Garth Nix has arrived in Britain to the accompaniment of rave reviews from America and his native Australia. For once, the hype is justified: Sabriel is a truly unusual, gripping and well-written fantasy.
Sabriel is a sixth-form schoolgirl in Ancelstierre, a world very similar to our own at an earlier stage of industrialisation. They have electricity, cars, guns and tanks. But her school is situated close to the border with another land, one where ghosts walk, free magic runs wild, balanced magic is reached through a Charter with nature, and where all too many of the dead keep trying to return to.
In this Old Kingdom, Sabriel's father is a powerful necromancer. Rather than calling up spirits of the dead, he is one of the few dedicated to maintaining the balance of the Charter. His job is to keep the dead firmly in their own place - Death. Without him, there is no-one to stop the dead from attempting to absorb the energies of living people. When he goes missing, Sabriel has no choice but to return to the Old Kingdom and begin her search for him, even if he is already dead himself.
It takes her about half a day to realise that an enormously powerful 'Greater Dead' is responsible for her father's disappearance. Worse, it is now after her as well.
So almost immediately, Sabriel loses whatever illusions of strength and control that she had as a lordly sixth-form prefect and as the magical daughter of her father. She realises that in the real world - or unworld - she is a raw beginner trying to do an expert's job, and we learn with her as she gropes her way to understanding the dangers of the Old Kingdom, and her future role in her father's land.
The Old Kingdom is a place between. It is a magical fantasy land, situated both physically and metaphysically between the mundane Ancelstierre and the supernatural world of Death. 'Borderland' stories are nothing new. Few, however, can create such a dense atmosphere so quickly or build up a real sense of danger so successfully.
There are two main things that make Sabriel such a good book. First, it is imaginative and original, as so few fantasies nowadays turn out to be. The geography of Death is brilliant: a fiercely flowing river with a number of gates, through which flood the numberless dead. Each gate is different, and each 'precinct' is different, too. Only a powerful necromancer dares explore that terrain. The magic in Nix's land is also fascinating and internally logical, whether the balancing Charter magic, necromancy or free magic. The people Sabriel meets and the places she visits, from the atmospheric Holehallow to the 'thing' that is sometimes a talking cat, are all interesting and intriguing.
Secondly, Nix is simply a very good writer. With just a few succinct phrases he can sketch his river of death, or the trenches of the border guard, or the Old Kingdom at twilight. But he never lets his undoubted descriptive ability get in the way of a good story. And this story rockets onwards at a breathless pace. So much happens in the course of just a few pages, and a few pages after that, even more happens.
Although overall it is well-paced, perhaps the final third of the book does rush headlong towards the end. This is not a criticism: this speed reflects the frantic haste of Sabriel and her comrades to checkmate their evil opponent.
And, for once, evil is appropriately difficult to destroy. In fact, it's nearly impossible. Which is just as it should be when it is supposed to be the most powerful, dangerous threat that the land of the living has seen since the Charter was first formed. Nothing makes me angrier with a horror story than when the supposedly all-powerful demon/devil/monster is extinguished like a match as soon as a few pathetic conditions are met.
Instead, Nix has understood that if real monsters have a flaw or an Achilles heel, it is not always easy to exploit it. Even if the weakness is exploited, the monster is going to keep on fighting back. It's not going to collapse like a pricked balloon, but might inflict its worst damage when threatened and cornered.
The book also contains some real horrors: a chain-gang of slave children used as bait for the dead; the out-matched soldiers and schoolgirls struggling helplessly on, sure that they are going to lose and die; Sabriel's moral dilemmas. All the fear and gore of fighting against evil is brought out, but I liked the way it is treated in passing, part of the background, and is not dwelt upon.
To my mind, there is only one tiny flaw in the story. I thought the love interest was signalled well in advance and happened unnecessarily quickly. Perhaps this is a requirement of the genre, for Sabriel is aimed at younger readers, or older children or whatever the term is. If teenagers or young adults want a love affair in their books, that's fine by me as long as they keep on reading books of this quality.
Apart from this, there is nothing in Sabriel to point out that you are reading a so-called 'children's book'. It is sophisticated, demanding, and involving. It would be a crime if adult fantasy-lovers refuse to touch it just because it is published for younger readers.
While the story in Sabriel reaches a satisfactory resolution, there are enough loose ends to suggest that another book must be forthcoming. One mysterious character needs an explanation. Another needs a final dissolution. And there are plenty of wrongs for Sabriel to right in the unhappy Old Kingdom. And, basically, I enjoyed the book so much, I just want to know more about the people and the places Nix has invented.
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© Meredith 23 August 2002