Sabriel by Garth Nix (#1 in the Old Kingdom series) (HarperCollins Children’s, first published 1995)
The only thing I could think of when I finished reading SABRIEL was, why didn’t I read this sooner? This is exactly the kind of book I loved and devoured as a child. Full of magic and adventure, and journeys across a fantasy land.
Sabriel goes to a boarding school in Ancelstierre, not far from the Wall which separates Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom. Ancelstierre is much like our world (sort of an alternate England in the 1910s), a world mostly without magic unless you’re really close to the Wall, because the Old Kingdom is where magic happens. Sabriel comes from the Old Kingdom but she has grown up in Ancelstierre. Her father is Abhorsen, a man who works to undo the evils wrought by necromancers. One day, however, when Sabriel is eighteen years old, her father does not appear for one of his regular visits to Sabriel’s school. A messenger comes in his place, giving Sabriel her father’s sword and bells: the equipment that he used for his work. Fearing the worst but hoping to find out what has happened to him, Sabriel crosses the Wall into the Old Kingdom, only to discover a land where evil has long been brewing…
SABRIEL is a fast-paced and action-filled novel, with a unique and well thought-out magic system involving music. The seven bells are used by necromancers and the Abhorsen alike, each bell with its particular function: for example, the bell Saraneth binds spirits. One can also sing or whistle magic.
Along her journey, Sabriel picks up two companions: a talking cat called Mogget, and a man called Touchstone. The first is in fact a dangerous creature of Free Magic, bound long, long ago to be a servant of the Abhorsen. The second is a man that Sabriel freed from a wooden figurehead on a ship in the burial place of the Kings and Queens of the Old Kingdom, a man trapped there by magic two hundred years ago, back when the Old Kingdom was still prospering and ruled by the royal family. A romance eventually blossoms between Sabriel and Touchstone, which was sweet and moving, if a little under-developed.
I loved how competent and brave Sabriel was. She was only just eighteen and confronted with the news of her father’s disappearance and possible death, she never really hesitates for a moment, but she just keeps forging on, through dangers and despair. I really admired her.
Though we sadly don’t get to see much of Sabriel’s father in this book, his relationship with his daughter was still really beautifully portrayed, and the most moving moments in this book stem from the love between father and daughter. I was almost in tears at one point.
The ending felt quite rushed to me. I also wished there had been more character development. I never felt like I really got to know the characters very well, although I still came to like them and care about them. Nix doesn’t really spend time dwelling on how the characters feel, even though Sabriel and Touchstone are both going through quite a difficult time, Sabriel especially, and I would have liked to see more space dedicated to her feelings. Still, I felt like Nix was quite good at showing rather than telling, and though things are left unsaid, they nevertheless left some sort of subtle emotional impression on me.
SABRIEL is definitely an enjoyable novel for anyone who loves high fantasy and coming-of-age stories. It is a book about grief and loss, about growing up and learning to find your own way, when your parents are gone. It’s also just a fantastic and magical adventure.