Friday, January 2, 2009


Now that was a strong start for 2009 ! I really liked Garth Nix's Sabriel. Here's the summary provided by Amazon :

Sabriel attends Wyverley Girls College in Ancelstierre (Nix's version of normal) and has recently graduated with runaway firsts in every subject. But her particular school has certain extra-curricular activities, like the learning of Magic, because of its proximity to the Wall which marks Ancelstierre's border with the Old Kingdom. Over the wall, life is very different and the use of magic is commonplace. Then, on the edge of death, Sabriel's father, Abhorsen, sends her a cryptic message that means she must venture into the Old Kingdom and calm the storm that is brewing there, and which will surely multiply at her father's passing. Refusing to accept his fate, Sabriel inherits the tools of her father's trade and his name. Her new duty is to lay the disturbed dead back to rest with the help of seven powerful bells worn across the chest. Sabriel seeks her father's slayer in a mammoth journey that is hindered by dark magic, monsters-a-plenty and shadowy unsubstantial evils.

As usual with fantasy, the setting of Sabriel takes some getting used to but thankfully Garth Nix's clear prose helped me a great deal when I tried to visualize exactly where it took place. I liked that it took place in our world - albeit in the past - but with a twist. At the beginning and at the end of the novel, the setting is Wyverley College that has enough of reality to be a pretty good bridge for the characters and the readers and I think this mixture worked extremely well. The heroine is instantly likeable - she's 18 at the beginning of the novel, a prefect, with a strong sense of what's good. Not to the point of being merely yet another perfect girl we're supposed to identify with, on the contrary, she appears very real and honest. When she meets Touchstone -another very likeable character - she toys with the idea of having a relationship with him, but then thinks about all the trouble she would have to go through, including contraception, and drops the idea. I like that Garth Nix's characters have a sexuality, are round, not flat, that even in extraordinary circumstances they can still be full beings. Sabriel gets angry when Touchstone can't remember his past but her reactions are always sensible and can be fully justified. This is a heroine I'll remember.
The plot itself is of course grounded in fantasy and uses some well-known devices belonging to the genre (magic, of course, fate is discussed, the heroine has to learn about her world so we can learn with her, she has to go on a journey to save the last help she could have) and yet, I was very impressed by Garth Nix' twists on the genre : I loved the depiction of Sabriel practising Necromancy, that was very imaginative. Death is almost a whole character onto itself in this novel, and that was a welcome change, it was quite simply very interesting to learn about this world. The obligatory explanatory passages were gripping and never felt artificial, mainly because they didn't end up being monologues that took full chapters - Garth Nix took pains showing the protagonists' different reactions to the news throughout the whole book rather than throwing five pages of notes at us. I think this also helped fleshing the characters, especially Sabriel and Touchstone.
The book kept me interested throughout - I thought about His Dark Materials quite a few times, the writing is that good, no wonder Pullman wrote the blurb of the book, calling it a "winner"- and I very reluctantly put it down when I had to. It's a great story that was exciting and I am really looking forward to the sequel.