"Abhorsen," Garth Nix (Abhorsen Trilogy 3)

Pros: Beautiful; wonderful characters; engrossing plot; fixes the tiny flaws of the first two books
Cons: None
Rating: 6 out of 5

First posted 2/4/2003

Abhorsen is the third book in the series, following Sabriel and Lirael. If you want to make sure you know nothing at all about what happens in them, then wait to read this review until you’ve read those books. I’ll do my best, however, to avoid too many spoilers.

“Sabriel” stands alone well enough, although it’s hard to stop there simply because the book is so good and the characters are so interesting. It introduces us to a truly unusual fantasy/horror setting. In the Old Kingdom, magic holds sway and evil necromancers raise the dead for their own foul purposes. Only Charter mages and the Abhorsen stand against them. Unfortunately the Abhorsen is dead, and only his 18-year-old daughter, who is unaware of her heritage, stands to inherit the position. Young Sabriel was educated in Ancelstierre, where magic fails and science holds sway. Now she must take up her father’s weapons and take his place, before it’s too late for everyone.

“Lirael” can be read without the background of “Sabriel” (although why would you want to skip that lovely book?), but it is “to be continued” at the end. It takes place roughly 15 years after the previous book. Lirael is one of the Clayr, people who can see the future. But she has yet to develop the Sight, and so she cannot be viewed as an adult by her people. To make matters worse she looks nothing like the others, and no one knows who her father was. This sets the stage for a truly touching tale about belonging and finding one’s place in things. She meets up with a prince of the royal blood, Sameth, who is believed to be the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and the two of them set out to rescue a friend of Sam’s. Sam’s friend is Nick, a young man from Ancelstierre, who has been co-opted by an evil necromancer to help him with his terrible plans.

Where Abhorsen Picks Up…

Lirael has found her place in the world, as has Sam, but neither is comfortable with their identities yet. They’re on their way to help Nick, but the Greater Dead Chlorr plans to stop them. Meanwhile, forces in Ancelstierre are determined to make matters even worse by attempting to assassinate Sabriel and her consort.

You’ll need to read “Lirael” first in order to truly understand what’s going on in this book.

Why You Must Read Abhorsen!

“Abhorsen” overcomes the few problems that the last couple of books had. Gone is the slightly-too-dumb protagonist from the beginning of Sabriel. Gone as well is the slight choppiness of Lirael. I’m not quite sure how Nix does it yet, but somehow he manages to execute perspective shifts that in the hands of almost any author would pull the reader out of the story… yet in his hands they’re smooth and elegant.

This book goes further into the idea of identity and place. How do the expectations of others shape our identities? Is our place in the world what we make of it, or what the world makes us into? Is everything pre-determined, or can we change things? How do we gain a sense of self and purpose, a place of our own in the world?

Again it’s delightful to see young adults coming into their own, facing terrible things, and (with a lot of work and determination) doing great deeds. These are meant to be young adult novels, is my understanding. Certainly I would have delighted in these if I’d found them when I was a teenager. There’s a lot of death involved, but no sex, and it’s horror of a level that I believe most young adults could handle (or at least, young adults who like the genre). These are utterly beautiful books for adults as well, however.

Perhaps the aspect of “Lirael” and “Abhorsen” most reminiscent of other books for non-adults is the presence of intelligent animal companions who sometimes serve as comic relief. However, this is not a negative (as it can often be). The comic touches were perfectly placed to provide relief from heavier emotions. And, of course, neither animal is what it seems, and neither animal is entirely reassuring.

We get to learn even more in this book about the mysterious Charter and Free Magic, and we learn more about Moggett (the “cat”), the Disreputable Dog, and their mysterious origins. While things were not over-explained (thankfully!), neither did I feel that I had been left hanging on any major issues.

What are you waiting for? Go buy it!

My only worry going into this book was that it might not live up to its predecessors. After all, the previous books were so marvelous! As it turns out, however, I needn’t have worried. My copy is a hardback of more than 350 pages, and yet I started it Sunday morning and finished it before dinnertime–that’s a testament to how utterly absorbing the book was.

“Abhorsen” has all of the good aspects of the first two books, and yet manages to improve upon them. The characters are compelling. The action is engrossing. The plot is believable and consistent. The pacing pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go. The story is magical and wonderful, and I can only hope that someday someone might tell me that I have a fraction of Nix’s storytelling talent.

Until then, I’ll just have to be content with reading more of his fantastic books.

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