Garth Nix, Sabriel (HarperTrophy, 1996)
Garth Nix, Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr (HarperTrophy, 2002)
Garth Nix, Abhorsen (Eos, 2003)
"One of the Greater Dead! It came behind us, almost from the Wall. We couldn’t turn back. It has servants, Hands, a Mordicant!"
The first novel in Garth Nix’s trilogy is for those who like their fantasy served straight up. The literary equivalent of scotch with no ice, it might burn on the way down, but it feels good in the belly. Sabriel, the lead character, is an 18-year-old girl whom we first encounter properly at Wyverley College, established in 1652 for young ladies of quality. One of Sabriel’s qualities is that she is the daughter of Abhorsen the Abhorsen, which is a specialised type of necromancer. Abhorsens see dead people, then kick their rotting backsides. Sabriel’s first steps into Death were when she was twelve. The Abhorsen, served by Sendings made from Charter Magic and a talking cat named Mogget, operates from a small island home. This is tucked away in the decaying and magical Old Kingdom, a place which is both physically and metaphysically partitioned from Ancelstierre, an early 20th century industrialised region. On one side of the Wall magic works, on the other it doesn't, except when the wind blows from the North.
The author’s great strength lies in his ability to quickly create a believable world that is familiar, yet also unsettling. Nix’s characterization is strong, and his storytelling technique sound as a pound. The plot is sprinkled with references to creatures, Old Kingdom history, and places which do not feature directly in Sabriel’s tale, thus expanding the general theme without detracting from the action. All that is stopping Sabriel from being a classic is a sense that parts of the plot are a little formulaic, and there’s no humour. A significant element of sardonic absurdity would have been very welcome. But the absence of light relief is offset by an absolutely cracking pace. This is not a book to make anyone yawn, nor at 491 pages, is it over too quickly. So if you're looking for recherché fantasy, Sabriel is the girl for you. Unless, that is, you're one of the undead.
"There’s so much to see and smell here! Whole levels of the library that no one has been into for a hundred, a thousand years! Locked rooms full of ancient secrets. Treasure! Knowledge! Fun! Do you want to be just a Third Assistant Librarian all your life?"
Beginning fourteen years after the events portrayed in Sabriel, the story concerns two central characters. The first is Lirael, of the precognitive bloodline known as the Clayr. Unusually for a girl of her age, she does not have the Sight. What she does have is the Disreputable Dog, a Free Magic creature, and her only real friend. Counterpoint to Lirael’s story is the life of the teenage Prince Sameth, the son of two characters from the first novel. Sameth is not keen to assume the dangerous duties that are his birthright, which makes a nice change from the usual reading of a fantasy prince. But what he lacks in standard issue, he fails to make up for in other ways. Too often there seems to be no special reason for him being around, and he’s regularly upstaged by the four-legged cast members.
At 705 pages, this is a monster of a sequel. Nix has more room for development, levity, and back history. Much of what was good about the first book is equally good in this one, but unfortunately there are problems. One being a feeble plot device which is used to keep two major characters out of the way, and another that sees the principal enemy go missing soon after his introduction. This character is essentially absent for hundreds of pages. We get hints as to what he’s up to, and a revelation in the last few pages. However, in a book this big there was space aplenty for up close and personal detail about the Big Bad. Lirael herself is an excellent character, and the book is filled with bright spots, but ultimately the story didn't quite deliver all that it had promised.
"No!" Shouted a voice that was not instantly recognisable as Mogget’s. "No!"
"Run!" roared the Dog. Amidst the shouts and yells and roaring, the Charter light above Lirael’s head suddenly dimmed to little more than a faint glow. Then it went out.
With plot threads that wrap themselves around your throat, sometimes like fingers in a velvet glove, every so often like a garrotte, Abhorsen picks up exactly where Lirael left off. The main characters now have a clear mission, and from the start we have a much better idea as to how Prince Sameth fits into the grand scheme of things. The Disreputable Dog and Mogget the cat are once again featured, becoming vital characters, with the latter doing a tongue-in-cheek cameo appearance as what might be a cousin to Gollum. Evil too, is given its turn in the spotlight, producing a threat which feels like spiders on the skin.
At 351 pages Abhorsen is the shortest of the three books, but eloquently proves the old saying that size doesn't matter. Indeed, although it’s half as big as Lirael, it’s twice the book. Nix’s storytelling is compelling, and the tightly focused plot means that there’s none of the meandering which bedeviled its predecessor. Care has also been taken to make peripheral characters into people, helping to avoid "red jersey syndrome." The subtle combinations and balances serve to set this book above the other two, and enable it to shine with a rare light. The precision of plot and quality of editing produces a clarity which can almost be tasted, like the dangerous tang of Free Magic. The conclusion is suitably climactic and provides a definitive end to this story, while offering a glimpse as to what direction the author might take, should he ever return to the Old Kingdom.
In summary, if I may drop into Swiss Tony mode, this trilogy was very much like making love to a beautiful woman. Sabriel smouldered with the promise of fire beneath. Lirael was hours of slow foreplay. Abhorsen arched its back like a cat and screamed "Read me. Read me now!" Unable to resist, I ended the session bathed in afterglow, and wearing a smile of satisfaction.