It took me about 18 months to give in to my boyfriend’s suggestions and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix.
I don’t know why I was so reluctant — he has good taste that’s similar to mine, and I enjoy a good fantasy novel, especially with a female protagonist. (I think actually it took me a while to discern the bust on the cover figure, and so I assumed it was about some medieval version of an ’80s skater boy).
But, thankfully, I eventually relented. And when I mentioned enjoying it on facebook, numerous friends chimed in saying they’d been fans for ages! Apparently I missed the boat back in 1995, but I’m on it now.
Sabriel is actually the first book in a soon-to-be-quartet by Australian author Garth Nix, which takes place in a fantasy world which includes both the magical “Old Kingdom”, and (on the other side of The Wall) a non-magical society called “Ancelstierre”, which seems like early 1900s England. (While the non-magical part of the world has telegraphs, automobiles, and tanks, they lack many other modern-day accoutrements).
In the Old kingdom, magic can still function, but anything machine-made crumbles. It’s a place of monarchy & magic, and it has little to do with the people on the other side of it. To the south, a different government rules, magic doesn’t work, and some people there think all the magic is really just scientifically-explainable phenomena.
Those who live along the wall know otherwise. Soldiers guard it day and night to prevent unauthorized crossing in any direction (you need an official letter from both sides’ governments to cross) — and they use both magical and man-made weapons.
Sabriel, knows all of this — her father is the “Abhorsen”; a title claimed by one woman or man each generation in her family. The Abhorsen is a necromancer who returns the dead to where they belong, instead of raising them for evil & manipulation. He or she is responsible for protecting the people of the Old Kingdom from undead-making necromancers, and for banishing them and their possessed dead back through the seven gates to true Death.
The Abhorsen accomplishes this with 7 bells which can control either the dead or the living — making them walk, speak, be silent, or even go straight past the 7th gate on the river of death. As a necromancer, the Abhorsen must travels through the gates along the river of Death in order to find or fight other necromancers & the dead while avoiding the traps that each gate inherently holds.
Sabriel easily checks off the must-have qualities of a good fantasy novel — it’s well-written, dramatic, suspenseful, and each page leaves you hungry for more. The world is beautifully concocted and rich in detail; I was especially intrigued by the concept of the “Charter”, from which all “good” mages get their power. More power-hungry folks (like other necromancers) will instead try to tap into Free Magic, which the Charter was designed (in part) to constrain. Its power is drawn upon through runes, engraved or visualized, and it relies on the existence of engraved Charter Stones to keep it attainable by the mages. I found this concept to be very creative and distinct from magic in most fantasy novels, which is quite an accomplishment.
Once I got started, I couldn’t put it down — and then I couldn’t wait to get the next two from my local library!
In a delightful way which reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s books, the character development — especially of the female protagonists — is realistic & interesting. Throughout the series, we get female characters with aspirations and conflicts and problems that are multi-dimensional. And they’re not supposedly thinking about how their breasts feel against their tunics all the time, either (ahem, George R.R. Martin).
But, they’re also teenagers. And, you know what? They act kind of like real teenagers do — they can be short-sighted, ungrateful, grumpy, easily embarrassed, and reluctant to take advice. But they can also be brave & interesting & conflicted & are usually trying to do the right thing.
The comparative literature major in me also enjoyed the revelations over the 3 published books of conflicting moralities, shades of gray between wrong & right, and debates about whether anything can be truly, inherently evil (and whether attempts to restrain something dangerous can go too far).
(Oh, and did I mention there was a talking cat named “Mogget”? Yeah, he’s pretty cynical & awesome).
While the first book centers on Sabriel, the 2nd and 3rd are one long (and addicting) story arc following Lirael, whose life does eventually intertwine with Sabriel’s, though many years after the first book takes place. While this isn’t a common structure for a quartet, the books were so exciting that I didn’t care at all. I was glad I’d picked up #2 and 3 from the library on the same day so that I could move onto Abhorsen as soon as I finished Lirael.
There are elements in Nix’s series which remind me of the Gemma Doyle trilogy (Libba Bray), the Lioness Rampant quartet (Tamora Pierce), and even the Foundation trilogy (Isaac Asimov). (That last one is less obvious of a connection, but I personally got a similar feeling from the two books in how they tell stories of multiple generations & the passage of time).
They’re all quick reads, too (but so exciting that you might pick ’em up just a couple months later for a re-read!). As summer (and hopefully a vacation or two) looms closer, I heartily endorse picking up Sabriel, and seeing if you don’t get pulled along for the rest of the series!