Sabriel: Intoxicating reading

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Garth Nix Sabriel Abhorsen Old KingdomSabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel is one of the best fantasy books out there, full stop. Although not up to the deep literary analysis of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it is a realistic, fantastical, intriguing and thought-provoking novel that’s right up there with the best of them. Garth Nix creates a dark, almost Gothic world that echoes with age and believability that is intoxicating to explore: the magically-imbued Old Kingdom that lies across the Wall from the more scientific-orientated Ancelstierre, which has the mechanics and technology of a post-Victorian Britain (by my estimation anyway).

It is within these two totally different, but connected worlds that our protagonist Sabriel lives. Sabriel is an eighteen year old girl about to finish her education at Wyverley College in Ancelstierre, though her true home is across the Wall in the Old Kingdom, that she has not traveled to since she was a child. More interestingly though, she is the daughter of the Abhorsen — a necromancer who does not raise or disturb the dead like his evil counterparts, but lays them to rest and speeds them on their way to Death. But now he has gone missing, and after receiving his last gift to her (the necromancer’s tools: a spelled sword and a bandolier of seven bells) Sabriel sets out into her homeland that she hardly knows in order to find him, and go up against the ancient evil that is steadily snaking over the land…

On her quest she comes up against a number of obstacles, both terrifying and fascinating, (but thankfully all serve a purpose and are not just there for their own sakes) and landscapes that are described so vividly they can be seen with perfect clarity in the mind’s eye. From her father’s house on an island at the brink of a waterfall where she joins up with a mighty power in the shape of a tiny white cat, to an underground harbour of burial ships where a wooden figure-head is returned to life, Sabriel’s journey is filled with amazing and original occurrences.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGarth Nix somehow creates this world with perfect clarity, and his writing style is insightful, descriptive and clear — in other words it’s wonderful to read. Out of all his imaginative creations two stand out: that of his nature of Death as a Hades Styx-like river that flows throughout Nine Gates that can be traversed by both the living and the dead that refuse to properly die, and the bells of the necromancer — each has a name, a title, a purpose and different note: a perfect example of the depth and beauty of the world he’s created. A further delight is the character of Mogget, the white cat that accompanies Sabriel, but is in many ways more of a hindrance (not to mention a danger) than a help. If cats could speak in real life, they would sound like Mogget — and the idea concerning the ring and his collar is inspired!

Sabriel is the latest in a steadily growing line of strong female protagonists. For centuries there were the standard damsels in distress. Then with the wave of feminism came the stronger but still rather insipid “I’m spunky and spirited… but I still need to be rescued from captivity” female figure. But now come the women that have long been dormant — beginning with Tamora Pierce‘s heroines and Philip Pullman‘s Lyra, Sabriel follows in their tradition of being intelligent, resourceful, brave, compassionate and in charge of her situation. It can’t be just a coincidence that most of the people she rescues in her travels are male!

Though I would love to give Sabriel five stars, I have to take a point off for the instigation of two of the most clichéd and over-used fantasy plot developments of all time — that of the “misplaced royal heir” and the “true love” scenario. When Sabriel rescues Touchstone he claims himself to be one of the guards of the royal family of the Old Kingdom. Don’t think I’m spoiling anything for you when I say he isn’t, as his “secret identity” is almost painfully obvious. Likewise, the romance between him and Sabriel is sudden to say the least, with them both awkwardly confessing their feelings near the end of the book. Nix could have gotten away with using one of these plot lines, but both together?… No.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDespite this however, Sabriel is intoxicating reading, and very difficult to put down. Combining the genre of fantasy with touches of horror and Old World technology, Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy must be bought, not borrowed! Look out for a sequel that gets even better than this: Lirael, followed with the third installment Abhorsen.

~Rebecca Fisher


book review Garth Nix Sabriel Abhorsen Old KingdomThis is the story of Sabriel, an innocent young woman, and various types of dead, undead, once dead, sorta dead and should-be-dead people and creatures. Luckily, Sabriel is by heritage and training a necromancer, with a fair amount of power over death. Unluckily, some of these once-dead and should-be-dead creatures have apparently killed Sabriel’s father, the necromancer-in-chief or “Abhorsen,” and are in the process of taking over the kingdom. It’s up to Sabriel and her companions, a talking cat with mysterious powers and a once-sorta-dead (for 200 years) guy, to try to turn things around.

This is a well-written and enjoyable fantasy, a little on the grim and gruesome side, but still within the bounds of what I’d consider YA appropriate, at least for older readers. This is also the first book in a series, but at least this one doesn’t leave you hanging off the edge of the virtual cliff. I think I’m into it enough to keep reading the series, though I won’t be anxiously waiting outside the library doors tomorrow morning.

~Tadiana Jones

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…

Garth Nix Abhorsen The Old Kingdom: 1. Sabriel 2. Abhorsen 3. LiraelGarth Nix Abhorsen The Old Kingdom: 1. Sabriel 2. Abhorsen 3. LiraelGarth Nix Abhorsen The Old Kingdom: 1. Sabriel 2. Abhorsen 3. Liraelfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGarth Nix Abhorsen The Old Kingdom: 1. Sabriel 2. Abhorsen 3. Lirael 4. The Creature in the Casebook review Garth Nix Across the Wallfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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One comment

  1. Kevin S. /

    Just finished this book and I loved it. Strong 4.5 stars.

    Side note: I do find it odd that the book is in my library’s YA section but it mentions nudity a few times, an uncircumcised penis, and sex in a bath tub.

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