Most fans will find that the most exciting feature of this Garth Nix collection is undoubtedly the short story “Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case,” set in the world of the Old Kingdom (the setting of the Old Kingdom trilogy; Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen) and acting as a type of coda for the character of Nicolas Sayre, left damaged and traumatized in the last book. Set six months later, Nick is desperate to return to the Old Kingdom, to visit his old friend Sameth and — particularly — to see the Abhorsen-in-Training Lirael again. Unfortunately red tape is making it difficult for him to get across the Wall, until his political uncle drops him off at the country house of Alastor Dorrance, the leader of Department Thirteen, a spy network. In return for answering some questions about the Old Kingdom, Dorrance is willing to help Nick get back across the Wall.
But that’s before Nick is shown the underbelly of D13, and the secret that they have concealed in the underlying passageways of the house; a creature of Free Magic that is not as dead as they all might think. I loved the first half of the novella, and even the desperate chase that Nick makes after the terrible creature and its deranged servant, but was ultimately a little disappointed at the lack of previous characters present (of his extensive cast, only Lirael appears), and the fact that Nix doesn’t take the opportunity to wrap up a few loose ends that were left dangling in Abhorsen. Perhaps it’s an indication that more Old Kingdom books are the works? Let’s hope so. There is also an interesting snippet at the end of the book that reads as a lost document of the Clayr library: the journal of a power hungry necromancer. It’s short but sweet (though perhaps gives us too much exposition on the Precincts of the Death, unnecessary since we’ve been told it all in the original trilogy).
The rest of the short stories are a mixed bag; a varied collection of several genres including Arthurian legend, satirical comedies, original fairytales and some stories that seem somewhat mundane (that is, not fantasy) if not for the thread of magic realism running through it. Some are certainly written with more skill than others, considering the stories are taken throughout his entire writing career (he even presents an extremely short story that he wrote when he was six), but the range of the stories mean that there’s a good chance that at least one will appeal to you! Furthermore, Nix personalizes his collection by adding a small introduction to each story, giving a background to the inspiration and the crafting of each tale.
“Under the Lake” and “Heart’s Desire” are two very different takes on the Lady of the Lake; the first of which portrays her as a somewhat psychopathic goddess who gives the dubious gift of Excalibur to mankind, the latter of which explores her relationship to Merlin and the reason behind why she entrapped him beneath the earth.
“Down to the Scum Quarter” and “My New Really Epic Fantasy Series” are both tongue-in-cheek parodies of the fantasy genre, the former being an elaborate “Choose Your Own Adventure” story; the latter being a pitch for a forty-seven book series chock-full of every possible fantasy cliché.
In “Charlie Rabbit” two brothers are caught in a war-stricken country, with only themselves and a clockwork rabbit to protect them, whilst in “Lightning Bringer” a young boy meets a man with a (literally) electric personality, who has the power to take whatever he wants — including the protagonist’s girlfriend. “In the Lighthouse” concerns a pompous land-developer buying an island — much to the bemusement of its inhabitants. This story has a great imaginative setting, one that I would have loved to have seen developed further.
On the downside, there is “Hope Chest”, a fantasy-cum-Western that had previously appeared in The Firebirds Anthology, and which (unfortunately) just didn’t work for me, and “The Hill”, which concerns a boy and his great-great-grandfather attempting to save a piece of land in the Australian outback. According to Nix’s introduction, the story had originally contained aspects of Aboriginal mythology, which was cut due to disapproval from his publisher. Because Nix is white, it was deemed inappropriate for him to draw on a mythology that was not his own — a great pity, as I couldn’t help that it would have been a better story with the Aboriginal components intact. And surely the world’s mythology is not exclusive to one culture — isn’t a story about Aborigine legends as written by a white person better than no story at all?
But I loved “Hansel’s Eyes”, a contemporary (and somewhat macabre version) of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale; and Nix’s two original fairytales: “Three Roses” and “Endings” two very short and sweet tales; almost poems in their conception and style.
Although I would have much preferred that all the stories had been centered around the Old Kingdom, this is a perfectly adequate collection of short fiction, varied and well-written, as well as whetting our appetite for future Old Kingdom books. Pretty please?
The Old Kingdom (Abhorsen) — (1995-2016) Ages 9-12. Boxed sets are available. The Creature in the Case is a novella. Publisher: Since childhood, Sabriel has lived outside the walls of the Old Kingdom, away from the power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who refuse to stay dead. But now her father, the Mage Abhorson, is missing, and Sabriel must cross into that world to find him. With Mogget, whose feline form hides a powerful, perhaps malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage, Sabriel travels deep into the Old Kingdom. There she confronts an evil that threatens much more than her life’and comes face to face with her own hidden destiny…