Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

I love this book.

I know I usually beat around the bush and hold off on stating my opinion until after summarizing the book, but I figured after reading the mess that was Queen of the Tearling it was time for a change.

 

 

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Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel knows little of the Dead who won’t stay dead or the dangerous magic of the Old Kingdom beyond the Wall, but when her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, she knows that she must enter that perilous land to find him. Her only companions on this journey are Mogget, a cantankerous cat who barely conceals a malevolent spirit within, and Touchstone, a Charter Mage who is definitely more than he seems. Their quest will take them deep into the Old Kingdom, where, assailed from all sides, Sabriel will come to face to face with her destiny.

I remember seeing this book a long time ago and passing it up in favour of The Forbidden Game. While I love The Forbidden Game dearly, I regret not picking this up sooner, especially after hearing all the positive things about it. Also, I am angry at everyone who knew about this series and didn’t tell me to read it. Yes, that means you if you’ve read it. Seriously, why didn’t you tell me? Have I done something to offend you?

While the books I’ve been reading recently tend towards character-driven drama (emphasis on drama) Sabriel feels more like an adventure story with a bit of magic. That is not to say that the characters have no personality (Mogget has enough personality for two characters) but that this is one of those books where the world itself feels more like a character. A lot of books have been compared to the likes of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, and Sabriel, I feel, definitely deserves comparison to the better parts of the latter (Philip Pullman even wrote a blurb for Sabriel). Many books are compared to popular series these days for superficial reasons, Sabriel is right up there with great fantasy books of the past couple decades.

The phrase “strong female character” is overused and meaningless so I’m not going to use it, but next to heroines from recent reads, like Celaena from Throne of Glass, Sabriel is almost melancholy. She knows what she has to do but she really doesn’t know what she’s doing. She is sometimes jealous, sometimes scared out of her mind, but determined. Mogget’s snark is absolutely delightful even if he is a precursor to Grumpy Cat, and then there’s Touchstone who….has some stuff to work out. No character ever grated on me. From the first page, I knew I wanted them to succeed and be happy. In terms of the actual writing style, some reviews have complained about the lack of dialogue, but I want to draw particular attention to the diction. I think “tricksome” is now one of my favourite words.

Magic in Sabriel’s world is divided into Charter and Free Magic. Near as I can tell (it’s not explained in great depth), Charter Magic is a more organized form of Free Magic, created using Charter signs, whereas Free Magic is more volatile and dangerous. Whereas necromancers use Free Magic to raise the Dead, the Abhorsen uses Charter magic to put the Dead to rest. Speaking of Death, Sabriel has such an interesting and beautiful depiction of Death, with the soul of the person passing through multiple Gates and trying to avoid numerous perils on their journey. The main tool Sabriel uses to control the Dead are Bells of varying sizes with a variety of effects, including allowing the Dead to speak, binding them in place, or sending everyone who hears it into Death (including the ringer), these Bells also seem to have minds of their own. There are apparently official Bell charms for sale, I want them, but they are currently sold out. That’s just terrible.

On an emotional note, this book made me tear up. It seems like it’s been so long since a book got an emotional reaction from me that wasn’t rage or annoyance.

My only major criticisms of this book are that I wish it was longer and I felt like it was a little ambiguous when it came to describing people of colour. Abhorsen (Sabriel’s father, it’s both a name and a title) is described as “brown” a couple times, but Abhorsens have a habit of turning pale, and Sabriel herself is just described as pale. Sanar and Ryelle, the two representatives of the Clayr (an isolated people who are gifted with the Sight) are dark-skinned and blonde, so there’s that, and the book doesn’t have a huge cast. Unfortunately, Sabriel joins the long list of protagonists with dead mothers, but she makes up for it by having a genuinely affectionate (if long distance) relationship with her father.

I can’t think of any of the big triggers I usually mention. Touchstone first appears in the book naked, although it’s described in a tasteful way. Since this is a book about dead things, expect to read descriptions of animated corpses in various states of decay (you know, like zombies). There is also a brief mention of scavengers enslaving children to act as distractions for the Dead….yeah….this is a great book but sometimes it can be a little bleak, and one particular ritual requires human sacrifice to work, although, the book never reaches the grimdark levels of something like Queen of the Tearling.

In sum: this book, go read it immediately. It’s beautiful, it’s action-packed, it’s occasionally horrifying, it’s absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s wonderful. I love it. The fact that this is apparently not being made into a movie while a shit book like The School for Good and Evil is fills me with rage. Seriously, I think Sabriel is now in my top five favourite books, and that’s saying something. I cannot wait to read the other books in the series and I can’t praise this book enough. If this is sitting on your TBR pile, read it, for the love of all the gods, read it. If you only read one book I’ve recommended this year, make it this one.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

  1. I absolutely loved this book when I read it, and I recommended it to a woman whose daughter was looking for fantasy reads. I thought Sabriel was a strong female character since, from what I remember, she didn’t rely on a guy to protect her and she was willing to get out and do what needed to be done. (When it comes to strong female characters, I also consider a female character strong in the sense of using her brain and words to get things done, not just wielding a sword and kicking ass on a battlefield. Basically, a character who is a Catelyn Stark can be just as strong as a character who’s a Xena.)

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