Book Review: Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy #1) by Garth Nix

1042542Title: Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy #1)
Author: Garth Nix
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy
Publisher: CollinsVoyager
Publication Date: May 6th 2003
Rating: 4 stars
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Who will guard the living when the dead arise? Sabriel is sent as a child across the Wall to the safety of a school in Ancelstierre. Away from magic; away from the Dead. After receiving a cryptic message from her father, 18-year-old Sabriel leaves her ordinary school and returns across the Wall into the Old Kingdom. Fraught with peril and deadly trickery, her journey takes her to a world filled with parasitical spirits, Mordicants, and Shadow Hands — for her father is none other than The Abhorson. His task is to lay the disturbed dead back to rest. This obliges him — and now Sabriel, who has taken on her father’s title and duties — to slip over the border into the icy river of Death, sometimes battling the evil forces that lurk there, waiting for an opportunity to escape into the realm of the living. Desperate to find her father, and grimly determined to help save the Old Kingdom from destruction by the horrible forces of the evil undead, Sabriel endures almost impossible challenges whilst discovering her own supernatural abilities — and her destiny.

A wall is the only thing seperating Ancelstierre, a mostly human-inhabited town with technology, electronics and weapons (although one can hardly use any of those things in such close distance to the wall) from the Old Kingdom, a place where strange monsters terrify little children, ancient magic is still practiced often, and necromancers can bring the dead back to life. It’s also the place where Sabriel’s father, the Abhorsen – which is not exactly a name, but more like a rank – is still residing, making sure the dead do what they do best: staying dead. Although the job subscription might sound interesting and honorable at first, it’s a tiring task that brings the Abhorsen from the one end of the Kingdom to the next, and often keeps him away from his daughter.

On recommendation of her father, Sabriel attends a boarding school in Ancelstierre. Although magic is not commonly practiced there, it is at her school, and every single student knows who she is. The daughter of the Abhorsen, destined to be Abhorsen too one day, to learn the Book of the Dead by heart and to spend her entire life chasing dead people on the River of Death and putting them back to rest. But on the day before her scheduled meeting with her father, it is a servant of Death who comes to visit her instead. The only possible conclusion is that Sabriel’s father is in great peril, probably kidnapped or defeated by one of the Higher Dead.

Now, with no one left to stand between the world of the living and the world of the death, Sabriel is the only left who can don the bells of necromancy and use the ancient secrets of charter magic to stop the walking dead from overwhelming the Old Kingdom. Because one of the most powerful entities from the Realm of the Dead has escaped, and he’s out to take revenge, and to reclaim what was once his. The Old Kingdom, and possibly Ancelstierre as well.

There isn’t much I can say about The Abhorsen Trilogy that hasn’t been said before. With his books Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, Garth Nix crafts a dazzling, strong and compelling fantasy series with highly original concepts, entertaining and genuine-sounding characters, and one of the first series that successfully combines epic and dark fantasy, featuring both a magical Old Kingdom, necromancers and the rising dead. Garth Nix’s cleverness as a writer shows as he manages to create both an instantly addictive plot and an alternate world that seems both halfway familiar but also unsettingly strange. Every day events are colored with references to a most dark past, creatures that once roamed the Old Kingdom, and magics so ancient and strong that they could change the world forever. The plot hardly stops to catch a breath, and I felt quite surprised when I turned the final page. Not that everything hadn’t wrapped up nicely – it had, up to some point, which can be expected from the first book in the trilogy – but because I was surprised that I had already finished reading.

One of the best things about this book, is the distinction between the world on one side of the wall, Ancelstierre for example, filled with technology, cars, etc. and cosely resembling England in the 1930s, whereas the world on the other side of the wall, The Old Kingdom, still dwells in the middle ages and is the setting for magic, ancient bloodlines, prophecies and epic sword-wielding heroes. The world-building is nothing if not impressive, and I must admit that I loved everything Garth Nix introduced: from the island of the Abhorsen, to the Realm of the Death, to the Perimeter in front of the wall. He manages to provide his readers with an impressive amount of information in a short period of time, without ever going overboard or letting the plot slow down.

Sabriel is unlike any fantasy heroine I’ve come across in literature. She’s no damsel in distress or fierce warrior woman or almost-invincible sorceress. In fact, she’s a young adult who happened to inherit some wicked powers and is still struggling to make them work as they should, and who, on top of that, needs to rescue her father from the Realm of the Dead. She acts and behaves not like your average fantasy character – full of courage, determined, grown up beyond her years – but as a real human being would do: devastated, scared, but with the knowledge that, if anyone is to rescue her father, it will have to be her. Which involuntarily brings her to a position of responsibility, although her eighteen-year-old self would love nothing more than to stay as far away from those responsibilities as possible. She’s intelligent enough to know when to stay and fight – and not foolishly courageous as some fantasy heroes, who in the end have to rely on a deus ex machina to deliver them from their perils – and when to run as far away as possible as fast as possible.

