Sabriel (Book, 1995)

After my guest post for Ashley at Robo♥Beat, I bugged her for a book recommendation. I figure, if anyone knows a thing or two about a good read, it is someone who is working on writing her own SciFi story. She recommended Sabriel by Garth Nix and it didn’t disappoint.

I had never heard of Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy before though I recognized the author’s name. Sabriel is the first book of his I have ever read. As a fantasy novel, it follows the character Sabriel, descendent of a line of sorcerer-necromancer types dedicated to culling the undead threat. It is an exciting, easy read.

Sabriel is a teenage girl, barely removed from her time spent at a school in the country of Ancelstierre. Unlike the Old Kingdom, the book’s primary setting, Ancelstierre isn’t magical or even very high fantasy. They have guns and tanks and electricity.

In contrast, the Old Kingdom is a place of grave danger. Magic, the undead, and other tropes of high fantasy give it a sense of mystery and allure. As Sabriel learns more of her family history, the reader is introduced to a rather rich and ornate setting. If this is indicative of Garth Nix’s other works, then I am very impressed.

This book is pre-Harry Potter but I really appreciated it not spending a ton of time on Sabriel’s school experiences or her amateurism. Her quest is tough but the book never dawdles in seeing her through it. Nix manages to give the character enough agency that she feels competent, but not so much that she defies realistic expectation.

I also really enjoyed Garth Nix’s depiction of the afterlife. The realm of Death is divided into multiple levels, each level featuring more dangerous creatures than the last. It plays out like a mix of Christian Hell and the Greek Hades. The former in the sense that it is populated by twisted demons, the latter because its less concerned with punishment.

The characters were pretty good as well, though I disliked the underdeveloped and quite shallow injection of a love interest. Even for a Hero’s Journey, the book is devoid of a supporting cast beyond its few major players. That wasn’t really a problem, but it does give me significantly less to say about the book’s cast.

Without spoiling too much, my one big complaint is how cleanly the book wraps things up. Though I genuinely enjoyed the story, the writing, and toward the end I couldn’t stop reading, I hate this sort of trilogy. One of the hallmarks of fantasy is the genre’s ability to produce fully realized worlds and stories of epic scope that take you on journeys through them. Sabriel does just that, but ends so tidily that I felt disinterested in reading the next in the series. I’m sure it is good and I will eventually read it, but I do prefer a bit of a cliffhanger to tantalize me into running to the next book immediately.

Sabriel is a straight-forward piece of writing, but it does its job in providing solid entertainment. The world is interesting, deviating a bit from the usual fantasy stuff and focusing more on undead creatures and necromancy (thankfully without the Gothic, “black is cool” nonsense that can sometimes plague the macabre in fantasy). I especially recommend it if you want a quick fantasy read that can effectively function as a one-off. Those are pretty rare, given everything has to be spun off into a trilogy + x series of books.

Thanks again Ashley for the recommendation!

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1 thought on “Sabriel (Book, 1995)”

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ll be reviewing The Stars My Destination probably next month too. =)

    I agree with almost everything you said here. It’s such a cool magic system because it is a little different than what we typically see, and as you said, I love that Sabriel is brave and competent but doesn’t necessarily know everything. She’s a very realistic hero in that sense. Also, you’re totally right about the “love interest.” He was pretty dull all around, but I liked that Sabriel had another companion on her journey at least.

    I do see what you mean about the ending, but I actually like it. I started reading the second book in the series but couldn’t finish it, because it’s a new protagonist who is very passive compared to Sabriel. It reads more like a “young adult” — but, like, 13 year old kind of young. Might be worth a try, but I think Sabriel is great as a standalone fantasy book.

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