You know sometimes when you read a book that’s just so good you get kind of overwhelmed and when you finish it you just need to cry to let all of your feelings out? Yeah. This. Fucking. Book. I read it a couple of times when I was a teenager but I haven’t read it for at least ten years, and let me tell you, it still holds up as an amazing read all these years later.
Sabriel, a schoolgirl in Ancelstierre, is the heir to the role of the anti-necromancer, called the Abhorsen, and when her father sends her the magical bells and sword of the position she goes on a quest to rescue him, across the Wall into the Old Kingdom where the dead rise with Free Magic and it is her job to send them back into death. All she has to guide her is a sarcastic talking cat and a mysterious boy she saved who can’t even tell her his real name.
The plot of Sabriel is a typical coming-of-age high fantasy adventure. Despite being born in the Old Kingdom, Sabriel grew up in safety across the Wall and despite being a powerful Charter Mage with a gift and instinct for magic to fight the dead, she deson’t know anything about Old Kingdom politics or culture or even what’s happened in the 200 years since the last royal was slain. We follow Sabriel as she learns as fast as she can and does what she can to help the people plagued by the rising dead. Her quest is to rescue her father, but the novel’s plot is her adventure on the awakening and inheritance of the role of Abhorsen.
Sabriel is a wonderful character, quick-witted, brave, and resourceful. She doesn’t let emotions get in the way of her goals, but she’s still an eighteen year old girl who grew up in a sheltered all-girls’ school, so she has a lot to learn both about the world, the Old Kingdom, and magic itself.
Mogget is one of the stars of the book. He’s a talking white cat, a sort of servant of the Abhorsen’s, and he’s sarcastic as fuck. He’s constantly amused by Sabriel’s lack of knowledge, and you can never tell if he cares for his masters or wants them dead and gone. Possibly both at the same time. While talking animals aren’t exactly rare in YA fantasy, Mogget does have the distinction of being all on his own, both a help and a hindrance and a threat if he were ever freed. I find a similarity to Spike from Season 4 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer when he’s been ‘neutered’ – still a savage beast, but unable to actively hurt anyone.
Touchstone makes up the final member of this ragtag adventuring trio. He has too many secrets he can’t even share, but Sabriel think he’s attractive, and he’s got a lot of honour and duty in him. He’s also a berserker, so that comes in handy, and he’s skilled with the double sword. He’s totally dedicated to Sabriel and sees her, for a long time, simply as the Abhorsen, and not as a young woman.
Nix has this uncanny ability to make his writing timeless. This book is published in the 90s, but it’s still as relevant today as it ever was, and it would even fit in seamlessly with fantasy books published in the 70s or 80s. It’s beautiful writing, it does nothing to disguise the harsh realities that Sabriel now faces, but it’s kind of lyrical and poetic at the same time. I love how it seems both almost old-fashioned and quite modern at the same time, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how. I think it has to do with the politeness of language used in dialogue, combined with the way the magic system works and how Nix uses language to describe how the magic, largely a visual medium, is happening.
I didn’t find anything wrong with the pacing. Everything Sabriel did had a reaction that propelled her forward and she continued to face and overcome her obstacles – not without much difficulty – all throughout the plot until a very satisfying climax was reached.
Sabriel is by now what should be considered a classic Australian Young Adult high fantasy. It’s an incredibly detailed, immersive world with a touch of horror, a well-thought-out magic system, wonderful, believable characters and a strong, tight plot to keep readers engaged. I strongly suggest this book not only to teens and adults but readers of any genre.