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Book Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

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How many times have you been told by friends and relatives that you just have to read the book they have just finished reading and love? I get told that a lot; I get books passed to me and I try to read them, I do. But it just seems as if they are never quite as good as promised.

Sabriel was first published in 1995 and has graced young adult as well as adult-age bookstore shelves since. I’ve walked past it, picked it up to flip pages but have always put the book down again. A few months ago a friend starts listing the greatest fantasy books ever written (in his not so humble opinion) and Sabriel happened to be on the list. So I bought myself a copy and having just finished reading what is the first book in The Abhorsen Trilogy, I have to agree.

Sabriel grows up in a boarding school in Ancelstierre, which is separated by a wall from the Old Kingdom where she was born and where her father still lives. In Ancelstierre magic is not as common as in the Old Kingdom, but Sabriel learns a little from her school and even more from her father. It is Abhorsen’s job to make sure that the dead stay dead.

While Ancelstierre seems like England in the 1930s, the Old Kingdom is solidly in some ancient time before cars and electricity. But the gift of magic gives them things that cars or electricity cannot, and the Old Kingdom’s culture is based on and around magic.

Sabriel can walk in Death and lay the dead to rest, using what is called Charter Magic. Her father has been having her learn things from The Book of the Dead, showing her the paths to walk in Death. Sabriel has known Death all her life and has never questioned her need to know these things; they are just in her blood.

On the eve of an expected visit from her father, a messenger from Death comes instead. The messenger only brings her father’s sword and necromancy bells before it disappears. Immediately Sabriel knows that her father is in trouble and she must save him.

What follows is an adventure full of zombie-like undead to be battled, secrets to be uncovered, and friends to be made. Once started, the story is so hard to put down you will read it in a few days and then pick it up to read it again.

I haven’t read such an original fantasy novel in a long time. The world is solid, whole and deftly constructed, you feel as if you would meet the people who live there and find them no different from yourself. The characters, especially Sabriel, are strong, three-dimensional people you are involved with from the first page on.

I wish that I had discovered this jewel of a novel long ago but now that I have, I too can say “You have to read this book!”

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About Katie T. Buglet

  • terry jones

    loved the Abhorsen trilogy, but one criticism: this is supposed a fantasy land, yet people play cricket, read The Times and have cars?

  • Steve-O

    I’m just a kid and i love this book it speaks to me and tells me things that i never would have thought of as a child

  • Joe

    I actually quite like the original storyline, but some of the (in honesty infantile) writing at times really made me cringe, and plot holes etc. A decent read, not even close to something I’d call quality though.

  • this guy

    this is an amazing book, the begining is slow going but the rest of it is amazing, plus whats a good bookwithout a slow beggining anyway :p

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • I would definitely agree with your take on it. The pace, especially, is set at close to neck-breaking speed, the atmosphere very dark and exciting. Definitely a stand-out fantasy novel.