I bounced off Sabriel when I first encountered it, in one of many loads brought back from the library for my mother to read to me, something about it, the setting or the style or the age of the protagonist didn’t catch me just right, and we didn’t go very far. I found Sabriel again a few years later, when I was reading for myself, and it was perfect, delightfully dark and magical with a core of adventure and learning about a new world. Speaking of creepy and Garth Nix, allow me a brief digression on another of his books: Shade’s Children is genuinely terrifying and filled with vivid horror imagery. It is the only book that I clearly remember making it hard to sleep and giving me nightmares when I did. Give Shade’s Children to the young readers in your life with caution. It is not for the nervous.
Returning to Sabriel, one of the interesting things about it is that, for a moment, it seems to be a different sort of book than it is. The first chapter, discounting the prologue, suggests a magical-school kind of narrative. Our titular heroine is a prefect, with all the immediate cultural suggestions that entails, there are ivy covered buildings and illicit magic and school uniforms, but the expected structure is immediately undermined; Sabriel knows more than her teacher about magic and monsters, and the same scene that reveals that detail incites the real quest of the novel. After the initial tease, Sabriel become a journey book, an adventure of rescue of discovery, as Sabriel travels to a land she barely remembers and we, the reader, understand not at all.
Sabriel is simply full of things I loved and continue to love, so the form of the rest of this blog is going to be me talking about why those things were wonderful.
I loved Sabriel herself. Unlike very many YA heroes I have not enjoyed, she is powerful and competent and magical. Sabriel is young, and she is thrown into many situations she doesn’t know how to deal with, but she knows a great deal more about important magical workings than almost anyone else in the world. I loved then, and continue to love now, protagonists who are allowed to be powerful from the beginning of the book, not only at the end, and Sabriel’s magic and knowledge satisfied on that score.
I loved the Old Kingdom, the realm of magic and the walking dead where most of the story takes place, sealed off from the rest of the world by its ancient spell-mortared wall. In Sabriel, we meet the Old Kingdom as a ruin. Its are borderlands haunted by the dead; its remaining communities are closed in and harried into hardscrabble accommodation; its brilliant past of secret magic and grandeur is half-forgotten. But the bones remain. The Old Kingdom is one of the finest pieces of fantasy world-building I have read, because the society truly respects the magic. In a kingdom where the dead rise, unattended or at the will of a necromancer, the people have found defenses and ways to deal with the shambling corpses. The ordered magic of the Charter has a place in every community. The dead are burned. I love fantasy worldbuilding that integrates magic into the development of culture and convention, and Sabriel gave me that.
I loved the magic. There are two kinds of magic in Sabriel: Charter magic, the magic of order, healing, cleansing, and safety, and free magic, the magic of necromancy, of corruption, pain, and wild, destructive freedom. I adore the visceral feel of each. Charter magic is cool, soothing, precise and patient. Using it is like dipping into a universe of symbols that connects you to the whole of charter, a magical framework that connects all things and people bound to the charter. Free magic is hot, it burns and smells of hot metal. It is black-red flames with oily smoke. It buzzes in the head. It was so easy to feel the magic in Sabriel, more vivid than any other part of the book.
I loved the toys: the seven bells of a necromancer, Charter-spelled blades, armor of ancient porcelain-metal, forged with magic now forgotten, half-sentient gliders made from paper and magic with the personality of hawk. I enjoyed collections of carefully described magical or historically significant artifacts, and I loved it even more as a child, when I didn’t really bother with the emotional arc nonsense. Sabriel is chock full of magical toys and gewgaws and I loved them all.
I loved the Perimeter, the no-man’s land between the world where technology works and has advanced, and the regressive magic of the Old Kingdom. It is a place of the restless dead, where soldiers of an enlightened and post-superstition society must confront the reality of magic and the breakdown of their technology, where the dead rise, guns and telephones break down when the wind blows from the north, and experience soldiers wear mail over their khaki and carry a sword that only polite convention lists as a ‘bayonet’.
The world of Sabriel drew me in hard, and I have stayed invested and intrigued. The story managed to be serious, dark, dangerous, and adult, but still worked as YA, never losing a core of hopeful uncertainty/discovery, never becoming grim despite the death and danger. I read the sequels that complete Nix’s original Abhorsen trilogy, but later. I enjoyed them greatly, but I don’t count them as formative. I realized as I was writing this blog, how much the visceral description of magic in Nix’s books continues to inform my own writing. Clearly, these books have stayed with me, and I think that is very much to my benefit.