Sunday, August 28, 2011

Nix, Necromancy, and Novelty: Not too Bad is 'Sabriel'

Nix, Garth. Sabriel. New York: Harper Collins, 2004 (1995).

I'm often frustrated by fantasy writing these days; it has so much to offer, but many of the more recent novels seem simply derivative of their literary predecessors. This is not so with Sabriel (or, if it is, I haven't read said literary predecessors), which manages both to be a novel in genre and to offer something quite fresh: a necromancer, called the 'Abhorsen,' who defies the conventions of the trade, offering closure and finality in place of ghosts and skeletons.

At the beginning of the book, readers are introduced to the Abhorsen, who (of course) turns out to be Sabriel's father. After the passage of a few pages and many years of Sabriel's life, the story begins in earnest while Sabriel is a student at a preparatory-type school far from home; after her father's failure to appear for a visit as expected (he sends instead a spectral messenger), Sabriel must make the exhausting journey home alone, through a cold and desolate Northern land, pursued by a terrifying monster. Once home, of course, her adventures are only beginning, and Sabriel meets Mogget (one of the most unique and charming fantasy characters since the Ents), takes a ride in a magnificent flying contraption called a paperwing, and pursues her father across her homeland and far beyond. Although the story is dark at times, it is also compelling and charming (and worth reading for Mogget alone). Sabriel does have some irksome tendencies, but these are realistic: she is, after all, a teenaged girl, struggling with all sorts of youthful proclivities and maturing along the way; in this respect Sabriel is surprisingly realistic, which is pleasing except when it is frustrating.

I enjoyed this book, but I know several people who were far less impressed with it than I, and it is certainly heavily laden with the magical and the dark, so many readers may prefer to sidestep this text. However, fans of a certain ridiculously popular child wizard should find Nix's novel a good deal better written and more imaginative than books in that other series, and the story is well structured and elegantly written. For fans of fantasy, a perusal of Sabriel is essential.

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