Book review

Sabriel by Garth Nix (1995)

part one of the Old Kingdom trilogy

In Sabriel's world there is a wall which stretches from coast to coast and which protects Ancelstierre in the south from the Old Kingdom in the north. There is a crossing point in the wall into the Old Kingdom, though it is heavily guarded, and still magic seeps across into Ancelstierre.

What kind of magic? Charter magic. And uncontrolled Free Magic. There are other crossing points too. For instance, sometimes the Dead cross back into Life. And Sabriel can pass from Life into Death, for she is an Abhorsen.

There is always an Abhorsen. Not so much a family name as a rank. Sabriel's father is Abhorsen, the Charter Mage, whose job it is to protect the living from the Dead; to banish the Dead to Death. It is a difficult and dangerous job, and when Abhorsen is trapped in Death by an opponent more powerful than he, his only recourse is to send a messenger to Sabriel for help:

She opened the sack and reached inside. A sword hilt met her grasp, so she drew it out, still scabbarded, and put it to one side. She didn't need to draw it to see the Charter symbols etched along its blade - the dull emerald in the pommel and the worn bronze-plated cross-guard were as familiar to her as the school's uninspired cutlery. It was Abhorsen's sword.
The leather bandoleer she drew out next was an old brown belt, a hands-breadth wide, which always smelled faintly of beeswax. Seven tubular leather pouches hung from it, starting with one the size of a small pill bottle; growing larger, till the seventh was almost the size of a jar. The bandoleer was designed to be worn across the chest, with the pouches hanging down. Sabriel opened the smallest and pulled out a tiny silver bell, with a dark, deeply-polished mahogany handle. She held it gently, but the clapper still swung slightly and the bell made a high, sweet note that somehow lingered in the mind, even after the sound was gone.
"Father's instruments", whispered Sabriel. "The tools of a necromancer."

Sabriel has learned much from her father about necromancy and Charter magic, but she is still unsure of herself and her own powers when she sets off for the Old Kingdom in search of him ...

It's a bigger task than she reckoned though. This is a brilliant story full of superior magic, high drama and moments of humour. It goes straight into my list of Ten Best Books Ever. Earnestly recommended!

Horyse looked at her, thinking that she no longer reminded him of his own daughter. She had become Abhorsen, a person beyond his ken, in such a short time ...

What can I read next?

If you enjoy Sabriel you'll love the sequels:

If you enjoy taking your magic seriously, you have a wide range of books to choose from. If you have not already read Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, you should have a look:

If you like Sabriel's job of hunting ghoulies and ghosties, I think you would most likely enjoy this one by Chris Wooding:

Or you might like to look at this one by Peter Dickinson:

For serious magic, I still think Ursula Le Guin sets a benchmark. Have a look at her Earthsea series:

Or, of course, there is the other benchmark, by J R R Tolkien:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Sabriel features in these lists: