SHE WALKS IN DEATH WITH SWORD AND BELLS
WITH UNWAVERING DEVOTION TO HER FATHER, SABRIEL MUST RETURN TO THE LAND OF HER BIRTH TO CONFRONT AN AWAKENED EVIL
(The Old Kingdom, Book 1)
Genre: High Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 311 Pages
Date: 3rd June 2014 (First Published 1995)
In stark contrast to all her peers at Wyverly College, Sabriel had a highly unusual upbringing―not least because she was born on the other side of The Wall, in The Old Kingdom, where Free Magic and Charter Magic are an everyday, accepted reality. As the daughter of the Abhorsen, a necromancer dedicated to protecting the world by ensuring the dead remain dead, her childhood was spent learning the legacy of her forebears: how to crossover into Death and use the tools of the “trade” to banish the dead, preventing them from returning to the world of the living to wreak havoc. But now Sabriel’s absence from the land of her birth is about to end. Her beloved father has gone missing as an ancient darkness awakens in The Old Kingdom. She must leave the safety of boarding school life in Ancelstierre and head back across The Wall in search of her father, for only she has the power to find and rescue him from Death before it’s too late.
The publication of Sabriel in 1995 not only saw the book quickly attain classic status, it also secured a place in the annals of must read fantasy writers for its Australian author, Garth Nix. And, frankly, it’s easy to understand why. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to state that when the book was first published no other author had written a “children’s” novel quite like Sabriel. While the basic premise of a loving, teenage daughter trying to find her missing father may not seem to lend itself to a groundbreaking story, there’s no question that Nix most certainly has succeeded in crafting a thoroughly absorbing and original tale characterised and distinguished by its inherent inventiveness.
It is so easy to sing the praises of this novel, and not just because it has no obvious flaws. The book has numerous praiseworthy qualities that can be pointed to as contributors to its success, and one such attribute is the creativity that went into the story’s setting, lore and magic system which is one of the standout facets of the tale. It’s clear as day that the author put a great deal of time and thought into the construction of the world his story unfolds in. Even the clever juxtaposition between the two primary locations of the story―one based on magic, the other based on technology―seems deliberately done to add another unconventional dimension to unbalance readers, and defy any preconceived expectations they may have.
The conception of The Old Kingdom is very much in keeping with the archetypal medieval European fantasy setting, brimming with magic and fantastical beings, whereas the neighbouring land of Ancelstierre is clearly reminiscent of early twentieth century Western Europe, complete with cars, aircraft and telecommunication. Coupled with the author’s imaginative descriptions, there is a real sense of dread, threat and danger about the world depicted, making it impossible to agree with the designation of Sabriel as a children’s book. This is frequently a genuinely scary tale in which a happy ending never truly feels likely, and the safety of the main characters cannot be taken for granted.
As touched upon earlier, one of the most memorable aspects of the story is the magic, both in terms of the fantastical descriptions of that magic in action, and its uniqueness and originality. It is this, perhaps, that most readers are sure to remember most about the book because the magic, as well as the lore behind it, really is so well conceived; and when it is brought to the fore it makes for great reading. In particular, the use of a collection of bells as weapons to be employed against the dead helps to provide a number of uniquely compelling moments throughout the author’s superlative narrative, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to describe them as defining moments of the book.
Moving away from the inventiveness of the world building, and the gripping excitement of the plot progression, it would be remiss not mention the real highlight of the novel: the characterisation of the book’s titular protagonist, Sabriel. Not to put too fine a point on it, she is a fantastic heroine with several admirable traits. She has a level of dedication about her that goes way beyond a mere sense of duty as the next person in line to carry the mantle of Abhorsen. It’s clear from the outset that the hazardous quest she undertakes is motivated by her love for her father―and her commitment to rescuing him is unwavering to the very end. She also demonstrates an almost fearless courageousness, even in perilous situations in which she is clearly in fear of her life.
All in all, Sabriel is a very likeable character. But more than that, she is one of the definitive heroines of the genre. And not only will readers find it impossible not to root for her, they will frequently fear for her safety because this is a story in which a happy ending isn’t guaranteed.
In closing, prospective readers can be assured that Sabriel is legitimately a must read fantasy novel―one that every fan of the genre should feel obliged to read at least once in their life. The originality on display throughout Nix’s narrative is commendable, and is without doubt the most significant factor in the book’s success and the high regard in which it is held. It is a unique tale unlike any children’s novel that preceded it. Two decades after its initial publication it still stands out, and will no doubt continue to attract new readers for many more years to come.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.