Sabriel by Garth Nix (1995) 491 p.
Garth Nix is one of Australia’s most well-regarded writers of young adult fantasy, and the Old Kingdom trilogy is apparently considered one of his best works. I’ve been meaning to read more young adult fiction lately, so I picked up the first book in the trilogy, Sabriel.
A disappointment. Sabriel follows the titular protagonist through her adventures as she leaves the nation of Ancelstierre, analogous to early twentieth century England, and ventures north into the Old Kingdom, a dark and mysterious land of magic. Her father, a sort of reverse-necromancer titled the Abhorsen who is tasked with laying the dead to rest in the Old Kingdom, has been imprisoned in the land of the dead and now something evil is heading south to Ancelstierre.
I dislike reading about magic. I like fantasy, I like made-up stuff, but reading about the mechanics of spell-casting is like reading about chemistry or physics – it just isn’t interesting. From Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, I’ve never been anything but bored by novels that make magic a centrepiece of the plot (with the notable exception of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, because she focuses more on the world and the political and social ramifications of magic than on the magic itself). Unfortunately, Sabriel is virtually overflowing with magic. Every main character is a magician or magical creature, and we’re treated to long and tedious passages where Sabriel uses spells and wardings and blah blah blah to fight creatures of the Dead. That was another thing – the Old Kingdom lies in ruins, a post-apocalyptic winter wasteland ravaged by horrible undead monsters. Yet Nix fails to instil any sense of horror or dread, and not through lack of trying.
There was nothing absolutely terrible about this book, but nor was there anything that rose above mediocre. The characters were bland. The world was uninteresting. The prose was unremarkable (and good prose is not too much to expect of a young adult novel; Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve both have an excellent command of visual language). I don’t recommend Sabriel, and I doubt I’ll bother reading the sequels.