while it is still being written. Some find the sense of expectation a delightfully tingly one, I just find it brings out the worst of my impatience. I cannot express my unendurable smugness at all those Harry Potter fans agonising over the release date of the last book (I finally read them in 2009, ok? And yes, I’m converted).

For the last few years, the only series I have been waiting on impatiently has been Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom. And by that I mean trying to find out when each successive book came out; for the latest, and last, it meant asking in every bookstore I walked into whether it was on their system yet and whether they had a release date (and this while I was on holidays overseas). It has been something of an obsession. A curious one, too: they are short books, aimed at the younger end of the Young Adult spectrum. It seems, objectively, a bit ridiculous to so breathlessly anticipate a book that I read in about three hours (yes, I’ve timed it). And yet.

The series has now been completed. There will be no spin-offs – the story just wouldn’t allow for it. We’ve been through Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday and finally, finally, Lord Sunday. We’ve watched Arthur, the focus of the story, as he’s changed and (usually) overcome challenges. This is not a review of Lord Sunday. Instead, this is a retrospective: my musings on just what the series has been all about. It also provided a perfectly legitimate excuse for me to find and re-read the first six before buying, and reading, the last.

The most obvious place to start is with Arthur. I will admit to a certain amount of eye-rolling when I saw his name: Arthur Penhaligon? Guess it’s a slightly original take on Arthur Pendragon, I thought; and from there I was expecting a modernised Arthur and his Knights story, maybe like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. But I was quite wrong, and I’ve wondered since about why Nix chose this particular name. Arthur? Well, it’s a good “Everyman” name – Arthur Dent, anyone? – while also having those heroic overtones. I think Penhaligon is indeed meant to invoke Pendragon, but not to suggest that this Arthur is a copy of that. Taking the Arthurian story as it stands today, the two Arthurs share some traits: a destiny thrust upon them, magical weapons, vicious magical opponents, and loyal friends helping. These are not unique traits, of course, but I do think the Arthur connection makes the story that bit more interesting, and perhaps poignant.

This Arthur is a classic “unlikely hero”: a weedy asthmatic kid, chosen to be the recipient of something magical because he is close to death. It’s not clear how old Arthur is – about thirteen is my guess – and although he has to be a fairly mature thirteen for the story to work, it still reads as plausible. Over the seven books, although only a couple of weeks elapse in the real world, Arthur lives several months, and of course he experiences far more in that period than a normal teenager would; he’s forced to grow up fast. Additionally, there’s the magical interference, and for me this was probably the most interesting aspect of his character. We’re never allowed to forget that Arthur’s asthma has been a defining factor of his life, as he regularly feels amazed at being able to breathe properly. While this could get wearing, actually it’s endearing: what thirteen year old wouldn’t be constantly amazed at having something like that go away? More than that, of course, is the effect that the magic has on him overall. Once he gets Dr Scamandros’ ring and learns that the more he uses magic the more Denizen he becomes, Arthur is faced with a fascinating quandary (not unlike that while Reason is faced with in the Magic or Madness series by Justine Larbalestier, in some ways). Use magic to save the people he loves and lose his humanity, or lose the people and keep the humanity? The fact that, in the later books, the magic starts to affect his personality adds an extra layer of fascination. How could anyone deal with the dilemma Arthur faces? More to the point, how would others be able to resist the temptation to just give in and become… other, at the risk of losing themselves? As a play on the idea that power corrupts, I think this is a powerful story: not moralising, and not simplistic, but sympathetic and complex. I was very, very curious about how Nix would resolve this dilemma, and I must say I was a tad disappointed, in the end. I don’t know what I was expecting, or hoping, he would do, but the eventual solution… it just didn’t feel completely right, somehow. Nonetheless, for character development I think Arthur is a marvellous creation.

Another thing I really liked about Arthur’s story, although it’s a fairly small aspect of the plot, is his family. Arthur is adopted; of his siblings, two are Bob and Emily’s together, and four are from Bob and Emily’s different liaisons. Little is made of this: they are a family, with no differentiation between them because of their parents. Arthur is no freak for being adopted – neither spoiled nor neglected. I really appreciated the naturalness of this non-nuclear family, and the love that is evident between the members (allowing for normal sibling annoyance, of course). It’s a welcome sign that while the classic nuclear family still exists (and is shown in the books), it’s not the only “right” way to do family.

There are two settings for this series: the House, where the magic happens and which is the centre of the universe, and the Secondary Realms – the universe we know. The “real” world Nix describes is one that I think will ring true for some time. Arthur lives in a generic Anglo suburb; it could as easily be England, America, or Australia. And it could be set at any time from the 1990s to the 2020s, with a few small exceptions such as mentions of e-paper which, the first time I read the books, I actually skipped over. This is contrasted with the House, which is really where Nix’s creative flare is let loose. Not being beholden to any laws of physics, anything and everything can exist there, and probably does. I think my favourite is the Middle House, with its canals, and its obsession with gilding and making manuscripts generally beautiful. The one troubling aspect of the House, for me, is that the higher you go up in the House (it’s divided into the Lower, Middle, and Upper House), the taller and the more beautiful the Denizens tend to get. Of course, neither height nor beauty here are a guarantee of moral worth – as witnessed by the Morrow Days themselves – but I found the conflation of power with beauty a bit uncomfortable. The point, I presume is to flag to readers that attractiveness doesn’t automatically equate to goodness; certainly after reading Superior Saturday, I’d be suspicious of ridiculously good-looking women, and Lord Sunday doesn’t help unusually handsome men. And the fact that Arthur himself gets taller, and more beautiful, with his increasing use of magic also complicates the association of beauty with goodness: it’s as this change becomes more pronounced that Arthur struggles to stay himself, and not be taken over by the changes both physical and psychological.

