Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review: "Sabriel," by Garth Nix

I’m a latecomer to Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, having only picked up the series with the latest trade paperback re-release of the first book, “Sabriel” ($9.99, Eos). So far, I’m impressed and sorry that I didn’t pick it up years ago.

The title character is a young girl, just coming of age, at a school in Ancelstierre, a more modern world where technology rules. But she’s from the Old Kingdom, separated from Ancelstierre by a wall, where magic is king. Her father is a necromancer, but not the bad-guy kind that raises the dead. Instead, it’s his mission to banish the dead from the world of the living, and there are plenty of dead for him to stay in business since chaos has descended on the Old Kingdom with the end of the royal line and the breaking of the magical Charter stones.

One day at school, Sabriel receives a strange messenger from the realms of death, one who brings her father’s magical sword and the bells he uses to banish the dead. Though ill-prepared, Sabriel has to take up the title of Abhorsen and do battle against an enemy named Kerrigor that’s returned from death and is about to take his revenge on the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre alike.

Though the basic storyline here — a young person thrust into a destiny that he/she is unprepared for and must rise to the occasion — is one of the oldest in fantasy, and perhaps in literature as a whole, Nix breathes new life into it with an imaginitive reality and cast of characters. While the story here is self-contained, with no loose ends left, it still seems to be only a beginning. The book, which focuses primarily on the characters, leaves the readers with a great many questions about the wider world, a combination of a more traditional fantasy world blended with a World War II-era world.

The book features a darker tone that reminds me a bit of Michael Moorcock’s Elric tales, yet the action is fast and lively and less brooding than those books. Aimed at YA readers, the book could use a little fleshing out with a bit more depth and time given to the characters and the world amid the action sequences, but that won’t keep you from falling into the fast and furious flow of the book and enjoying it just the same. I look forward to what comes in the next two volumes, also recently re-released by Eos.

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