Simon's Reviews > Sabriel

Sabriel by Garth Nix
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Jun 05, 12

Read in June, 2012

UPDATED BELOW. I started this and wanted to give up in frustration about one fifth of the way in. But the book gets an awful lot of love from many well-respected friends on GR and I'm tempted to give it another go. My problem was mostly with the quality of the writing, which I found awful, to be frank. There are various things that just seem wrong, although one can make out the intended sense. And there is much more that just seems heavy and clunky: odd word choices, labored explanations of the characters' thoughts, motivations, and behavior, and so on. I'd be interested to know if the book's fans here like it despite the writing, or if they differ from me in their opinion of the writing's merit. Anyway, I may come back to this when I finish "Wolf Hall," which I took up instead.

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Added on 6/5 after finishing the book:

I ended up liking the book a bit more than at the start, but not liking it greatly. I'm still somewhat mystified by the props it gets from many of my friends here on GR. As I mentioned above, I found the writing clumsy. For example, Sabriel, the heroine, refers to her father as "Dad" just once in the whole book, I think. The tone of the familiar "Dad", totally unprepared and arriving at a particularly solemn moment, was like a fart in church. Another example: “Kerrigor laughed again, an obscene cackle that rose to a manic crescendo, before suddenly cutting to an ominous silence”. The series of three adjective-noun pairs makes one feel that there’s an adjective or two too many. And the particular adjectives seem hackneyed with their respective nouns (especially the use of “obscene” with “cackle”). Also, a crescendo is a process, not a state that terminates a process. Well, rather than go on, let me make a point about….

Names. I’m reading a history of the fall of the Roman empire and many of the players, Alans, Sarmatians, Huns, etc., left no written record of their culture. Nonetheless, scholars today know something of the languages these peoples spoke owing to the preservation, in Roman histories and perhaps other places, of (personal and place) names they used. The names in Sabriel seem a bit of a mess to me. First, “Sabriel” itself, along with the names of some of the necromantic bells she wields – “Mosrael” and “Astarel” – are clearly reminiscent of Hebrew angel names like “Michael”, “Raphael” and so on. But the world building of the book involves no reference to ancient Hebrew culture. The name of the land to the south of the Old Kingdom is “Ancelstierre”, which evokes a Latin etymology that puts its meaning as something like “Land of the ancestors”. Again, why the Latinity here? The chief villain was called, in Life, Rogir, a slight twist on the Norman “Roger”; and in death, he goes by “Kerrigor”, which is a childhood nickname, an inversion of “Rogirek” (I don’t remember whether “Rogirek” was the full form of “Rogir” or itself already a game). For the greatest of the Dead to go by the backwards version of his name is… well, incongruous. Finally, there is “Abhorsen”. This is originally presented as a proper name, of Sabriel’s father. (He introduces himself thus: “I am called Abhorsen”.) Later, we learn it is actually a title. Someone is an, or the, Abhorsen. Thereafter, the use of the term wavers unstably between name and title. I can’t settle in my mind whether this is simply carelessness on the part of the author, or whether something is meant to be made of it. The issue is dwelt on enough that it seems deliberate, but I can’t figure out what its significance is. Finally, the name “Abhorsen” itself is very odd. (The) Abhorsen is, essentially, a good if feared and strange figure. But the word conjures up “abhor” and “abortion”, both very strange resonances for the character(s) involved. (It also vaguely suggests the “…son” suffix of Germanic names, to add to the Hebrew and Latin resonances of other names in the work.)

Perhaps all this agonizing about the names is misplaced. But I found it both distracting and somehow symptomatic of the failure of world building in this novel.
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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

You just hate Australians.

Just kidding! I've read this several times, although not recently, so I can only offer the vague sense that the earlier sections that take place the kingdom where Sabriel is going to school aren't as compelling. I thoroughly dug Sabriel, the character, and the treatment of death and grief. There's also a nifty exploration of the treatment of refugee populations, which seemed surprisingly political for young adult fare. But, as always, it might not be your cup of tea.


