Sabriel (Abhorsen #1) by Garth Nix

Sabriel is the first novel in Garth Nix’s young adult Old Kingdom series (Abhorsen Trilogy in North America). Nix was Guest of Honor at the 2009 World Fantasy Convention and was invited to emcee the Hugo Awards ceremony at Aussiecon4 in 2010.  He is obviously no slouch in the fantasy publishing community, but it is worth noting that his bibliography is almost exclusively young adult.
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Strong beginnings
Sabriel
opens with a gripping flashback sequence in which a mysterious magical figure known only as the Abhorsen enters Death, saving a child from the creature Kerrigor and ordering that she be named Sabriel. Eighteen years later the Abhorsen disappears, and Sabriel is forced to leave behind her comfortable school life to assume the mantle of the Abhorsen and cross the Wall in search of him. This crossing takes her from modern Ancelstierre into the Old Kingdom, where the rule of Charter magic is under threat.

A unique concept of magic
Like many novels, Sabriel toys with the clash of magic and technology—and magic is where Sabriel shines. Nix takes the well-worn trope of necromancy and inverts it—Charter necromancers use their powers to bind the dead away from the living. Charter spellcraft involves common elements of magic like words and hand movements, but Nix has built in a wonderfully realized application of bells. The most evocative and well-written passages in the novel involve Sabriel’s use of magic, particularly the ringing of bells with their unique properties and “voices.”

Similarly, the most interesting element of Sabriel’s world is the realm of Death. The dead, when they arise, are appropriately creepy and provide the peak moments of the story. Nix’s world-building in general is intriguing, but opportunities for development seem limited by the scope of the novel.

Can a concept sustain a story?
Sabriel
is driven by plot devices; Sabriel herself is not a particularly interesting character. She is dragged along by the story rather than showing initiative of her own. It would be inaccurate to describe her as a damsel in distress, but she is too often placed in situations that far exceed her own ability to cope. While there is some level of sympathy between reader and character, there is no deeper connection.

It should be a concern if one of the secondary characters is far more intriguing than the protagonist. Not simply more humorous, because of course there will be characters used for comic relief, but genuinely more conflicted and more interesting. In Sabriel that character is Mogget (who is designed to be the knowledgeable foil to the youthfully ignorant Sabriel) because he is the mysterious and complicated one. I now understand why many people I know have a cat called Mogget.

Appropriate for the target audience
To be fair, many elements that I perceive as weaknesses in Sabriel can be attributed to the book’s intended audience. The prose is occasionally simplistic, particularly the imagery. The characters are flat. In a story rich in magic and plot perhaps characters of intensity and depth would be too overwhelming. I’m giving Sabriel the benefit of the doubt.

Why should you read this book?
I read and reviewed this book as a 28-year-old male, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to teenagers—teenage girls in particular. Any parent who wants their daughter to read stories with (what I assume is) a relatable heroine and no vampires would do well to pick up Sabriel. There are moments for adult readers to enjoy, and the plot pulls together nicely, but I felt that there were too many weak points to go through to reach the payoff.

About Michael Neate

Michael Neate
Michael is a lifelong Fantasy reader and a History teacher by profession. Given his love of Ancient and Medieval times, he has toyed with the idea of writing historical Fantasy in those settings. Michael will always be thankful to his 6th grade teacher who suggested he read The Hobbit. He is not sure whether or not to thank the high school friend who introduced him to The Wheel of Time. Michael loves writers who avoid patronising the reader and telling them all about their invented world but show their characters and setting through intense action and crackling dialogue.

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6 comments

  1. This is one of my absolute favourite books. 🙂

  2. A fair well written review. I read it so long ago all I remember is that she had bells and an awesome cat.

  3. A fair well written review. I read it so long ago all I remember is that she had bells and an awesome cat.

  4. I remember liking this (as a 28 year old male, no less!), but not much else about it. Except an equally vague memory that the sequel was even better, as it had a big library.

  5. I really enjoyed all of this series that Garth Nix wrote. I read it years ago as a younger woman so that may have colored my veiw closer to the intended audience. I loved the character of her father and the concept behind the bells and how they interacted with the world of the dead. I actually really enjoyed the imagery in this book. I thought the world was well described. I am an artist though and I love when I can really picture what I am reading… so much so that I can imagine doing art pieces based on what I read.

  6. Fair review. I read this when I was 11 years old, and it was the book that really introduced me into fantasy/SF. I was just so impressed by the magic system and the world that I just kept looking around for more. I can’t help but feel all sorts of nostalgia for this book 😉

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