Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sabriel by Garth Nix

This one is for you, Rick.

Okay, once more, Sherman (and I'm getting depressed no one knows this!  Free book!), to the Way Back Machine.

Sabriel by Garth Nix:

Sabriel In the first scene, we realize Sabriel, an 18-year-old girl school in the country of Ancelstierre, just graduated her rather old fashioned boarding school for young women.  Not old fashioned for Sabriel, however, as Ancelstierre appears to be set in a slightly rearranged version of the twenties or early thirties in geography we don't know.

Oh.  And we know she is a necromancer.

In Ancelstierre, no one much believes in magic, nor does it work much beyond the Wall that shuts the Old Kingdom and its Charter Magic, within the world and order, necromancy, and Free Magic, outside the Charter and corrupting all exist and the people live in a more medieval setting.  Just with no government.

Sabriel was born in the Old Kingdom, but her father brought her here at five.  He is Abhorsen--the necromancer against necromancers.  A Charter mage and necromancer both, it is his job to make sure the Dead pass all nine gates of death, and stay dead.  Which they don't like to do in the Old Kingdom, especially lately.

Only scant pages after Sabriel shows her hidden necromancy, a sending brings Sabriel her father's Charter Magic imbued sword, and his bells--the tools of Abhorsen.  He may only be dead, or trapped in death.

Sabriel walks away from all she has known in thirteen years and goes to the Old Kingdom in search of her father.  Already, those who don't know her call her her father's title, Abhorsen, and that title means her father is assumed dead.

The problem is, she has no idea where he is.  In finding out how, she attracts the attention of a Mordicant, a free magic creature made of peat moss and flames with a Dead's spirit stuffed inside.  She has to make a mad run to find her father's house.  At her father's house, she meets Mogget, a white talking cat, who is most likely far more than just that.  Mogget travels with her in search of her father.  The Dead trail them at all times.  They come to believe a Greater Dead, Kerrigor, a powerful Dead creature who was also a free magic adept tracks them down, as he tries to free himself from Death once more.  All over, they find broken Charter stones--stones that hold the kingdom together with charter magic and keep the Dead down.  The corrupted, broken stones make it all the easier for the Dead to roam.

Along the way to Belisaere, which was the capital until twenty years ago--now overrun with Dead, and where Mogget and Sabriel guess her father's body is--Sabriel gets to discover a little more about Mogget, and discover Touchstone, a fool's name but he will give no other.  Touchstone last lived two hundred years ago.  He says he remembers little, but it is possible he remembers more, and is no more what he says than Mogget.

Eventually the small group makes it to the palace, but all does not go as planned.  The book takes a further magical twist as Sabriel and Touchstone must make it back to where Kerrigor has hidden his ace in the hole--his physical body.

Sabriel is one of those books I could just read over and over.  While it is aimed at a YA audience, it is meant for a mature audience in that Nix does not talk down to his customers and, more than that, perhaps, this book is a fantasy/horror fusion.  It would be hard for it to be much else.  The main character is either walking around in Death or fighting disgusting, scary dead creatures a fair percentage of the book.  Nix creates fear of the creatures, especially the Mordicant, dogging her trail, with an artful suspense.  The where, when you are reading, you keep looking over your shoulder.

Nix's world building is superb.  Ancelstierre feels more based on a version of human history.  However, the Old Kingdom is a complex work of art.  As one of the great puzzles of the book, which you must delight in either discovering or guessing, is how exactly the world works and why exactly everything has been going wrong the past two hundred years and the past twenty esp.  So I'm not going to tell you.  I will tell you that once you have learned all the secrets, the book falls together beautifully.  Rather than ending up with many convolutions in order to keep us guessing, every card that Nix lays eventually lines up into a stunning hand.

Characterwise--I actually rescinded my ban on talking cats because of sardonic, not quite to be trusted, sideways Mogget.

Sabriel was drawn well as a girl who has known more about Death than most of us ever will by the beginning of the book.  However, her father did not prepare her for who she truly was, or what it meant to be an Abhorsen in the Old Kingdom.  She shows bravery that is highlighted and made believable by her moments of terror, of wanting to run away from it all, from feeling she wasn't meant to cope with any of this, for her exhaustion and pain and putting up with wearing dirty, stinking armor.  Because of all these details, we understand her full courage as well as her fragility.