Simon Ceridwen, thanks for the comment. I've nothing against refugee issues, grief and death as topics for a novel. In fact, they all occur as themes in Marchetta's "Finnikin of the Rock" (by another Australian - interesting). It was really just the writing that was bothering me here. (One poor sentence I remember off the top of my head, something like "when she was relatively warmer", which I'm pretty sure was supposed to mean "when she was a bit warmer".) But I've pushed on a bit, and I'm finding it less rebarbative now.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I didn't think you were anti-grief/refugee/death. Just that this book doesn't really hit some of those themes hard until later. (And it is interesting that Nix and Marchetta both hit those themes - something in the Australian water? Senior paper time!) I remember liking Nix's prose, but then a much younger me read these, and then an older me that was still beholden to the younger me...etc etc.


Simon Well, as I said, I think I'll stick it out, maybe post an enlarged review when I'm done.


Simon Thanks Elizabeth. I'm pushing ahead and liking it a bit better. You and Ceridwen are among those whose liking for it made me think better of abandoning it. :)


message 6: by jo (new)

jo i like the total semiotic taking apart of your review, simon. awesomejuice. is there something in the book that you liked that that kept you reading?


Robert "Abhorsen" is the name of a minor character in Measure for Measure; he's an executioner who defends his profession. It can't be an accident that the same name turns up in the context it does in this novel. Of course that won't help with your objections to the lack of consistency in names.

Regarding the ambiguity between names and job titles I give you the following examples: Smith, Carter, Farrier, Fletcher, Mason, Weaver, Baker, Taylor and Tanner. No doubt there are numerous others.


Emilie i agree, i like your semiotic reading. i like your focus on naming. names and naming are important (and maybe more so in a novel dealing with magic for isn't that quite a lot of what magic is) and i don't think that was respected with consistency. i like when you say that "the term wavers unstably between name and title." i didn't read the rest of the books, but i interpreted this only as a way (though i wondered too if it was done out of carelessness) to show the reader how consuming the job of being an abhorsen is, to the point that it becomes inseparable from the person. i thought it spoke of a kind of loss of a personal identity, or a danger of such a loss.

i read abhorsen to mean "out of the horse". and i interpreted that as an allusion to the trojan horse.


Emilie i didn't see your comment, robert. the shakespeare reference sounds like a likely source for the name.


Robert Must have been composing comments at the same time...


Simon @Jo. Thanks. The story was OK. After a while that was enough to keep me going.

@Robert. I didn't remember that character from Measure for Measure. That must certainly be what Nix was alluding to, since (the) Abhorsen is a sort of justified executioner. However, Shakespeare must have been playing off the resonances with "abhor" and "whoreson", both appropriate (in some way) for a real executioner, but neither at all fitting for the character in Nix's book. Plus, introducing Shakespeare into the world building (along with Hebrew, Latin and Norman influences) makes it even more of a mash up. (Of course, Shakespeare is already there with the character who takes "a fool's name", Touchstone.)

With respect to Carter, Baker, and the rest... That's a good point. But they are not quite analogous to the situation in the book. For one thing, their migration from description to name occurred in the context of a system of naming that involves first and last names. So, when used descriptively, things like "Baker" and "Miller" described people who already had names, like John and Mary. Sabriel does have a name antecedently, but there's no suggestion that she is now called Sabriel Abhorsen. Anyway, you're right that it's probably more complicated than I implied originally.

@Emilie. Thanks. I hadn't thought of the horse angle! Another thing to add. LeGuin makes a big deal of the connection of magic and naming, if I remember aright. Nix doesn't seem to make that connection.


Heather! (^_^) I've probabally misunderstood the bit you're complaining about, but with the "Ancelstierre" part there is a reason in the following books which explain why it's so different to the Old Kingdom.
Until reading your review though, I always just assumed that most writers picked random words that sounded right :/


Simon I never got to the following books, Heather!


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