I’ve been interested in this book for a long time because at some point, and I don’t remember when, someone read me a paragraph from Sabriel that was beautiful. Having now read the book, I have no idea which passage that was, but that’s largely due to the book having elegant and pleasing prose throughout and it could have been any number of different sections. The entire book is beautiful, Sabriel is an incredibly strong character, and Garth Nix has created something special with her story.
Sabriel begins, as many great fantasy novels do, with the birth of its character. Sabriel is a child who shouldn’t have been born, but she is saved by her father, a man known as The Abhorsen. Nix revolves his system of magic, at least the foremost system, around death, which is a subject most authors are loathe to tackle (especially those potentially writing for young adults). He includes other types of magic called Charter and Free, which are loosely defined as controlled and uncontrolled sorcery. The Abhorsen has the potential to deal in all three, but is a master of Death magic. His tools take the form of bells, each with a specific purpose, their own tone, and a singular name. This is definitely the first time I’ve ever seen bells used as weapons. It seems hokey at first, but Nix details it extremely well, and his rules of life and death are interesting enough to pull the veil over our eyes.
The Abhorsen has the power to raise the dead, quite literally, but he is a force for good in the Old Kingdom, Sabriel’s version of Narnia. Comparing Sabriel to The Chronicles of Narnia is appropriate because in many ways Nix is successor to Lewis. He writes about a land of magic and mystery that is connected to our own, in the beginning of the 20th century, and his protagonist is able to traverse between these two realms at will. Guns and swords exist in parallel, with the conceit that mechanical objects fail beyond the Wall (the barrier between the Old Kingdom and the modern world). This is a common strategy used by authors of fantasy to explain why swords and spells are truly the greatest utilities available.
The real story of Sabriel begins during Sabriel’s last year of college. She has excelled in all of her classes, is a powerful spellcaster in her own right, and receives news that her father, The Abhorsen, is missing. She is armed, prepared, and sets off on her journey. Sabriel follows the Hero’s Journey without fail. Sabriel exists in the ordinary world, is called to adventure, meets her mentor (in the form of a talking cat), is tested and trialed, undergoes the challenge, and eventually returns home only to face down another, more difficult challenge. It’s all very predictable, but Nix’s writing is so enjoyable that a re-telling of this myth is welcome. She also meets a hunky, 200 year old, warrior-mage along the way, fulfilling any young adult notions readers might have.
I hope none of this sounds reductive because I happen to love the Hero’s Journey. If I write a novel someday, I hope to use it myself, even if I subvert it in a few areas. This myth-type exists for a reason. It’s a method of storytelling that makes sense to our genetic code because we’ve read and heard it for almost two millenia or more. Sabriel is an excellent telling of the Journey, and that it features a strong, feminine protagonist helps it stand out above the pack.
I’m intrigued by Nix’s world, his magic methods, and his character building. He’s hooked me with this first novel in his Abhorsen series, and I plan on reading at least the next couple of books. I’m slightly disappointed, in looking at a brief synopsis of Lirael, that Sabriel no long features in the novels, but I don’t want to make too many assumptions, and Nix has earned some trust with this first installment. I look forward to my next trip beyond the wall.