"Sabriel," Garth Nix (Abhorsen Trilogy 1)

Pros: Engrossing, magical, fantastic
Cons: Protagonist is a little too dumb at the beginning
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 6/6/2002

Rushing water, bright sunlight, the writhing forms of Charter symbols given life by Charter mages–all these things are good, and healthy. Nighttime, dead flesh, the crackle of Free Magic, Necromancy–these things terrify, kill and bind. Most of these things exist only behind the Wall, in the Old Kingdom.

In the land of Ancelstierre, on the other side of the Wall, magic fails and science holds sway. It isn’t exactly the modern world, but guns exist, and buses, and tanks have just been invented. No one there likes to believe that magic exists, and only those who hold posts near the Wall understand that it does. It is only near the wall that Charter mages can work their magic. It is only near the Wall that technology fails, buses die on the road, revolvers fail to fire. There, few people know much about the Old Kingdom except that they must fear anything that comes across the Wall.

From the Old Kingdom comes a man with the white skin of a necromancer. He is called Abhorsen, and he brings a child with him–a young girl named Sabriel with his family features, his chalk white skin, to study at the Wyverly school. The school lies close enough to the Wall that magic can be taught there. There Sabriel stays, until she is eighteen and the unthinkable happens. Her father, a powerful necromancer whose calling it is to destroy and bind rather than raise the dead, dies.

And thus begins a terrible series of events that will pit young, untested, untrained Sabriel against a terrible enemy. An enemy that has spent the last 200 years tearing down the Old Kingdom–destroying its Great Charters, eliminating the members of its Royal House, and wiping out its great bloodlines. Sabriel’s only hope lies in the existence of allies she doesn’t even know she has:

  • The Clayr– mysterious beings whose sense of time is more than a little strange.
  • Mogget–a white cat that is much more than a white cat, who could save Sabriel or destroy her.
  • Touchstone–a man frozen as wood who is intimately tied to the history of the Old Kingdom.
  • Colonel Horyse–a member of the Ancelstierre Perimeter Guard and a Charter mage, who knew Sabriel’s father.

The Beautiful Story That Is “Sabriel”

All of this can only give you a tiny taste of what “Sabriel” is. It is a beautiful, unusual story. Its system of magic is new and different, internally consistent yet allowed to remain mysterious and intriguing. This is a rare talent in an author–the ability to know his creations intimately yet not communicate any more of that knowledge than is necessary.

Ancelstierre is familiar yet strange. The Old Kingdom is mysterious and frightening; the Dead walk there, crossing the Nine Gates to return to the living world. There is so much about the Kingdom that Sabriel doesn’t know, most importantly her own, unique place in its machinations. She certainly isn’t ready to face what’s coming after her. The only question is whether she’ll survive it.

“Sabriel” is a fantasy story of high magic, dread necromancy, fell creatures, royal houses, great bloodlines with terrible birthrights, and yes–even love. None of these things overwhelm the others. Fantasy does not drown out horror. Horror does not overpower history. Love does not smother fantasy.

My Only Frustrations

The only thing I found truly frustrating about this book was the lingering foolishness of the main character for the first good-sized handful of chapters. In the very beginning it’s clear that Sabriel isn’t stupid and she isn’t thoughtless. Nevertheless, while I firmly believe that characters in novels are allowed to do stupid things, she seemed to take this to something of an extreme. I’m not overly fond of books where I’m constantly frustrated at the lack of common sense of the protagonist. Luckily she does eventually get over this, and become a flawed, imperfect heroine–which is just fine and wonderful, and entirely appropriate. The only other minor frustration I had was the ending. No, the book didn’t cliffhanger us. It’s just that there was so much possible story left! The characters left living clearly had a lot of hard work ahead of them, and I was so engrossed in their tale that I desperately wanted to hear about all of it! [Added later: Thankfully there are two more, wonderful follow-on books.]

Which really just goes to show that this is, in fact, an incredibly good book. For all the unwanted foolishness, that was really the only negative detail about the book at all. The rest of it was engrossing, enchanting, hypnotic. I had difficulty looking up from the pages to do anything else with my time. In short, I heartily recommend this book to any fan of horror, fantasy, or beautiful writing; I can’t wait to read more of Garth Nix’s words.

Posted in Reviews
2 comments on “"Sabriel," Garth Nix (Abhorsen Trilogy 1)
  1. Lazy Cow says:

    I’ve heard this series is wonderful, and I’d like to read more fantasy. Thanks for the review.

  2. heather says:

    It is absolutely one of my all-time favorite series, so I highly recommend it!

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