I recently read one of those fantasy novels that makes you forget where you are. When I bought Sabriel by Garth Nix, the first book in the Abhorsen trilogy, I didn’t realize it was a young adult novel. I devoured this story in less than a week. Though it could be considered a coming-of-age story, it doesn’t read like a teen book. To recommend this novel, I’ll just list some of my favorite things about it…
1. A Realistic Heroine
This book is not about a little girl turning into a tough woman wielding magic and a sword — and that’s a huge relief. Sabriel is one of fantasy’s most realistic heroines, in my opinion. She’s a young woman who ponders the best course of action and sweats out her fears as she tries to do the right thing. Rather than brashly running into fights, she contemplates them. When she wields magic, it’s with a shaky yet studious resolve, and she’s not always sure that she will succeed.
2. Unique Magic
The magic in this book is unlike anything I’ve read before. There are two types: Charter Magic (which is good) and Free Magic (which is essentially illegal and very dangerous). When Sabriel learns her father has died, she must leave her safe home and enter the anarchist Old Kingdom, where Free Magic reigns and the dead are after her.
Sabriel’s father was the Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer who used bells and a sword etched with Charter symbols to enter Death, which seems to be a physical realm for those who venture inside. He used the bells to charm demons, bring good people back to life and keep the rightfully dead in Death.
Now, Sabriel wields his powers to find and save him. She enters Death only when absolutely essential. Entering Death is a dangerous business and cannot be accomplished too often. She can also whistle to catch the wind and trace Charter symbols in the air — discreetly, at times — to perform magic. It’s a totally unique kind of magic and feels very grounded in the world Nix has created.
3. The Mysterious Team
To be honest, the other characters in the book are more stereotypical than Sabriel. One is full of sarcasm and the other is, really, a little dull. But they work well with Sabriel, and one of them (the sarcastic one) is a talking cat! This is one of my favorite things in the world, especially when the talking cat is also the devil or some sort of demon, as Mogget is in Sabriel. (Also check out The Master and Margarita for a devil cat who is polite enough to try to pay his bus fare.)
The characters are more interesting for being mysterious. Mogget sometimes helps Sabriel; other times, it’s difficult to trust him. And who knows who he once was, or what sort of demon he really is? Later, she brings to life a young man nicknamed Touchstone (by Mogget, of course), whose past is also unknown at first. Gradually, Sabriel unravels his history and learns who he really is — and how he is connected to her greatest enemy.
The bottom line… The book is full of chase scenes and enemies that are realistically frightening. It’s also full of wit. Nix’s prose is breezy yet descriptive, bringing to life the rare give-us-a-breather scenes as well as the action sequences. I recently purchased the second book in the series and haven’t been able to get through it; it feels more juvenile to me. But Sabriel is one of those rare, magical books that I’m sure I will come back to many times.