How quickly (or slowly, as it were) I manage to read a particular book is often a pretty good indicator of how much or how little I enjoyed it. It took me an inordinate amount of time to read Sabriel by Garth Nix, but in this case the supposition that I did not enjoy the book based on the above statement would be…less than accurate.
It’s a difficult task reviewing something that you don’t feel passionately one way or the other about. Movies and books that are polarizing are easy to review, I suppose because intense dislike or intense like are emotions more easily conveyed than their watered down cousins. It’s the nuance of ambivalence that’s difficult to express. But as a writer who reviews things with some regularity it seems like a cop out to only review those things that I find terrific or terrible. It’s just too easy, and therein lies the danger in it. Vanilla needs reviewing just as much as chocolate with sprinkles. Whether its a fun task or not, it’s got to be done.
Sabriel could be summed up pretty neatly as a rite of passage tale. We meet our protagonist and the subject of the title, Sabriel, and learn just enough about her to accompany her on what seems a monumental task that has been set before her. In the first few pages of the book our heroine learns of her father’s death (a state of being that is somewhat less permanent than it is in our world), and that she must take up the mantle of Abhorsen (the title of necromancer or magician that dear old dad held before her), and cross the wall that separates Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom, and the dead and free magic creatures that roam uninhibited since the station of Abhorsen became vacant. It seems that an evil has been building in the Old Kingdom and now it has been set loose upon the land. Sabriel soon learns that she is tasked with setting things right in the old land once again, reluctant though she is to admit it. Along the way she meets a talking cat, a prince, a slew of undead, and learns a bit about herself, her past, and about duty and sacrifice.
Don’t be. Sabriel is a pretty straight forward quest tale that mixes elements of the horror genre with fantasy. The resulting conflagration, odd though it may sound, is an adequate, if not convincing coming of age story not unlike the Harry Potter series (the similarities between these two stories are pretty abundant, but can probably be chalked up to coincidence--for the record, Nix’s tale was published before Rowling’s Potter series).
When I said that Sabriel learns a bit about her past, I meant a bit and not a pinch more. Garth Nix plays his cards a little too close to the chest for the first half to two-thirds of the story, allowing the reader only small hints of back story, and critical character background. I felt at times like an eaves dropper; catching snippets of a whispered conversation that could never really be understood. This goes back to an earlier argument I made concerning trilogies. As far as I’m concerned, whether you’ve got a great story that needs telling over one book or seven, it is the task of the author to weave the threads of plot such that the reader is encouraged to keep reading. If a story drags because the author is holding back information for later books, then clearly some editing needed to be done in order to preserve the momentum of the narrative. Fortunately for Nix, I was just interested enough in what is to come in the next two books in this series to continue reading. But only just.
Garth Nix’s prose is as clear and purposeful as one of Sabriel’s bells. It’s neither flowery nor bland. I really appreciated the way Nix illustrated and defined his two invented worlds and the rules of the magic that is used within the context of the story. It’s as creative as it is unusual (to me at least), and it served the story well without being too derivative of other more popular quest-oriented fantasy stories.
The story begins in Ancelstierre where Sabriel grew up and received her training as a Charter Mage, but the action quickly shifts as she makes her way across the wall (think Hadrian’s wall—it’s located in roughly the same part of the fictional island as it is in Britain) into the Old Kingdom. I found both settings to be interesting in their own right; Ancelstierre is an oddly skewed version of early twentieth century Britain, but details of it are kept largely a secret from the reader. This seemed an interesting counterpoint to the medieval-like Old Kingdom, which while physically shrouded in mist and mystery, actually yields more information and back story than its modern counterpart.
Sabriel as a character leaves quite a bit to be desired. She falls flat on the page, and failed to inspire anything more than idle curiosity in what would become of her. Fortunately a few interesting characters jumped on the wagon (or paperwing as it were—you’ll understand when you read Sabriel) and helped to keep it on a straight course towards the finish. Without the knightly Touchstone or the illusive free magic creature known as Mogget I’m not sure I would have cared enough about the fate of the Old Kingdom or Ancelstierre to tag along and find out how it all turned out.
I cannot tell you how close I came to putting this one down, and I stand by my feelings on trilogies and series’ here. I have one real requirement from a novel: a good story. If that story is contained within the middle of a front and back cover, then it needs telling it well enough that I feel satisfied when I flip that last page. If it’s told over the course of three or four books, that’s fine. But if the story sags under its own weight of “what if’s” and “maybes” before I even reach the end of the first book, then something is wrong.
Fortunately, though, Nix’s prose, likeable supporting cast, and the well imagined magical world he’s created kept me reading just long enough to get me interested in the arc of the entire trilogy. I will read Lirael and Abhorsen, and hopefully be rewarded with a story worthy of such an investment of time.
If you’ve read Sabriel or any of the other books in the Old Kingdom trilogy, please feel free to share your thoughts below. And even if you’ve never heard of Sabriel or Garth Nix, I appreciate your input.