Initially published in 1995, Sabriel is the first book of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, a book that gives readers a thrilling alternative to more derivative fantasy novels. Author Garth Nix combines the horror of the undead and necromancy with the mystery and imaginative nature of modern fantasy to achieve a wonderful balance between fear and curiosity…The book takes place in two main countries which couldn’t be more different but happen to share a border. Ancelstierre is reminiscent of 20th century England and generally painted as an ignorant bureaucracy for the most part. The Old Kingdom, on the other hand, is a far more medieval country without modern technology. If that was the only difference things wouldn’t seem so odd, but there’s more. The two countries don’t share the same seasons, or weather patterns, and it’s as if two different worlds are encroaching on one another. In the Old Kingdom, for instance, magic is prevalent and the undead roam the land thanks to a bloody coup in the distant past. After crossing the wall, the magic that works in the Old Kingdom gets weaker and ceases to work entirely after a moderate distance.
The magic itself is extremely interesting and complex. The basic idea is that in the far past everything was made of Free Magic, which is very chaotic and wild. After a time, some of the most powerful creatures made of Free Magic banded together to create an ordered system to control all this magic and the Charter was born. Using symbols and runes, the Charter constrains and binds free magic, allowing for humans to use it. At birth, all humans in the Old Kingdom (and none in Ancelstierre) are baptized with a Charter mark, linking them to it and allowing them to access its power. Over time the Charter and its users drove away or killed the Free Magic creatures and peace settled over the country.
The worst of the Free Magic users are necromancers, who use seven bells to raise and manipulate the dead to do their dirty work. Charter Mages can’t usually handle a necromancer, as they are usually quite skilled at using Free Magic and the bells. Because of this threat there has always been one Charter Mage who carries bells, but for a different purpose. The Abhorsen blends Charter Magic and Free Magic to confront and defeat necromancers, Free Magic creatures, and the undead.
This first book in the series is about a girl, Sabriel, whose father is the current Abhorsen (the powerful human charged with maintaining the border between life and death). She has been raised in an all-girl boarding school in Ancelstierre and has very little actual knowledge of the Old Kingdom, although she’s a very strong Charter Mage and is well versed in Ancelstierre’s political system. When her father becomes trapped, it falls on her to journey from her school and across the old kingdom, in order to free him and defeat an old evil that has been unleashed.
Nix turns away from conventional fantasy, having his heroine travel alone for most of the book, although she does meet a few interesting characters along the way. On her journey she must learn to master the bells of the Abhorsen and figure out what exactly happened to her father. Nix does a wonderful job of making readers care about his characters, and at the same time he creates a strong feeling of anxiety as Sabriel struggles to figure out what’s going on.
The theme of contrast in the books, between Free Magic and the Charter, Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, and Sabriel and her peers is Nix’s driving force in the narrative – one of the book’s major strong points. It’s very interesting and serves as the driving force in the narrative. Nix does a fantastic job when it comes to making his plot rich and full of action.
The only downside to the book is its length, totaling only 311 pages. Thankfully, there are a total of three novels in the series with an additional collection of short stories, telling more tales from the world of the Old Kingdom, as well as two more stories in the works. Despite the average length, Nix packs every last bit of plot into those pages so there’s no fluff and the result is that the story flies by.
There’s a definite sense of morbidity to the book as well, most of the villains are dead creatures after all, so the feeling of the book is rather dark. Sabriel is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy or fantasy in general; the later books in the series are less dark and foreboding. On the whole it’s a wonderfully written book and more than worthy of the myriad of awards it’s won. A darkly unique take on modern fantasy, fit for all fans of fantasy.
Sabriel is the first installment in Garth Nix’s critically acclaimed Abhorsen Trilogy. If you enjoy this book, we highly recommend checking out book two, Lirael.
This review was written by Mitch Oestreich as part of Shurtugal.com’s new weekly book recommendations and reviews column. On Thursday of each week, Shur’tugal staff will review a new fantasy or sci-fi book (or recommend an old one), posted on the home page of Shur’tugal, in partnership with Lytherus.com.