Book: Sabriel by Garth Nix
Age/Genre: YA Fantasy
Preferred Reading Environment: This would be a great book to read on a camping trip- audiobook while hiking or physical copy when you’re waiting for everyone to wake up in the morning!
Reading Accoutrements: Trail mix, jerky, survival food. You’ll feel right at home on Sabriel’s quest.
Content Notes: Violence and death
I’ve mentioned it a few times in other blog posts, but once I found out that Tim Curry narrates the audiobook version of Sabriel, by Garth Nix, I knew that was how I was going to experience my re-reading of the childhood favorite. See, I loved Sabriel and the other books in the Old Kingdom series as a teenager, and I’ve been meaning to revisit it for years.
Finally, aided by Tim Curry’s luxurious voice, I have completed my mission, and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. Warning: Before I get to the review, I’m sharing some audiobook mishaps. Skip the next paragraph if you want to get to the actual review.
I did not want to buy the audiobook version of Sabriel because I already have a hard copy, and I figured I would only listen to it this one time. So I decided to use my local library’s audiobook program. The book was easy to obtain, but you only get digital items for a week, and I kept forgetting or not having time to listen. I briefly tried listening during work, but 10 minutes in, it was clear I couldn’t focus on both the book and my job duties.
So, after 3 failed check-outs, I decided I was going to get a free trial for audible and listen to the book on a road trip. Well, the road trip approached, and Audible accused me of already having used a free trial. I did not remember this, so I emailed Audible, but also put the book on hold with the library (AGAIN) just in case things didn’t pan out. Well, both the library and audible decided to cooperate at the same moment, so I ended up with the rental just in time for my trip. Since I didn’t need Audible anymore, I used my trial for First Grave on the Right, which Bethany and I reviewed last month. But of course, I had audio issues on the road trip, so I still ended up having to check it out 2 more times before finally powering through it on a long weekend.
Sabriel takes place in a society reminiscent of the early 20th century, but in a world where magic is known, though denied at the higher levels of society. There are two countries: Ancelestierre, which is normal human land, and The Old Kingdom, which is where magic runs rampant. The two countries are separated by a wall guarded by the military. People close to the wall witness magic regularly, but people further in Ancelestierre do not, and there are implications that those in power are trying to pretend that magic is a thing of the past, nothing but story and legend. A lot of technology is just becoming common; tanks are a recent development, and the military base does have intercoms and telephones. Magic messes with the functionality of electricity, so the Old Kingdom has very little technology, while parts of Ancelestierre away from the wall have advanced much further technologically.
Sabriel is daughter to the Abhorsen, who is a reverse necromancer of sorts. He lays the dead to rest when they decide to bother the living. Yes, in this world, the dead can come back, raised by necromancers or other powerful magical beings. The Abhorsen uses their handbells to send them back into death.
Abhorsen is a title, but is often used in lieu of a name, much like you’d say both “my grandma” and “Grandma.” This manages not to be confusing in the book, but I wanted to explain it for the purpose of this review. When I say “Abhorsen” in this review, it will be referring to Sabriel’s father, unless otherwise specified. Sabriel’s father is the 52nd Abhorsen, and the title, along with its responsibilities, is passed through the bloodline.
The prologue begins with Sabriel’s birth, which happens under strange circumstances in the Old Kingdom. The story proper introduces us to an 18-year-old Sabriel who has spent most of her life in Ancelestierre at a boarding school where she has learned some basic magic.
Abhorsen visits Sabriel on occasion, but they have not had a particularly close relationship, since his duties don’t allow the best environment for parenting. He sent Sabriel to Ancelestierre to keep her safe and provided some ancient readings to further her education in necromancy and related practices. But when his bells and sword are magically transported to Sabriel’s dorm room, she realizes she is severely underprepared to take on the duties of Abhorsen. She feels that her father must still be alive and starts a quest to find and save him. Of course, the danger he is in is related to the fate of The Old Kingdom and Ancelestierre, so she learns a lot about her duties and powers along the way.
Garth Nix has created an engaging magic system in “the Charter” which is based in runic symbols and words that have inherent powers. Charter magic can be used to generate light, build fields of protection, create non-sentient servants, and more. Charter magic seems to be inherited through blood, though you do have to be trained to use it well.
The society Nix created is full of strong women. Abhorsens have been both men and women, and neither is seen as odd. This extends to other positions of authority as well, though there are one or two scenes where people assume someone is man by their title, and are then corrected. I’m not sure why this assumption is made, given the general gender equality established in the world. The military is still dominantly male, but no one questions Sabriel’s abilities because of her gender, which was refreshing.
If I have to quibble, I’d say the love story in Sabriel does ring of the “unnecessary YA love storyline” sort. The characters don’t really grow from their relationship, we don’t learn anything about them through it, and it seems to function more for world-building purposes than anything else, meaning sequels follow descendants of the main characters. This is fine, and I feel like it avoids being harmful, but I didn’t think the love plotline added anything to the overall story or character development.
That aside, Sabriel is a great coming-of-age tale in a cool world with magic and death and magical creatures who appear as talking cats. It’s a lot of fun, and of course, Tim Curry reading it was great, particularly when it was time for evil creatures to talk. I have four of the books in the Old Kingdom series, but I learned when writing this review that there are more, so I will definitely be checking those out as well.
What’s a childhood fantasy you love going back to?