Garth Nix’s “Sabriel” is striking in many ways. Initially, it’s just the cover – ooh, isn’t it nice? And the book inside? Well, perhaps for once judging a book by its cover is not such a bad idea.
That Philip Pullman graces the cover of “Sabriel”, proclaiming it to be a fantasy that reads like realism, is telling. Reading “Sabriel” I was reminded time and again of Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which is widely acknowledged as a modern classic. Both take place in a fantasy world only slightly removed from our own, both centre around a young girl as she grows into a woman and discovers love, and both are absolutely, breathtakingly excellent.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this a children’s book. Again, like Pullman’s works, that may be what it says on the tin, but Nix doesn’t pull any punches in his presentation. There’s no patronising and talking down to children in his prose – several times I actually wondered if he’d even attempted to use simple word-choice. Because Nix refuses to sacrifice anything which will take away from his story – he tells it the way he wants to tell it, which is unquestionably a good thing for readers everywhere, even if they occasionally need to fumble for the dictionary.
“Sabriel” followes the eponymous heroine into the Old Kingdom, which is gradually falling apart after the breaking of many Charter Stones (magic that holds the Kingdom together), using the blood of the royal family. Blood is very important in this book, as Sabriel is to discover – she goes in search of her father, the Abhorsen (a necromancer whose task it is to make sure the dead stay dead and don’t come back to claim the living world as their own), and on the way has to come to terms with who and what she is, now that her father may be lost to her forever. On her journey she gains both friends and enemies, and although very occasionally Nix strays into the fantasy cliché area (returning Kings and talking animals), his powerful storytelling just keeps the reader from losing belief in his world.
Magic plays a big part in “Sabriel”, but Nix doesn’t just use it for the sake of it. The magic comes from within the characters, and symbolically it is often only strength of character and the support of others which enables even the simplest spell to be cast. This book is very much about growing up, banishing inner demons and having to make your own way through the often cruel world. Like all the best “children’s” literature, there’s an awful lot more going on under the surface than hocus-pocus and big men with swords.
The only real criticism I can make of “Sabriel” is that sometimes the pacing seems a little uneven. It starts out with a measured pace, drawing you into the mystery of the Old Kingdom and Sabriel’s journey through it. These early chapters are intoxicatingly good, reeling you in as Nix describes his fantasy world. But seemingly within hours of Sabriel entering the Old Kingdom, it’s gung-ho all the way. Incident follows adventure follows incident for the rest of the book, which although engaging offers no moments of pause for any real character analysis or assessment of where the story is and where it’s going. It reads very much like an adventure film with one big explosion after another with very little in between. However, I’m probably making this out to be more of a fault than it is – I know I thoroughly enjoyed the book. In the great panorama of “Sabriel”, this is only a minor quibble. I can only say that Philip Pullman should watch his back in the coming years, as Garth Nix gains further, much deserved, recognition.