I found Sabriel on YALSA’s 2009 List of Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults (Retrieved August 2nd from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/booklistsawards/popularpaperback/09ppya.cfm). Garth Nix is one of those authors that I’d kept seeing on bookshelves and never picked up, so I decided to use this opportunity to satisfy my curiosity. Sabriel is an ALA Notable Book and was the winner of the Aurealis Award for Excellence in Australian Science Fiction (back cover).
Series Title: The Old Kingdom
Alternate Series Title: The Abhorsen Trilogy
Author: Garth Nix
ISBN-10: 0061474355 ISBN-13: 9780061474354
City and Publisher: New York: HarperCollins
Copyright Date: 1995
Author’s Website: http://www.garthnix.co.uk/home
Reader’s Annotation: Although the country of Ancelstierre is separated from the Old Kingdom by a heavily guarded wall, magic still trickles through into the borderlands. Sabriel’s necromancy still works at Wyverley College, but it grows even stronger when she must travel through the dangers and walking dead of her homeland in order to rescue her father.
Plot Summary: In the Old Kingdom, all necromancers are the destructive masters of the walking dead except for one, the Abhorsen, who uses his power to lay them back to rest. Sabriel has been raised in Ancelstierre, where technology mostly works and magic mostly doesn’t, except at the borderlands where magic trickles in and people bar their doors at night. When the Abhorsen, Sabriel’s father, reaches through death to hand her his sword and bells, she must travel through the dangers of her degenerated homeland in order to rescue him.
Critical Evaluation: Sabriel unfolds slowly at first. The first hundred pages read like exposition as Sabriel travels to her father’s house. She is the only developed character until that point; the other people in the story are props for her journey. When she finally finds the cat creature Mogget, the story becomes more dynamic. The rescue of Touchstone rounds out the flatness of the novel. Sabriel is intricately written, and its world is well imagined. But the action is mostly surface, and the characters’ journeys are physical rather than internal, leaving the reader somewhat uninvested in this book.
Reading Level/Interest Age: 12 and up
Curriculum Ties: Sabriel would tie in to English or writing classes. The writing is complex and descriptive, and the themes of death and loss could provide fodder for classroom discussions. It is also an excellent example of a High Fantasy novel for students studying genres.
Booktalking Ideas: Read the passage on page 23 that begins “What is it?” and ends on page 24 with “…and the Dead themselves.” Explain that Sabriel must journey from her realm, where magic mostly doesn’t work, to the Old Kingdom, where the dead walk the Earth.
Beasties and Supernatural Elements: Zombies (of a sort), magic powers/runes
Challenge Issues: Parents who dislike books with occult themes may have problems with Sabriel. Not only are there many magic users in the world, but the dead come to life. The afterworld is described as a river flowing through a series of seven gates, with no mention of a higher power. The Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre are more removed from the details of our own world however, and what is objectionable in Harry Potter, may be less so in this fantastical setting. The description of the afterworld may be read as a portrayal of grief, a metaphor for the effect the dead have on the living and the stages of acceptance of loss. The newly dead may be brought back, as they have not passed through as many gates, but the farther the dead pass the harder they are to reach.
About the Author: Garth Nix is an Australian writer. Before becoming a full time author, he went through many jobs, including publishing and a stint in the Army Reserve. He has a wife and two sons. (More details at http://www.garthnix.co.uk/garth)