Sabriel by Garth Nix is a YA fantasy novel with epic sweep, an intriguing setting, and great characters. Nevertheless, I found it a bit disappointing–but that’s based almost solely on my own expectations. Garth Nix is one of my wife’s favorite authors, and I had a read a glowing review of one of his books a few years ago. Those two things led me to believe this would be one of those rare fantasy novels to transcend its genre and be true literature, like Lord of the Rings or the Amber series. It’s not quite at that level.
Still, this is fantasy of a very high quality. It follows Sabriel, an 18-year old girl who is about to graduate from an all-girl’s boarding school. The school is located in Ancelstierre, where cars, firearms, and even movie theatres work, but is only a few miles from the Old Kingdom, where such technology will not operate but magic does. The school is in an in-between zone where magic is possible, but combustion as well, so long as the wind is not blowing from the Old Kingdom.
Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen, who travels the Old Kingdom battling the risen dead, and the necromancers who raise them. Once the Old Kingdom was a more peaceful place, but the ruling family was overthrown decades earlier and now it is a land of ever growing horrors. Sabriel’s father has taught her some of the magic necessary to travel beyond the veil of death to the river of death, where nine river stages advance towards the final death beyond which souls are irretrievable.
Her adventure begins when a creature visits her from beyond the veil, one controlled by her father, who is somehow stuck in the river of death and has sent the creature to deliver his sword and his bandolier. The bandolier holds seven bells that allow the ringer to manipulate various aspects of life and death. Sabriel must take the sword and bells on a journey into the Old Kingdom, which she has not visited since she was a little girl, to find her father’s body and discover what has caused him to become stranded in the river.
Soon, she discovers she is being followed by a Mordicant, a greater dead creature of great power. But at her father’s house in the Old Kingdom, she also finds Mogget, a talking cat with knowledge of the ways of the Old Kingdom who can help her in her search. Together they set out, one step ahead of the Mordicant, with only a vague idea where the body of Sabriel’s father lies and only a few days to find it before his spirit passes beyond the final river stage and he can never be revived.
This book shows tons of cool artifacts, spells, and creatures. The world is dense with fascinating details and it is a treat in nearly every chapter to come across new aspects of the world we didn’t previously know about. I especially like Sabriel’s bells, with their powers to cause listeners to sleep, to send listeners to the river of death or retrieve them, and so on. Garth Nix deftly avoids fantasy cliches while still providing the cool “stuff” fantasy fans love. Like I said above, it doesn’t quite transcend the genre but I think anyone who’s already a fantasy fan would love this.