by Garth Nix

Review by
William H. Stoddard
HarperCollins: New York, 1995
304 pages
July 2006


I first picked up Sabriel not long after it came out, and gave it a quick glance to see if it looked worth reading — I had already read enough formulaic fantasy, even back then, to be reluctant to buy any more fantasy novels. Nix charmed me as early as page 3, with his list of his heroine's scholastic record at her girls' boarding school:

... first in English, equal first in Music, third in Mathematics, seventh in Science, second in Fighting Arts and fourth in Etiquette. She has also been a runaway first in Magic, but that wasn't printed on the certificate.

Bear in mind that this was two years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; scholastic themes in fantasy weren't original with Nix, but they weren't yet an obvious formula of the genre.

Sabriel proved not to be formulaic at all — certainly not to follow the most prevalent formula in current genre fantasy, which is based on the imitation of Tolkien. His writing creates its own formula. Central to this is a novel and fascinating concept of magic, which divides it into Charter Magic, the basis of ordered life and even of the regularities of "natural law," and Free Magic, an older and more dangerous power. Later books in the same world of the Abhorsen series give more of the history behind the two; this volume simply sketches out their basic opposition, and the different styles they imply, with Free Magic being a raw outpouring of power and will, while Charter Magic is an art that must be studied. The dangers of Free Magic are the main force that drives this book's plot.

Sabriel's own education is relevant to her characterization: her knowledge of music, of fighting arts, and of magic all come into the story of this book. But this story isn't confined to the environment of a school. Rather, it's the story of a young woman leaving her school and going out into the world, to discover adult life, like Jane Eyre or Becky Sharp — though a younger Harriet Vane, had Dorothy Sayers written about her life after school and before Peter Wimsey, would be a better comparison than either.

Unlike any of them, though Sabriel's journey is into a world of powerful magic and archaic customs. This is a novel of apprenticeship, but it's also a quest, started with Sabriel's receiving a ghostly message of her father's peril and showing her discovery of her own heritage. That heritage involves learning not only to wield Charter Magic, but to call on certain of the powers of Free Magic, and to deal with the spirits of the dead, especially the restless dead who threaten the living. One of the boundaries that Free Magic weakens is the boundary between life and death, making possible undead creatures quite unlike the traditional vampires, ghosts, and mummies — and making it necessary for someone to protect the living against them.

(Incidentally, Sabriel also came out about a year before the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which portrayed a rather different heroine with a similar ancient heritage.)

Nix's sense of characterization is a large part of what makes Sabriel work. He shows Sabriel as both skilled and intelligent, but unaware of much of her own heritage, and a little naive in general, especially in her dealings with Touchstone, a young man she rescues midway through the story. Her quest gets her in over her head; her own fortitude, more than anything else, is what sustains her. That far, I suppose, this book is a little Tolkienian — but at a very abstract level; all the specifics are different. And the vividness with which Nix imagines those specifics, more than anything else, made this book one I can read over and over with continued pleasure.


© 2006 William H. Stoddard

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