Phoenixfalls's Reviews > Sabriel

Sabriel by Garth Nix
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Jun 05, 11

bookshelves: fantasy, fantasy-challenge-2011, male-author, young-adult, animals, fathers, high-fantasy, quest, traveling, necromancy
Read on June 04, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

I get why a ton of people love this book. The magic system is incredibly well-developed and fairly interesting -- I may not like magic that works by a system of arbitrary rules, but I know plenty of people who read just for such things. The plot is fast-paced -- I may be tired of stories where the all of the conflict derives from the protagonist not having information that everyone else in the story has, but again, I am aware that this is simply one of my own person pet peeves. And, of course, while recent years have started remedying the defect, we have a long way to go before I start complaining about reading about too many spunky heroines, even if they're only sketchily developed.

But there were too many little things that annoyed me about this book for me to love it, or even really like it, despite the fact that I blew through it in half a day.

To start, while it's clear that Nix spent a lot of time developing the magic system, with its Charter Magic vs. Free Magic and bell ringing necromancy, I would have enjoyed the book more had he spent just as much time developing the rest of the world. The Old Kingdom is vaguely medieval England; Ancelstierre is vaguely early-20th century England; but neither place feels like more than a bare-bones sketch. And while Nix was apparently trying for a pseudo-England with more gender equality (Sabriel is takes classes in both fighting and etiquette at her posh all-girls boarding school, and it's clear that gender is no bar to Sabriel being respected as the Abhorsen) his imagination seemed to fail him in really extrapolating how different that world might be. So, for instance, there are still mores against unmarried men and women traveling together -- mores that include placing the blame all on the female partner -- and every person with any power Sabriel meets is male, and she's surprised when she finds a dead mage who is female. (The book passes the Bechdel Test on the strength of two half-page long conversations Sabriel has with female children.) The world is also strangely empty of people, which is all the more noticeable because of how many Dead there appear to be.

The prose was another negative. Most of it was fine -- nothing flashy, but serviceable. But every couple chapters there would be a horribly clunky bit of exposition that totally threw me out of things. For example:

She hadn't thought beyond her own concern for her father. Now, she was beginning to expand her knowledge of him, to understand that he was more than just her father, that he was many different things to different people.

Making this hammering of the point home worse, to me at least, is that it comes after only a single incident, not after the sort of succession of conversations implied in the text.

And while the fast-paced plot kept me turning the pages, it really cut into my appreciation of Sabriel as a character. She's traveling for weeks, but because of what I can only assume is a horror of pages of dialogue, the only time she's shown trying to figure out the puzzles set before her or interrogate the people who are clearly withholding information from her is when she's about to be interrupted by yet another attack. At one point she and two other characters spend six days at sea -- but only start to discuss their plans for when they put to shore as they're entering a harbor, so of course their conversation gets cut off. This left me with the impression that she was doing no thinking at all, just falling from one disaster into another and making it out mostly through blind luck and the deus ex machina of her father's plans.

Still, Nix did keep me turning the pages, even if he used a trick like ending the chapters in the middle of the action scenes to do it. And the magic, particularly the bell ringing, was fascinating. And this novel was published early in his career (I think it's his second?), so it's quite likely that he improved in at least some of those areas. I wouldn't recommend against this novel, or Nix in general; it just was not strong enough for me to be excited for it.
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