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15. Garth Nix (1995), Sabriel

Read on the way to and from Verona.

I was given this book by one of my MA students when I left Belfast, which means that it's taken me two and a half years to get round to reading it - and even then it only really happened because my actual bedtime reading at the moment is rather large and unwieldy, and I wanted something light that I could fit in my bag on the plane.

The block was that I find fantasy hard to get into if it doesn't have a foot in the world I know. So Doctor Who, Harry Potter, The World of Chrestomanci, His Dark Materials etc. all suit me very well, because they all incorporate the world I actually live in into their universes. This excites me as a reader, because I feel as though the adventure I'm reading about could potentially happen to me, and it also means that I can be introduced to the fantasy world through the eyes of a character who is unfamiliar with it. Even in cases where the main character isn't actually from my world (most Chrestomanci books, HDM), they are at least generally an outsider in the world they are exploring, because they are a child, or haven't yet discovered their full potential - so the unfamiliar eyes effect is more or less the same.

Sabriel, by contrast, has a blurb which begins like this:
Sabriel is the daughter of the Mage Abhorsen. Ever since she was a tiny child, she has lived outside the Wall of the Old Kingdom - far away from the uncontrolled power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who won't stay dead.
And even though a lot of people whose opinions I trust had told me it was a very good book, this had unfortunately really put me off. I saw no mention of journeys by ordinary children through magic wardrobes, mirrors, time-machines, vel sim - only a plague of Portentous Capital Letters, struggling to lend importance to things which I had no vested interest in. No thanks.

Now I've read the book, though, I'm in a position to say that this is a deeply unfortunate piece of marketing. Actually, it is rather good, and it meets my personal requirements from a fantasy novel a lot better than the blurb had suggested. No place in it is actually the world we know, but the very name of the kingdom of 'Ancelstierre' is a direct etymological equivalent of 'England', while its culture is a kind of 1920s-ish version of ours - rather like the non-magical culture in Chrestomanci's world (12a) in the Worlds of Chrestomanci books. And this is where the story (more or less) begins, and where Sabriel, the main character, has spent most of her life growing up - so that we do start out with something broadly familar, and our point-of-view character can play the role of unfamiliar outsider very nicely when she starts journeying into the wild and dangerous territory of the magical Old Kingdom (vaguely Viking / Scottish) beyond the border.

The language and style of the book isn't exactly high literature, but it isn't bad either - just fairly simple, direct and effective. The story was gripping, well-paced and very enjoyable to read, and Sabriel's character development very absorbing to follow. It certainly did the job of passing the time away nice and effectively while I was sitting around in airports.

There are quite a few questions left unanswered at the end of the book, like: What exactly was the 'blood price' that Mogget's true form wanted to extract from the Abhorsens? What would be the third of the three questions Sabriel could ask of her mother-sending within the current seven years? And what was Touchstone's real name? But I see that there are at least two sequels, so doubtless some of those will be answered there.

I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy literature, particularly if set in a bleak and dangerous landscape of snow, mountains and creeping dead things. It's not up there with the other series I mentioned at the beginning of this review, because it's a little more generic than most of them, and doesn't quite have the fine touches of detail and humour that they do. But still - a good read.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 13th, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
I absolutely *loved* Sabriel; I thought the grand denouement (without offering any spoilers) was the most wonderfully sophisticated take on the good old-fashioned English public school adventure story I could imagine. Not tomention it has the most wonderful conceptualisation of death I've ever read. It had me riveted throughout and I actually enjoyed it more than the Amber Spyglass series. The other two books are a lot of fun too, although Lirael occasionally set off my "annoying teenager" alarm.
Dec. 13th, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC)
the most wonderful conceptualisation of death I've ever read

Yes, you have a good point there.

I think the travelling between worlds aspect makes His Dark Materials score more highly for me, and especially the stuff about the dust. But I do agree that Sabriel was good, and it certainly didn't deserve to be kept waiting for 2.5 years before I read it!
Dec. 13th, 2007 07:46 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed Sabriel too. But I just finished the second book in this trilogy, and I loathed it. Just hated pretty much every word of it. I intend to write a rant about it in my sadly-neglected book-review journal one of these days -- I'm several books behind in my reviews. Maybe I'll get on that today.
Dec. 14th, 2007 08:54 am (UTC)
OK, thanks for the warning! I wasn't much impressed by the first chapter, which was appended at the end of my edition of Sabriel, but then I didn't much like the first chapter of Sabriel either.

And I didn't even know about your book blog! Have now friended it.
Dec. 13th, 2007 08:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I actually am exactly like you in this.. and haven't read this book until now for that selfsame reason: the blurb put me off big time. Now I certainly will give it a chance :)
Dec. 14th, 2007 08:56 am (UTC)
No problem! I hope you enjoy it. And whatifoundthere's review, which she links to in a comment above, will give you a lot more idea of the actual content of the book than mine does, so it's worth having a look at that if you want to be sure you'll like it.
Dec. 15th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
I can't count how many fantasy and sci-fi books I started to read and have had to stop due to too much strangeness and unfamiliar, made-up words.
Since we seem to have the same taste in fantasy literature, with the whole incorporating our real-life world with their universes, I guess I'll try reading Sabriel. The 1920-ish culture sounds interesting too...
Dec. 16th, 2007 11:34 am (UTC)
The 1920-ish culture sounds interesting too

Well, it's not actually featured that much in the book, as most of the story takes place in the Old Kingdom rather than Ancelstierre. But it's a nice touch.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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