Title: SabrielAuthor: Garth Nix
Genre: FantasyPrice: $5.95 (paperback)
My copy of Sabriel is about five years old and pretty beat up. Some pages are ripped or a bit faded. Every once in a while, as you roam through the book, you'll see my name written in dwarvish runes written here and there, vestiges from my fascination with Lord of the Rings, which coincided with my first reading of Garth Nix's first book in his Old Kingdom Trilogy. This book has been loved and it shows.
The novel centers around Sabriel, a young woman freshly graduated from her girls' school in the land of Ancelstierre. The country has a turn of the century kind of feel (Nix says it's meant to be like our world's 1918), with some electricity and cars, but also an element of the old. Sabriel, however, is not from Ancelstierre, the Old Kingdom, which is separated from the rest of the world by a wall governed by a living magic referred to as charter magic (there is also free magic, but is very dangerous and used by Sabriel's enemies). Sabriel's father, the Abhorsen (more of a title than his name), a necromancer who, instead of raising the dead, puts them to rest and prevents them from running a muck in the living world. When Sabriel's father goes missing and sends her his sword and his bandoleer of bells (the instruments of magic by which the Abhorsen sends the Dead back into Death), Sabriel goes in search of her father, knowing he must be in danger.
Nix's fantasy novel has a lot of different things going for it, not the least of which it doesn't read like it's fantasy. The best fantasy novels have the element of realism to them, where the author allows his reader to sit back, digest the astounding information they've just received (like that simple movement of the hand can produce light or create a protective barrier) and think, "Yeah, that could happen." Through solid characters and believable reactions, he makes fantastical events appear plausible. While it's unlikely that any of us would ever have the opportunity to fly an aircraft made entirely out of paper and flown by whistling in the kind of wind we need, as Sabriel does, her reaction (nervousness, excitement, fear) seems entirely right.
Sabriel is artfully complex, as are all the major characters (Mogget, the cat and servant to the Abhorsen, and Touchstone, a man rescued from Death after being imprisoned there for 200 years). Enough background information is given so that the reader can understand why the characters act the way they do without it seeming odd. Nix is able to skillfully insert information about the characters without bogging the story down in excess detail. It is also helpful that the storyline is very tight, it is clear what is going on without too many pit stops placed to allow pertinent information to catch up. There are also only three characters with which one is really interested in (Sabriel, Mogget, and Touchstone), making tons of extra information unnecessary.
The one downside to the story is something I only really noticed once, the first time I read the book. I recall feeling as though the beginning was too slow. Rereading the book earlier this month, I didn't feel this way at all, and felt as though things moved along pretty quickly. While I did get frustrated the first time, and even stopped reading for a couple of weeks, when I did finally return to the book, I was quickly pulled in and couldn't put the book down (much like this past time reading).
Comparable Reads: The best comparison I can make is Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy. The idea of multiple worlds, the realism behind the fantasy, and the solid and thoughtful characters are concurrent in both. The concept of making inexperienced young people the heroes of the book runs between both as well.
Who this book is for: It's for those who truly enjoy a solid fantasy novel, not the grocery store fluff (someone who likes Pullman or C.S. Lewis or Lloyd Alexander). The richness of the storytelling could also pull in those who are not typical fantasy readers, because the story isn't blatantly fantastical--no big puffs of smoke and bolts of lightening as magic is performed, no strange races of creatures with ridiculous and hard to pronounce names, and the story is very human and has been used before in all sorts of genres. And it is not as message oriented as other fantasy books are, as it's not an allegory or a reinterpretation of another work. This makes it quicker to read and digest along with being very fun.