It seems like everything from my childhood is whooshing back to life this year. The Potter fandom has noisily burst into life with the release of lots of new content coming in the next few months and there’s been a ridiculous number of sequels and reboots coming through Hollywood lately. The release of Goldenhand, the fifth novel of the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix, has comparatively been rather quieter but I am no less excited about it. In honour of its release, I plan to read all its predecessors before I get my copy. First up is Sabriel.
Sabriel was first published in 1995 and sets up the world the stories take place in. The story starts with a pregnant woman stumbling into the camp of some travellers, giving birth, and then being dead within the hour. The baby seems dead as well, right until a stranger who calls himself the Abhorsen comes along. He disappears into Death, a colourless river-world where the souls of the deceased are swept away, and rescues the baby girl from the hands of a Greater Dead creature with a grudge, Kerrigor. Flash forward, and the baby girl is now Sabriel, a confident and accomplished young woman in her final year of school in the 1920s-England-esque country of Ancelstierre. A dead messenger comes upon the school, revealing that her father has been trapped in Death by the evil Kerrigor and that she must travel beyond the Wall to the Old Kingdom, a country infused with magic and darkness. He hands her the tools of the Abhorsen’s trade; seven necromancer’s bells infused with Charter Magic and a spelled sword. Sabriel sets off on a coming-of-age adventure, meeting with Mogget, a Free Magic creature bound to serve her family, and Touchstone, a former Royal Guard who had been trapped in wood for two hundred years.
So that was probably a terrible summary but that’s largely because, for a book that is probably smaller than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it packs a heck of a lot in. From my experience, most books that are heading up a series take a lot of time to set up the world and keep the plot quite simple (especially in YA books). Sabriel doesn’t do this. It crams the world-building right in there with the action, creating a fast-paced adventure that is hard to put down but, slightly less positively, it can also be hard to get your head around. Nix will take time out of fast paced action scenes to thrust in some extraneous information which… I don’t really know how to feel about it? The overload of info is a norm in the fantasy genre (looking at you Tolkien) but sometimes it just seems out of place. For example, Sabriel gets chased by a Mordicant (monstrous Dead thing), she’s exhausted, it’s high stakes, and time is taken out to explain a bit about the school she left behind. On the one hand, I love that Nix pads out the world and the characters without going down the usual route of slow paced and and overly-long beginnings. But using this technique sacrifices the pacing of the action scenes and it frustrates me a little. The balance is just a little less than perfect and I’ve realised on re-reading that I do tend to skip over some of the detail.
The world of the series is one of my favourite things about it. The two countries, Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, are vastly different and it’s this contrast that pushes Sabriel away from your typical fantasy/sci-fi novel. Ancelstierre is like 1920s England, with finishing schools and the beginnings of cars, and to the north is the Wall. The Wall is old and infused with Charter Magic, protecting the border between Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom. The Ancelstierrian army patrols this Wall, stopping people from going in to the other country and trying to make sure that nothing comes out. If a wind blows from the north, however, the magic in the air will cause their technology to fail. Sabriel spent much of her childhood in Ancelstierre, which means she understands much of the politics but significantly less about the realities of the Old Kingdom.
The Old Kingdom is like Ancelstierre’s opposite. Time moves differently there and it is, for the most part, still stuck in medieval times. No – don’t worry, though this is a trend of the genre, Sabriel isn’t just another fantasy fiction. The magic that happens in the Old Kingdom twists and combines things you’ll have seen before to make it all seem new. The main form, Charter Magic, is orderly and warm, setting the world to rights. It can be used for anything, lighting fires, specialised into fighting magic, or combined to create great structures like the Wall and the Great Stones. As long as you learn the symbols and follow the rules, Charter Magic is amazing. Free Magic is the wilder, colder power that works to corrode the Charter. It can be bound by a powerful Charter Mage but will always, always seek freedom and strength. The Old Kingdom in Sabriel’s story is at the mercy of Free Magic and the Dead after the evil Kerrigor, a former Free Magic user and now Greater Dead, destroyed two of the Great Stones. Dead things rove over the land and the living are stuck with hardship and fear. Add that to the touches of the country’s history that Nix sprinkles through the novel and it just becomes a very exciting read.
