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.