Sabriel by Garth Nix
Published: HarperCollins Australia, 1995
Series: Book 1 of the Old Kingdom
“Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him.
She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories. As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death--and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.” ~WWEnd.com
I’ve never read anything by Garth Nix before, but this series comes highly recommended by some of my best friends. Surprised that I hadn’t read it in high school, they marched me right to a bookshelf in Barnes & Noble and said, “Here, this is the book you’re buying today.” Thank you, friends, for encouraging me to fill this gap in my reading!
The world of Sabriel contains magical and technological lands that are separated by a long wall. The heroine, Sabriel, has spent most of her life in technological Ancelstierre, though she has remained close enough to the wall to be able to practice magic. Her father practices his art-- making sure the dead remain dead-- in the Old Kingdom, but he has kept her mostly ignorant of her home realm. Within the story, this is for her protection, but it also allows Sabriel to be a character through which the reader can learn about the magical kingdom. I was impressed by the creativity of the uses of magic and the different magic systems, and the vividness of description that made the more action-heavy scenes easy to visualize. I didn’t get an altogether clear sense of the framework underpinning the magic, but it seemed like something that might be explored more thoroughly in the later novels of the series.
I felt like the heart of the story involved Sabriel’s growing into her responsibilities, finding confidence in herself, and accepting the nature of death. She seemed like an excellent young adult heroine, since I think her uncertainty and feelings of inadequacy would be particularly easy to identify with for people of that age. In addition, her loyalty to her family and friends, her compassion, her practicality, her courage, and her capability to rise to the occasion make her a heroine that it is easy to admire. Her companions, the talking cat Mogget and the dislocated Touchstone, also help her along the way. I loved Mogget’s sarcastic personality, and was happy that Touchstone’s potential as a love interest did not overwhelm the story.
Sabriel’s story here is very straightforward and complete in one novel-- she has to find and rescue her father, and find out what evil has managed to imprison him. The story has a lot of forward momentum, initially because of a powerful dead creature, likely related to her father’s trouble, that is relentlessly pursuing her. On top of this immediate danger, Sabriel is driven by the knowledge that the longer it takes her to find her father, the less likely it is that she will be able to save him. There’s a lot of action, danger, and excitement along the way, as Sabriel learns more about the state of the Old Kingdom and the evil that her father was trying to defeat. Overall, it was a very fun, quickly-paced novel, and one that was difficult to put down.
My Rating: 4/5
Sabriel is an exciting young adult fantasy novel that I regret it has taken me twenty years to get around to reading. I enjoyed the creativity of the various kinds of Old Kingdom magic, though I hope the system is more thoroughly explained in the later novels of the series. I think the heroine Sabriel would be easily relatable for teen girls, and I appreciated that her strength and competence also made her a character that was easy to admire. Sabriel’s quest to rescue her father was simple in structure, but there was plenty of action and excitement along the way. I enjoyed following Sabriel as she learned about the Old Kingdom and grew into her responsibilities as her father’s daughter. I am looking forward to reading the sequels!