I have to admit that the other characters, especially Touchstone, Sabriel’s prince-in-distress (it’s nice to switch a damsel for a prince for once) are a bit flat. And ‘a bit flat’ might be an understatement. I was occassionally worrying, especially the fifty first page Touchstone made his appearance, if he had any personality at all. It reminded me faintly of fairytales, wherein we get to follow the prince from page one, as he goes through trial after trial to save his beloved princess, who we only meet briefly because she’s locked up in an enchanted tower (castle/hidden by a dragon/sleeping a hundred years/a kitchen maid/insert whatever you like) and all we know about her is that she’s beautiful, fair and good-natured. Except here Sabriel is the brave and intelligent prince, and Touchstone is the princess, whose only mentionable character traits are that he’s fairly good-looking and he spend a couple of centuries turned into stone. So maybe that’s enough to make someone loose their personality alltogether, but I highly doubt it. For all I care, Touchstone could have never turned human again, and Sabriel could have just brought him along in stone-shape for the rest of the book, because he would have an equally charming personality (none whatsoever) and he would have done equally important things for the plotline (none whatsoever). Also, it was a bit too coincedental that Sabriel just happened to stumble upon the only living (well…turned into stone, but you get my point) prince of the Old Kingdom just then, and just happened to reinstall monarchy as a side-effect of her adventure. Yeah, right.

But whereas Touchstone has the personality of a bumblebee, there is one person (well, not exactly a person…) who makes up for any personality traits the other characters seem to be lacking. So much even that when Garth Nix would decide to write a novel focused on this character alone, I would literally run to the nearest book store to purchase myself a copy. It’s like in Raymond E. Feist’s The Riftwar Saga books, where all characters are pretty decent and fun, but there’s one character – in that case, Jimmy The Hand – who stands out so much from the others, because he’s intelligent, hilarious, cunning, mischievous and everything that makes him so much more interesting than all the other characters. The Abhorsen Trilogy has such a character as well, although it doesn’t come in the form of an actual human being here. Mogget, the touch of brilliance in this book, is not a human, but a cat. Or at least, he’s a being crafted from Free Magic and trapped into cat form by a collar. Where his true allegiances lie – with the people who bound him to his animal form, the Abhorsens, who he has served faithfully for thousands of years (but only because he had to) – or with the dark side, is a question that’s not answered in this book, and that leaves the readers guessing. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Whether Mogget is doublecrossing Sabriel, whether he has his own secret agenda, or whether he’s actually pretty decent and has grown to like The Abhorsens (or at least Sabriel and her father) remains a mystery, but it does not do anything for Mogget’s coolness. It only adds to the depths of his character. He is hilarious, intelligent, witty, sometimes even downright mean, and I love him all the more for it. A nice bonus is that he’s just so cat-like in his behavior. Sure, he talks, he gives sly remarks to Sabriel when she appears to ask stupid questions, and he has occassional comments about Prince Touchstone, but he also cries for fish all the time, and he bites people to get their attention. You can’t tell me that’s not cat-like.

One of my only concerns with this book though is that it’s promoted as being a young adult fantasy book, but it does rank pretty high on the age-list to be strictly young adult in my opinion. There are no sex scenes or anything, and it doesn’t really get beyond the occassional kiss, but that’s not what’s bothering me in the age-range choice for this book. What bothers me, is the dark subject matter this book deals with. Alright so, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows is pretty dark too, and that’s young adult-oriented as well, but still I can’t help but feel like they’ve missed the mark here. It’s obvious that when Garth Nix wrote this book, he wasn’t aiming it at young adults either. Sure, his main character is barely eighteen years old, but he doesn’t once hesitate to raise the dead from their early graves, to make them bounce around like ragdolls, or to write blood and gore into every scene that could possibly need it. The subjects he addresses are dark and serious as well. The obvious focus point of this book is life and death, the borderline inbetween, the afterlife and everything after that. He doesn’t take death as a laughable subject in his book (the zombies are NOT hilarious, they’re rather scary in fact, death is not the key to some immortal life filled with happiness and joy) and I can’t help but think that this book was aimed more at adults from the start, and was never intended for a young adult public. Nowadays, publishers often think the only reason to promote a book as being ‘adult’ is when there are very graphic sexual scenes in it. Newsflash, that’s not the case. Talking about death and the afterlife, and imagining hordes of zombies taking on the main characters of a book, can be equally disturbing to youngsters as a sex scene in a book. Just saying.

Sabriel does not dissapoint. It’s epic fantasy, but with an entirely new layer added on top of it. There’s something in it for everyone: romance, the occassional drama, a well-developed and thought-through magic system, most impressive world-building mixing elements from the previous century and from “standard” medieval epic fantasy, entertaining characters and one of the most brilliant and well-crafted characters I’ve ever read about. I recommend this book to all fans of epic and dark fantasy, and to everyone whose ready to try out something new. Even if you’ve given up on the fantasy-genre alltogether, convinced that after reading Tolkien you’ve read it all, you still should give Sabriel a chance.

Comments

  1. This is like a flash from my past, I read this ages ago and I loved it. It was the first ‘scary’ book I ever read, but I was hooked.

    Great to see older books being reviewed amongst all the new ones out there.

Trackbacks

  1. […] already reviewed the first two books of this trilogy, Sabriel and Lirael, and I have to say that out of all three of these books, I enjoyed Abhorsen the most. […]

  2. […] Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy #1) Publisher: CollinsVoyager Publication Date: May 6th 2003 Review: Read my review for Sabriel. Rating: Who will guard the living when the dead arise? Sabriel is sent as a child across the Wall […]

  3. […] Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy #1) by Garth Nix – 4/5 stars […]

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