Touchstone is a man of secrets that weigh on him, even after all those dormant years.  However, he has a graceful curve from the servility to he treats Sabriel, the Abhorsen, when they first meet, to his expertise and skills breaking through to show confidence, to his and Sabriel's growing camraderie, to, of course, becoming the love interest.

Believe me.  I didn't just give anything away on that one.  From the moment he appears on the screen, you are nodding your head--okay.  Cue love interest.  Not that that is all the character is for.  Touchstone makes a great companion, someone Sabriel can actually talk to (Mogget can be a pain), someone who works beside her.  Then he gets love-interesty.  And here I feel Nix does fall down on the job.  I know it is YA, but I expect some sort of build in romance.  I expect catching the person out of the corner of the eye.  Wondering about him/her.  Knowing you're smiling too much or that the other person is.  One of my least favorite convenient writing phrases is, "it was if he was seeing her for the first time," or "he had never noticed before how . . . ."  Falling in love is a million microseconds of falling downhill.  You may not know or accept consciously what is going on, but you feel it.  It's cheap to use "He never noticed. . . " right at the end of the book because here is where it is convenient for you to stuff it in.  Also, after deciding he is in love, Touchstone's character does go downhill rather.  He's being soppy, protective, or grimly fighting.

Let's talk about that grimly fighting.  While the first half of the book wasn't hysterical laughter, it had its moments.  Towards the end, it is grim after grim.  It gets a little old.   There isn't even any gallows humor.

So finally, let's talk about the grim after grim effect.  Nix creates a crazy, terrifying, emotionally explosive end.  Only it isn't the end.  The book ends.  And then it goes into a frenzy of action and ends all over again.  And without near the emotional effect, I felt.  I realize what Nix was attempting to do, bringing some of the emotional impact full circle.  However, I felt he did an amazing job of this with the first ending, and that if he needed them (since there are sequels), some of the more important ending elements could be moved in as elements to the same ending.  It would change a little, sure.  But it would, I believe, hold together a little more thoroughly.

Either that--if you all think I am talking out of my ass--he needed to work on the pacing.  I got done with the first ending and I was done.  I was emotionally drained.  To me, the book was finished.  Then I had to keep reading.  I kept reading, but I never got my adreneline rush back.  The book had peaked for me.  I'd blown my wad.  I wasn't getting it back to feel very invested in the rest of the book.

Also, one of the stupidest last paragraphs ever.

Having gone through my nitpicks, though, this is still a book that I return to over and over.  Sabriel is well executed with some of the most vivid world building I've seen.  The characters, if occasionally wooden, are by the whole people I would love to hang out with.

If you are thinking of continuing with the series, my two cents:  Lireal is totally worth buying the book for that first section of creating a world and characters and Disreputable Dog, but skip anything that doesn't have to do with Lireal and consider just putting the book down after Lireal leaves the mountain.  Abhorsen:  I love you, Garth, but I still have to say to your readers, you'd be better off going back and reading Sabriel again.

Okay--I'm still waiting for someone to answer where the Sherman/Way Back Machine references come from.  A copy of Rebirth hangs in the balance.    


  1. I also liked this series. After the midpoint of the book, or at least after Touchstone, Mogget, and Sabriel leave the valley, I like the tension and the extensions of world building with the fishing people stranded on an island, and later, the horrifying slavers. That is, I like them in terms of recognizing their probable inevitability in the world Nix has built. The end, I think, just has to be different. I miss the wry, slant humor that grounds much of the book as the ending literally descends into reeding horror. As for Lireal, I would follow the Disreputable Dog anywhere.

  2. Mr. Peabody (a very intelligent dog) and his good ward Sherman often ran to the "Wayback Machine" in their time traveling episodes that appeared on Rocky and Bullwinkle.

  3. Just noticed this post. I haven't read "Sabriel" or "Lireal" for some time and will do so again. Not, however, the "Abhorsen" which was a stretch although I did like "Across the Wall".

  4. Yes. In about a year, he's coming up with another. Clareal? Was it, Rick? I was always shocked this became a series. Sabriel felt so stand alone. Though I do like aspects of Lireal and will, of course, read the new one.