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Tabula Rasa

Sabriel

by Garth Nix, Allen & Unwin, 2001 (1995), ISBN 1-86508-040-3

A review by David Carroll

Sabriel cover'A kiss,' said Mogget sleepily. 'Actually, just a breath would do. But you have to start kissing someone sometime, I suppose.'

Sabriel is a necromancer, and as such is caught between two worlds. In her case, the worlds are Ancelstierre, where she grew up, and the Old Kingdom, where charter magic holds sway and her destiny lies.

There has been plenty of fantasy where the protagonists start off in the modern day before being plunged into strange and magical realms. Guy Gabriel Kay's masterful Fionavar Tapestry, Stephen Donaldon's adventures of Thomas Covenant, King and Straub's The Talisman, and even the D&D cartoon spring immediately to mind. Garth Nix's Sabriel has a different premise. Ancelstierre is obviously a stand-in for a slightly rarefied version of our world, complete with cars and electricity, girls schools for the teaching of etiquette, and a modern military force. The difference here is that the girls school also teaches magic, and the doorway into the realm of fantasy is actually a very long wall, guarded by barbed wire, trenches, and men with guns. Trouble is, they also carry swords and chainmail, since technology tends to break down when the wind blows from the north. Such a build-up isn't quite as hostile as it might seem -- when Sabriel returns to the Old Kingdom of her birth, she is let through because she happens to have a passport.

With all this set-up, Nix takes his heroine from the girls school into an adventure of corrupted sorcerers, talking cats, royal betrayal, magical flying machines, lots and lots of undead beasties, and a quest for adulthood and responsibility. Already a powerful magician -- well, she did come first in her class -- Sabriel must navigate all these strange perils and discover the truth about herself, her esteemed ancestors, and the limits of an Ancelstierre education.

And, perhaps strangely enough, it all works really well. Most telling is all the wonderful detail about magic that is conveyed in relatively easy steps through the novel. I have read an interview with the author where he says that he doesn't like to quantify the rules of magic too much, or it simply isn't magic any more, but here he creates an almost rigorous system that seems both very natural, and equal to all the mystique that magic implies. The seven bells of the necromancer, with their separate function and quirks, are the most detailed, along with the nature of death and undeath. Other aspects of the art, including the intricacies of charter magic and the mysterious Clayr, are offered in more measured doses. By no means are all the questions raised given answers, which is of course a good thing (not to mention, will help the next two books in the trilogy along).

The other thing that particularly enamoured me to this book was the attitude of Sabriel herself. The inclusion of Ancelstierre seems a slightly strange one, to start with. The point of starting your protagonist on Earth is so you have a common point of reference with your audience, and can quickly move into stranger realms. It is less obvious why moving Sabriel from her school life of magic and swordplay into a different fantasy world should be as effective. Yet is does work, possibly because Nix seems to know exactly how much to say and not say about the different environments. The world-weary soldier stationed at a northern outpost, having to contend with orders from generals who have never been within a thousand miles of the undead menace, is a great character regardless of the precise nature of his world. Likewise, I loved the scene where Sabriel approaches the wall, full of foreboding of the perils she might meet beyond it, only to have to avoid a tourist bus. And Sabriel herself is a great mixture of pragmatism and naivety. She keeps her etiquette in mind (if not always in check) as she has to cope with naked young princes and people trying to kill or idolise her.

The purer strains of fantasy work as well. The talking cat -- usually a rather embarrassing staple of juvenilia -- works through a mixture of good dialogue and latent psychosis. Similarly the tropes of decaying kingdoms, deserted villages and manifest destiny are all put to good use. The various revelations all seem to make sense, and the finale was set-up in a careful and non-obvious fashion. Although released for young adults, it's also a brutal story, not flinching from the consequences of many of its nastier moments, and avoiding contrivance. Reviewing it in a site dedicated to horror seems entirely appropriate.

It's not all good stuff, perhaps. Some of the writing in the first half seems to need just another polish to remove a bit of clumsiness and repetition. Another slight complaint is that the initial introduction to our heroine concludes with this:

Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.

That's certainly an interesting stance, indicating some reluctance to her chosen path. Trouble is, that reluctance to practice necromancy never seems to surface through the rest of the book. I realise it's a mere two sentences, but it does come at a crucial point.

But on the whole, Sabriel is a fine achievement. It's also had a good deal of well-earned success, with two Australian editions and two US editions as well, leading to the sequels Lirael and the forthcoming Abhorsen. Garth has also more recently got himself an interesting looking deal, leading to a sequence of smaller books called The Seventh Tower series. Back to the book in question, the edition I have of it (second Australian) has a beautiful cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, and makes a handsome volume. It also makes an interesting comparison with another acclaimed novel from 1995. Philip Pullman lends his praise to Sabriel on the back cover, an appropriate choice given his own pragmatic heroine from a world caught between magic and technology, Lyra Belacqua from the extraordinary Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass).

Pseudo-European fantasy seem to be the great escape for many modern Australian genre authors, as even the SF crowd are starting to produce trilogies of towers and mages. Fortunately or not, it is where the market is heading, and after the success of the movie with the ring, that's probably not going to change in a hurry. Garth Nix seems to have found this niche naturally, and gotten a good lead on most of the competition. Give Sabriel a go.

 

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