As a recent advocate for fantasy and a fantasy reader, I felt like it was finally time for me to explore the creators of the fantasy genre. While I love authors like Leigh Bardugo and VE Schwab and Kiersten White and Cassandra Clare for really modernizing the genre, I have to give props to the folks who paved the way.
Next year, my friend Deedi and I plan on reading more “essential” fantasy. For us, essential fantasy are the backlist stories that inspired some of the books we read today. They’re the stories that helped define what the genre looks like now. So we’ll be reading more of these in the future and today I’m sharing my thoughts on Sabriel by Garth Nix.
Sabriel is the story of a young necromancer with the same name who just finished school when she received a bandolier of bells and her father’s sword. She’s told her father’s been captured or killed, so she heads back to her father’s home in the Old Kingdom to find out more. What she does find is that her father has been killed and the bandolier and sword appearing in front of her is a sign. She’s to be the next Abhorsen; a highly coveted position handed down generation after generation to bring dead souls back to Death.
Along the way, she picks up a cat friend named Mogget and a human friend named Touchstone. While Touchstone doesn’t remember anything about his past, he’s willing to help Sabriel with finding her father. Funnily, she does find her father, but he’s not alive. With the last ounce of his strength, he explains that she’s the new Abhorsen and she needs to kill Kerrigor, a powerful Charter Mage who uses death to conquer the living.
There’s so much in this story that reminds me of many other stories I’ve read. The strongest are Nevernight and Harry Potter. For Nevernight, it felt like obvious nods to Sabriel. First, a teenage girl who is closed to death and not phased by the ebb and flow of life. Second, the cat. Sabriel is followed by a not-cat who can unleash a terrible power (and revenge). It reminded me a lot of the animal spirit that follows Mia around.
For Harry Potter, it’s a little bit more my interpretation than hard facts. The story of Kerrigor and how he split himself from his corporeal body to live longer and be stronger reminded me a lot of horcruxes and Voldemort. I might be reaching when I say JK Rowling was inspired by Garth Nix, but I will say that the life expanding theme similar to horcruxes seems like something that existed in fantasy for quite a while.
Another big theme in this book that I see often in modern fantasy is the reluctant chosen one. Sabriel is a little more willing to accept the role of Abhorsen especially when her friends and family are in trouble. However, you can sense a hesitancy with her as if she doesn’t want to be Abhorsen (note all the times she asked people to call her Sabriel).
A friend of mine pointed out how Sabriel was her first foray into the OTP. I was completely surprised that even in 1995 authors were writing fantasy novels with two characters that fall in love with each other. Sabriel and Touchstone’s relationship definitely falls into the modern fantasy category not only as possible lovers, but also as partners who fight alongside each other.
However, the story did have some flaws. I feel so spoiled nowadays because modern fantasy dives so deeply into a world. Storytelling in general has advanced to a point where most fantasy readers know what to expect in the first book. The first book in a trilogy is always heavy with world building and slow on action. The first book isn’t supposed to share the entire story. It leaves the reader with a cliffhanger or plot devices to uncover the next book.
For Sabriel, it’s different. Instead of spending time explaining everything, Garth Nix dives right into the action. So much happens in this 350-page novel that it’s surprising Garth Nix fit everything in. First, it was finding Sabriel’s father, then it was finding Kerrigor and destroying him. All of which happens and successfully in Sabriel, which feels so weird for me.
I honestly expected this book to expand out to the two sequels and the prequel, but Garth Nix covers everything in the first book. No wonder there’s so many subsequent books explaining everything that wasn’t answered.
- 4/5 Stars