I like a little sugar in my tea, a smidgen of cheese on that cracker, some garnish on a salad (but not too much) and ... (running out of food metaphors)... something novel in a novel.
If you’re in the mood for a roller-coaster ride of cheap thrills and instant gratification save Sabriel for another day.
Garth Nix introduces his fabulous world in rather more reserved prose than is the norm’ for fantasy authors but, like the insidious and glacial river which draws souls through the nine gates into eternal death, this book quietly pulled me under but spat me out a few days later - straight into the sequel.
Admittedly, I have a particular affection for fantasy books which take inspiration from England’s borderlands and Scotland. I live in Northumberland (the northernmost region of England), very close to Hadrian’s Wall and the border with Scotland so this setting always serves to bring me closer to the author’s fantastical creation (“I’m a Stark”; “I’m Harry Potter – watch me fly my broomstick around Alnwick Castle... sorry... Hogwarts”; “I’m an Abhorsen – watch me cross the wall” ... that kind of thing). In this respect Sabriel had a head start with me, but that head start was not squandered.
Sabriel, the main and titular character is amazing – I loved her. This girl gets shit done. Even better she does it without constant reflection on her feelings, or someone else’s feelings towards her, or someone else’s feelings about the shit that needs to be done. I wouldn't describe her as ‘kick-ass’, as others have done, particularly since that phrase has somewhat repellent connotations for me. For instance, she makes more than her fair share of balls-ups given that she is thrown into a situation well beyond her skills, training and experience but she picks herself up (OK, once or twice someone else picks her up) and carries on. She is also refreshingly capable of asking the right questions and makes ample use of this magical skill (it is a magical skill isn't it, since so many fantasy characters seem incapable of doing it? Or is it a mundane skill and because they are in fantasy-land the same rules don’t apply?) She is admirable, worthwhile, tough, astute, career-driven (her career just happens to be putting the risen-dead to rest) and somewhat stoic. Some reviewers seem to have been put off by the latter characteristic - someone even called her flat; since she is my new, joint first-place, YA fantasy heroine (taking her place alongside Aria Stark), I am evidently not among them. I was delighted by her self-possession, it was a refreshing antidote to the angst-overload of some recent YA fantasy.
By Sabriel’s side throughout is Mogget – a ‘free magic’ creature bound by ‘charter magic’ into the form of a talking cat. I am enamoured with cats who don’t talk, so cats who do are a bonus. Mogget is the comic relief to Sabriel’s sobriety but whilst Sabriel’s story, motivations and character are clearly defined, Mogget is an enigma. I did love him but he aroused the same suspicions as my own cat does – that he would fuck his owner up if he were big enough.
The ‘zombie’ foes are suitably horrifying, although I am reticent to call them zombies as they are rather more complicated, varied and often more disturbing than classical zombies – perhaps ‘zombie demon’ is a more accurate term.(show spoiler)
The romantic aspects are gentle, understated, credible and an uninvasive backdrop to the real story. It is love the way it should more often be portrayed in YA fantasy; supportive, gradual, patient, kind and cherishing without being obsessive. Garth Nix successfully conveyed the sweet inevitability of love blossoming without ramming it down my throat and triggering my gag-reflex. Again, this was a most welcome and refreshing change.
I did have a couple of reservations. There is a point in the book where it would be prudent and possible for a character to share a piece of vital information. The character that has this information but fails to share it excuses himself by saying ‘I forgot’, which was extremely irritating of him. Also, I have to admit, that at times the fast-paced action and heart-pounding moments were somewhat stifled under the weight of Nix’s pragmatic tone – thankfully he did throw caution to the wind a few times which created an invigorating juxtaposition to his usual poise. I imagine he is a proponent of the saying, ‘Always leave them wanting more’.
The cover is fantastic (not the portrait cover, but the one with the symbol on it). You can’t see it in the photograph but it has shiny, little charter marks all over it which become visible or invisible depending on the light - magical!
In conclusion, Sabriel is a sincere, thoughtful and very promising introduction to a series. Of late so many series/trilogies have started with such ceremonial vigour only to promptly flounder on the treacherous rocks of serialisation. In contrast, Sabriel is a modest story, built upon the strong foundation of fascinating characters and a complex, imaginative world of innovative magical and political systems, all of which has enormous scope for further books. It raised hundreds of questions and I cared enough about the answers to dive straight into the sequel. Moreover, this book does not make use of a soap-opera-style, tune-in-next-time cliff-hanger; it simply does not need to rely on such mechanisms. This particular story is complete, my knowledge of the world is not and the information I seek is out there.