I first read Garth Nix’s Sabriel sometime in the late 90s, when it was just a stand-alone fantasy novel, before it was the first book in the Old Kingdom Series. I have read it several times since. This is good old-fashioned high fantasy done with surprising depth and invention.
This is a world split between the Old Kingdom of Magic and a more modern world called Ancelstierre, clearly modeled on England. These two realms are divided by a fantasy version of Hadrian’s Wall, which keeps magic and monsters in the Old Kingdom. This is a world populated by spirits of the dead of numerous shapes and sizes. The title character is the latest in a long line of necromancers, but these were no ordinary necromancers. Called the Abhorsen (a title Nix took from an obscure Shakespeare character. Always a good place to shop for names) they possess the same knowledge and skills as other necromancers, but they do not raise the dead, but rather ensure that the dead remain so. This intricate system of necromancy revolving around the ringing of magical and extremely dangerous bells, and the mythology around death and the realms and gates of death, are two of the greatest assets of the book. Nix clearly spent a great deal of time and thought in constructing a world bound by consistent rules. He has the gift for suggesting a wealth of history and depth with only a stray sentence or an offhand remark. This is why he was able to later return to this world and expand it into a trilogy and a collection of short stories.
The novel itself is well written. Sabriel is an intelligent, proactive young woman who has spent much of her life outside of danger, but who, in the nature of heroines, comes into her own and discovers her element. There is an element of cliché to her arc, especially her romance with the lost heir to the throne, Touchstone, but she never becomes simply a cypher. Her arc may be familiar at times, but she remains a rounded character. Touchstone is a well-executed version of the lost prince, albeit an amnesiac one. It is the third member of their quest, however, who more or less steals the book, and subsequently the entire series. This is, of course, the talking cat, Mogget, or rather, an ancient sardonic and dangerous spirit in the shape of a cat. Mogget is the most memorable and certainly the most fun of the cast of characters.
Rereading Sabriel I find it to be as engrossing, fast paced, and fun as I did when I first read it over 10 years ago. It’s not a perfect book, Nix was still developing as a writer, but any novel that can hold-up under multiple rereadings over a wide gap of years is certainly doing something right.
This is one of those novels that I would love to see the movie (or indeed tv) version of. There were rumors back in 2008, but like so many would-be adaptations it appears to have died and gone to “in development” limbo…