Mike's Reviews > Sabriel

Sabriel by Garth Nix
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Jan 04, 2009

it was amazing

One advantage of having a daughter who likes to read is that you get to read a lot of books that you wouldn't otherwise read. Or might be embarassed to admit to.

Most of Garth Nix's books are written to trick pre-adolescent boys who don't like reading into closet bookishness. But Sabriel is strikingly different (along with the other Abhorsen books). It's got lots of pseudo-gothic claptrap: "first the plucking of an eye," and stuff like that. (There's even more in the later books). But underneath that machinery, it's a very tender story of a girl growing into maturity, coming to terms with both her absent father and her own responsibility. That story is told sensitively and well, so it's easy to read around the gore.

Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, a hereditary officer of the Old Kingdom responsible for making sure the dead stay dead. (In a kingdom that's evidently plagued by rampant necromancy, keeping the dead dead is a serious problem). She's spent much of her life in an elite girl's school in a country somewhat like England, largely because of the dangers of her father's position. Just before graduation, she finds that her father is has been trapped in Death; after discovering him, they get to spent "a hundred hundred heartbeats" together--which is devoted largely to planning how to defeat the monster Kerrigor. It's a short scene, but you get to see Sabriel's resentment at her father's inability to separate himself from his office. And his response that the responsibilities of his office have never prevented him from loving her; but that now their relationship is one of the dying Abhorsen to the new. And the magic of the novel is seeing her grow from a girl whose biggest questions are University (what will the boys be like?) to a woman with real responsibility.

I've wondered whether Sabriel isn't attractive just because it takes the shape of a traditional masculine Bildungsroman, translated into feminine terms: is Sabriel just a boy in skirts? She does, after all, carry a sword for much of the book. Sabriel's mother died in childbirth, conveniently allowing Nix to avoid mother-daughter issues. But I don't think that's it. Not so many years ago, a novel in which a young girl matures to become her father's successor would be have been inconceivable. Fictional girls aren't just the passive creatures of fairy tale: they're allowed to have destinies, they do take up offices that require considerable sacrifices, and they do fall in love, but on their own terms. Sabriel isn't the first fantasy centered around a woman, but it might be the best.

Sabriel is the most successful of the Abhorsen series, which continues with Lirael and Abhorsen, both of which are enjoyable, though not quite as good. The Disreputable Dog, who appears in the latter two books, is priceless. Abhorsen leaves room for a sequel, and Nix has written at least one short story that takes place after the end of Abhorsen, so I resist the idea that the Abhorsen series is a completed trilogy.
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