The Keys to the Kingdom, book 1
by Garth Nix
I’m going to start by saying flat out that I didn’t like this book. It’s not by any means a bad book and may well appeal to the demographic of young male readers it’s aimed at. I had two main problems with it. 1) I didn’t feel engaged at all by the main character so I basically didn’t care what happened to him or anyone else. 2) I disliked the book’s cosmology which attempts a very ill-thought out reworking of Judeo-Christian cosmology.
Let’s start with issue number one. Arthur Penhaligon is the hero of the series. His dominant characteristic is that he has asthma, thus making him an unlikely hero. While his name may be a play on Arthur Pendragon, Arthur himself is… well sort of bland and boring. When faced with having to travel to the peculiar nexus of existence known as The House in order to save his home and loved ones from a rapidly spreading illness, he is determined to do whatever it takes. But other than determination and pluck, he really hasn’t much personality. His asthma is the thing that comes up over and over as his limitation rather than any actual character traits. It’s half the book before another main character shows up (Suzy Turquoise Blue) and she doesn’t add a whole lot to the mix either. The setting is also a centrepiece of the story. Its twisted Victorian decor puts one in mind of Edward Gorey right down to a number of incidents that range from peculiar to downright morbid. There’s lots of action too, so readers who are more interested in the setting and the fast pace than character development may well be satisfied.
And now issue number two, which will likely go over the heads of most young readers. The name of the series will hint at the Christian context as it plays on the Biblical quote “the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” from the Gospel of Matthew. Nix makes literal many Biblical allusions. The keys in this series are literal keys and they give the user power over creation and over “The House,” which is the centre of the universe, and the domicile of the universe’s creator, referred to as the Architect. Can you see where this is going?
The parallels get stranger. The Architect (who will henceforth be referred to as God, though I should note it’s a “she” in the book) has left and the explanation is only given later in the series… or on Wiki if you want to cheat. She has left a will, which has been suppressed by the executors so that they can do what they want in her absence. The will, however, is sentient, and when a fragment of it breaks free, the story begins. Now let’s reviews… God is gone and has left behind a will; this seems to be a little play on Nietzsche’s famous adage that “God is dead.” The Will is also a character in the story… get it? Get it? It’s the Will of God. I feel like Nix wants us to applaud his cleverness here. *holds up applause sign*
Here’s the problem. The Will (of God) is a jerk. It/he/she (?) ignores Christian virtues such as compassion. Instead it advocates actions such as leaving people behind or executing people while it’s Arthur who has to insist on caring and humane behaviour. The Will is generally selfish and manipulative, caring only about fulfilling its own interests rather than about the welfare of the people involved. Oh and by the way, there’s no afterlife according to the Will.
While there are all sorts of cultural references in the story (e.g. a character called “The Old One” who is a parallel to Prometheus, Arthur Pendragon/ Arthur Pendragon, etc.), it sounded very much to me like Nix was trying to make a critique of Christianity. I have no problem reading books that want to do that. I disagree with many of Philip Pullman’s ideas, but I enjoyed His Dark Materials trilogy anyway because it was well written and the critique was well thought out and complex. The same cannot be said of The Keys to the Kingdom, in which Nix is more interested in making an offhand attack while patting himself on the back for his own cleverness.
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