Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

A friend recommended this as one of her favorite YA fantasy books, and I’m glad she did! This is a great book – interesting characters, a strong heroine, richly detailed writing, and an original story. The way this book is written felt OLD to me – old in the way of classic fantasy like Lord of the Rings and Wrinkle in Time. So I mean that in a good way.

Most of the great children’s and YA fiction involve the loss of parents in some way – The Secret Garden, Harry Potter, the Wizard of Oz. This book captures you with a similar plot device. Sabriel’s mother died at her birth and her father is Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer, which means that he can “bind the dead” or when the dead rise, he can lay them back to rest. Sabriel is born in the “Old Kingdom” but raised in the modern, mostly magic-less world, but she is still taught the trade of her father in the local college for girls. Her father visits her but they never really develop a relationship. In the first chapter, Sabriel discovers that her father is either dead or imprisoned in death (not quite the same thing). She has to set out to the Old Kingdom to find out what has happened. In the process she finds out (not surprisingly) that the threat to her father is actually a threat to their entire world.

There are two worlds in this book, the modern world and the Old Kingdom, and they live side by side, divided by a wall. Sabriel has to cross that wall, which is guarded by some kind of military. The main purpose of the wall seems to be to keep the monsters and the dead from reaching the non-magical world. In the modern world it is warm and sunny but when Sabriel looks past the wall, it is snowing in the Old Kingdom. One thing I loved about this book was the level of detail. For example, Sabriel actually packs skis to travel into the Old Kingdom – most writers would have disregarded such a detail (she also drops them numerous times before ultimately losing them – another detail most writers would have glossed over). When she is getting ready for a fight she loosens her sword a few inches from its scabbard so it will pull out quicker. I also loved the rich use of words. Several times I had to look up words, like bitumen and bandolier. If this is a YA book, it’s a great example of how you don’t have to write down to teenagers.

Sabriel is a strong, multi-dimensional character throughout the book. She struggles to learn about her heritage and to use skills she learned only in an academic setting, and she is frustrated by the fact that everyone expects her to step into the leadership role of her father – who is not just Abhorsen but THE Abhorsen, a title she now has to claim. Throughout the book, she struggles with the responsibility suddenly placed upon her. For most of the book she refuses to be called The Abhorsen – one, because that means her father is dead; and two, it’s a title she knows little or nothing about. She wants to be just Sabriel. Names are important in this book – another character, Touchstone, names himself. He feels he’s betrayed his family and his honor, so he discards his real name and calls himself Touchstone, which is a jester or a fool. He has a journey in this book as well – not just to help Sabriel, but to redeem himself.

I haven’t said much about the story but this book is great fun to read, if a little dark (most of my favorite books are!). Sabriel was written in 1995 by Garth Nix, who is Australian. Sabriel was his first book. You can find an interview with Nix here.

  2 comments for “Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

  1. May 25, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Actually, there are some YA books that I still really enjoy for the exact reason that the authors don’t write down to teens. The only real difference that I’ve noticed between such books and adult fiction is a lack of sex scenes and younger protagonists.

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