Each book is named for the ultimate enemy Arthur must confront in each story – the Morrow Days, those faithless Trustees of the Architect’s Will, who refused to fulfil the conditions of that Will and who are now trying desperately to cling to their power in the face of Arthur, the designated Rightful Heir. It took me a while to realise (and ok, someone had to point it out to me) that each Day corresponds with one of the “seven deadly sins”. This realisation isn’t a vital one (except for guessing which sin each successive Day will represent), but it is a clever way of giving them distinctive personalities, and making them quite different. At the same time, they share at least one characteristic: they are trust-breakers. This is a powerful idea, because it immediately sets them up as morally bad; children in particular, I would imagine, would react strongly to this characterisation. Mister Monday (sloth, if you were wondering) is probably the least individualised of all, and also has least to do with Arthur directly. By the time you get to Lord Thursday (wrath), the Days are increasingly involved with Arthur directly because they’re starting to get the wind up them about his achievements. And their characters become more finely drawn, as are their motives – which makes them much more interesting characters, and more sympathetic too. I think my favourite is Drowned Wednesday (gluttony), because her state was ultimately not her choice – it was forced upon her – and she is the only one who actually tries to help Arthur in some way.

There is a funny moment in one of the earlier books where Arthur refers to Superior Saturday as a man, and is corrected – no, she’s a woman. And this is another fascinating aspect of these books: the gender balance. As a series, it passes the Bechdel Test: there is more than one named female, and women have conversations with each other about something over than a man. Arthur’s two main sidekicks are Suzy Turquoise Blue, a Piper’s child (stolen from Earth and brought to the House by the Piper, and never ageing), and Leaf, a mortal girl from his school. These two, while impressed with the power he gets, essentially help Arthur stay grounded; they also go off and have their very own adventures, tangential to Arthur’s and sometimes scarier. Leaf, in particular, helps Arthur to remember home and humanity. She’s not quite as well developed as Suzy overall, but they are both great characters. And even better than that, there is absolutely no suggestion of romance. Ever.

Most of the other characters appearing throughout the seven books aren’t exactly original, but neither are they cardboard cut-outs. The Old One is essentially Prometheus, combined with Old Man Time; he is a nebulous character right up to the end, and I really liked that about him. He’s an example of the complexity of the story; no simplistic storytelling here. He argued with the Architect sometime in the past – but about what? – and his attitude towards Arthur is always ambiguous. Nix clearly has a mischievous sense of humour: the Old One shows that to some extent, but it’s shown even more in two of his sons – the Mariner and the Piper. The Piper is perhaps one of the more disappointing characters, for me, in that he seems to appear – whoosh! – in Grim Thursday, with an army and little forewarning of the role he might play. And I didn’t feel that he was properly explained even in the end. Tom, the Mariner, was about as opaque as his brother, but in his case it doesn’t matter as much, being (to be brutally honest, much as I loved him) a plot device with little need for character – what he got was enough. Contrariwise, there’s Dame Primus, made up the amalgamated bits of the Will of the Architect. I really enjoyed that each Part of the Will had an individual personality, to some extent reflected in the animal they manifested as (and it took me a few books to realise the picture on the back of the Allen and Unwin covers always showed that manifestation. Bit slow, me). By the time I got to the fifth or sixth book, I was finally suspecting that Old Primey (as Suzy calls her) maybe wasn’t going to be the pure instrument that one would expect from a Will. And… it would involve spoilers to go into that any further. Over the whole series, she develops into quite a complex character.

Bizarrely, the entire story of the Keys to the Kingdom in many ways boils down to just one thing: bureaucracy. Every Denizen knows exactly where he or she (and there seems to be an equal number of male and female, doing the same jobs) stands in the House hierarchy. Things keep going for ten thousand years because a memo to stop it got lost. An entire section of the House is devoted to book construction, and sorcery depends entirely on words, and paper. The Will needs to be put back together, and executed. This is not the most romantic ultimate premise, but perhaps that’s why it works: it’s so very prosaic. And also so completely approachable. Even kids have had to deal with paperwork: oh, those excursion forms. And sorcery that uses pen and ink (admittedly special, Activated Ink) is at once totally commonplace and totally fascinating. It also allows for sorcery going rather bad, like when the paper gets wet.

Overall, as is probably obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed Keys to the Kingdom. I’d only read each book once, so re-reading them one after the other was fantastic – and I picked up on a lot of things that I clearly missed first time round because I was clearly reading too fast – for plot and not for detail (whoops). The development of Arthur is, as I indicated, the most interesting part – as it should be. There is a definite progression over the course of the books into slightly darker, more complex storytelling; I would not have guessed from the first book that by the sixth, there would be a threat of a nuclear strike on a hospital. That said, the first book introduces a plague and burns down a school library, so maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised. I like that Nix respects his audience: there are no cop outs, no easy fixes. I like that the characters are honest about feeling scared, but that there is also that heroic, determined, element that allows them to push on and face whatever horrific thing (or Nithling) is coming up next.

Regrets? If anything the House is too complex – Arthur, and the reader, never gets to know it in any detail. We also never learn all that much about Arthur’s family, nor about Leaf’s, which leaves her in particular dangling a bit. There are some slight plot holes, but nothing so gaping that it destroyed my enjoyment of the story. And as I said, I’m not entirely happy with the ultimate ending, but it made sense and I can live with it!

This is going to remain a cherished series of books, in my heart.