“Who will guard the living when the dead arise?”
—Sabriel, Sabriel by Garth Nix
Transport yourself into a world filled with charter magic, necromancy and the Dead, in Sabriel‘ the first book in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Trilogy. In Sabriel, Nix cleverly weaves together two countries that couldn’t be more different. In the South, there’s Ancelstierre, a country that’s most like the world we live in, but perhaps from an earlier time. In the North, there’s the Old Kingdom, a place filled with magic and the Dead. The Dead include corpses animated by dead spirits (Dead Hands), spirits of the Dead (Shadow Hands), dead necromancers (Greater Dead) and free magic creatures. The two countries are separated only by a wall that’s imbued with charter magic, and patrolled around the clock by scouts; all to keep the people of Ancelstierre in, and the Dead out.
To keep the Dead under control, the Abhorsen — a necromancer who has a spelled sword and seven bells used to control the Dead — puts the Dead back into death. Entering death is no easy feat, though, with nine precincts each filled with more terrifying Dead creatures, and many elements that try to keep you in death.
The book follows Sabriel, a young woman about to finish school in Ancelstierre. At the beginning of the book, Sabriel receives the current Abhorsen’s (her father’s) sword and bells. She learns that her father is missing and crosses the wall to find him, dead or alive. Her journey is fraught with peril, and she faces many powerful Dead creatures along the way. Although, Moggett’s sarcastic and snide comments do provide some comical moments along the way. Who is Mogget, you ask? He’s a white cat, on the outside at least.
The book is deliciously dark, with vivid descriptions of the lesser Dead as having “fleshless eyes…rotten, corroded teeth [that] ground and gnashed in skeletal mouths…” and the greater Dead as having a “body of bog-clay and human blood moulded…by a necromancer…flames were spewing from its mouth…” The detail in the descriptions allows the reader to imagine the Dead in their complete and terrifying forms. Nix uses these horrors to show that “everyone and everything has a time to die,” and as such, death isn’t something to be avoided. In fact, the alternative is worse as the Dead bear no resemblance to the people they were in life.
Nix also shows the reader that loss can make a person stronger, a message so often lost in typical fantasy novels. When Sabriel experiences loss, she is sad, but she’s in the middle of a battle. She pulls herself together, and goes on to face the evil that threatens not only her life, but everyone’s. In traditional fantasy novels, the protagonist is usually unable to go on, and needs someone else to step in. Nix breaks those norms and writes a character that is more realistic.
While there is romance in the book, Nix does this with a light hand. The focus remains on the fight between good and evil, with romance as a nice sub plot. It’s refreshing to read a book where romance isn’t the main plot, and good vs. evil is the sub plot. As a result, this book should appeal to men and women.
The world created by Nix is so complex and mysterious that it allows the story to continue on and on, and only your imagination is the limit.
Final Verdict: Hard to put down—be prepared to give up a couple of days to read this. As soon as you put it down, you’ll want to pick it back up again.
If you like this book, the adventures continue in the next two books, Lireal and Abhorsen, which are also reviewed.