To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix
This is not the first time Garth Nix (or at least his publisher) has released an anthology like this one: a short story collection that heavily emphasizes the inclusion of a brand new tale set within the Old Kingdom (the setting of his most famous works: Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen and the recent Clariel) but which also contains an eclectic assortment of unrelated stories.
The last anthology was called Across the Wall, and as with that book there may be a few readers disappointed in the fact that only the first story is set within the Old Kingdom – and unlike Across the Wall, it does not contain any familiar characters from the rest of the series, only the city of Belisaere and the Guilds that make up such a large part of Clariel‘s plot.
Morghan is a young man searching for a place to belong, and falls in with the Bridge Company, swearing to defend the bridge-builders against attacks from the north. When Free Magic creatures attack, it falls to Morghan to single-handedly defend the bridge in one of the extended action and horror sequences that Nix is so good at writing. Though it may well be one of the earliest stories told in the chronology of the Old Kingdom, it’ll do little more than whet the appetite of long-term fans.
The rest of the collection showcases Nix’s skills as a writer of immense range, with eighteen more stories divided into categories that can roughly be described as supernatural, adventure, fantasy, comedy and science-fiction, involving angels, vampires, unicorns, zombies, witches and aliens. There are also appearances from the likes of Hellboy, John Carter of Mars, and Sherlock Holmes’s second cousin – as you might have guessed, all of these stories have been previously published in magazines and other anthologies.
Two characteristics of Nix’s writing always shine through: his military background (he was a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve) and his intricate magical systems. Regarding the former, many of his protagonists are soldiers, generals or combatants of some kind – which provides an easy excuse to get them drafted against their will into some adventure or other, and in the second case, he really does have a gift for combining mystery with clarity in his depiction of magic.
Anyone who has read his OLD KINGDOM books know how inventive he is with his portrayal of magic (there it is channelled through the sound of bells) yet it all has an internal logic and elegance to the way it works. Take this for example:
He fired [the gun] three times, the first bullet silver, the second petrified wood, and the third lead reclaimed from the gutter of a house where wizards had lived for more than a hundred years.
Ambrose wrapped [a long strip of linen that was covered in tiny Egyptian hieroglyphics drawn in some dark red ink] around his calf, tapped it thrice, and spoke the revered name of Sekmet, at which the hieroglyphics faded from the bandage and entered into his flesh, there to fight a holding battle against the demonic incursion.
He’s also a generous writer when it comes to his female characters, giving them a broad range of personalities, interests and abilities, and is a fantastic creator of monsters, many of which would do well on an episode of Doctor Who. And you know a writer is gifted when they can craft a whole world (culture, history, character backgrounds) in a limited amount of words, as Nix does frequently here.
Some of my favourite stories would have to be “A Handful of Ashes,” set at a girl’s boarding school in which poorer students called “sizars” are permitted to study there in exchange for menial service. Obviously they’re looked down upon by those whose families are of higher breeding, but two of their number – Mari and Francesca – become aware of another student wielding a powerful wand, and only have until midnight to combat her dark spells. It could easily be expanded into a bigger story, and the blend of Hogwarts and Oxford University as its setting deserves to be revisited.
“Holly and Iron” is an original take on the Robin Hood mythos (with a little King Arthur thrown in for good measure) in which the exiled granddaughter of the current King William realizes that her mixed lineage and her ability to call upon magic of both Norman iron and Inglish holly make her a strong contender for the throne – but only if she can set aside her desire for vengeance.
“The Big Question” is thought-provoking and haunting, detailing the adventures of a young man who goes in search of the answer to what lies beyond the mountain range that surrounds his home, and long-time fans of Nix will particularly appreciate two stories set in the worlds of Shades’s Children (“You Won’t Feel a Thing”) and A Confusion of Princes (“Master Haddad’s Holiday”).
Though personally I’m not a huge fan of short stories, this is a strong collection from one of my favourite authors, adding further material to some of his previous novels, and illustrating once again how gifted he is at world-building, characterization and suspense.
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…
I loved the “A Handful of Ashes” story! I’m a sucker for “boarding school” type stories, especially with magic. I really wish we had a full novel in that setting. Really liked this collection overall.
I like that Nix can do futuristic adventure as well as fantasy. I’m not a huge short story fan either but this sounds worth picking up.