Sabriel, as a character, is a great carrier for the novel. She is strong and proud and, if it wasn’t for her lack of knowledge about the world she is in, she would be more than capable of taking on everything. Her education away from the Old Kingdom makes her vulnerable and therefore immediately more likeable. It also gives Nix an avenue for teaching the reader about the world as we learn with her. The best thing is that she is never just handed the information, which makes it all the more interesting. Her first companion, Mogget, is sarcastic and stubborn, a Free Magic creature in the form of a cat forced into servility at some point in the mysterious past. A tiny white cat as a great ball of sass. He gives hints to some of the wider history (which you find out about in later books) but never enough to fully satisfy you. It’s tantalising. Sabriel’s second companion is Touchstone, a former Royal Guard that she rescues from a Charter spell that turned him into wood. He spends his time trying to act like a servant (which he is terrible at) and struggles with his memories, all of which makes him a rubbish source of information and an endless source of frustration for Sabriel. Obviously they’re perfect for one another.
Sabriel covers all the usual themes of a good YA, like the weight of responsibility and the confusion of love and sex, and then adds more philosophical touches on top. Does the walker choose the path or the path the walker? This is a recurring theme throughout the series as each of the characters make or have made choices, good and bad, that they then get to suffer the consequences of. The inevitability of death is also highlighted, through the realm of Death (which Sabriel visits on numerous occasions throughout the novel), through the Abhorsen responsibility to “keep the Dead down”, and through the presence of Dead creatures who wish to regain Life. Surprisingly heavy for a simple YA novel and yet it doesn’t feel that way because of Nix’s skills in incorporating them into the text.
On this re-read, I did notice some issues with the writing that I never had before. They are tiny niggles but, since this is about the way I see things as a writer, I have to mention them. Firstly, Garth Nix uses a lot of commas. Not to the level that they’re wrong but… there’s a lot of them. This is a completely hypocritical point because, you know, I use A LOT of commas. Seriously, I regularly worry that I’ve got too many and then I take some out and I worry that there’s too few. It’s a constant back and forth for me and I’m now wondering if this is the source of that habit. Has Nix influenced my writing more than I ever realised? Maybe it’s endemic across YA or maybe it is just Nix, but it was just something I found interesting to notice. I also found his dialogue a little strained at times – and occasionally the characters will explain something to one another in a such prosaic and unnatural manner that you can just tell that they are carrying the author’s voice rather than speaking themselves. Sometimes it’s little slips that could be forgiven, other times (like Mogget’s explanation of what the Dead are doing in the reservoir) it’s so unbelievably blatant that I find myself wincing.
A bigger niggle I had is a little harder to explain. You see, there are some scenes in Sabriel that feel uncomfortably out of place for me and I’m not fully sure why. On a couple of occasions, Nix goes into detail about the nakedness and/or sexuality of the characters, which doesn’t offend me, it just feels… off. Even when I was younger, these scenes, though beautifully written, felt wrong somehow. When I encountered the first of the scenes on this read around, a moment when Sabriel awakens to find herself naked in a bed, I thought that perhaps it was an underlying discomfort with male authors describing their female teenage leads in such an intimate, sensual manner. But then he later also describes the very male Touchstone with even greater detail, though this scene did also sexualise Sabriel some more since it was from her perspective. I’m not so puritanical as to be thrown by sex in novels – there’s plenty of it in other favourites, like Game of Thrones – so this is unlikely to be my problem in this case. I can only speculate about the reasons for my discomfort with these scenes but I suppose that it could be related to its presence in what I consider a children’s novel. Although it is a YA story and is, at its core, a coming of age story, I first read it when I was probably around eight or ten. I first heard about it in the Funday Times! Though there are only a few such scenes in Sabriel, they still throw me each time I read it.
Though there are small frustrations with the writing, Sabriel will always be one of my favourite novels. It’s fantasy with a different flavour, with a deep history and culture that envelopes the reader. The characters are complex and entertaining and the world is familiar but thoroughly unsettling at the same time. I could read it and read it and never get bored.