I’ve always been curious about Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy (Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen) because a friend of mine from college (hello, Tintin!) has been raving about it since we were in school — I remember her sneak-reading it in class, and I remember she even bought the cassette audiobooks and we listened to it in her car!
I’ve had the set sitting in my TBR pile for ages; I’ve always thought it was a bit too high fantasy for my taste. As you might have read in past posts, I balk at fantasy with unpronounceable names, made up languages, and maps; I usually prefer fantasy with some semblance of reality in it. But I listed Garth Nix in my A-Z Challenge purposely so I would be forced to read at least the first book of the trilogy, and I’m so glad I did.
Sabriel is the daughter of Abhorsen, the title given to a bloodline tasked with maintaining the demarcation between life and death. Sabriel is raised away from her father, in a college in the nation of Ancelstierre on the border of the magical Old Kingdom, maintaining contact with him through his regular physical and metaphysical visits.
One night, on Sabriel’s last year at Wyverley College, her father fails to appear for his scheduled visit, and instead Sabriel encounters a spirit sending, bearing her father’s sword and bandolier (a belt hung with bells that serve as the Abhorsen’s tool for necromancy). This sending could only mean one thing — her father was either dead or trapped in the world of the dead, and Sabriel is determined to save him. But a great evil is lurking in the shadows, threatening Sabriel’s world, and she must face up to her destiny as the next Abhorsen.
For something I forced myself into reading, and something I wasn’t prepared to like, I sure as heck enjoyed reading this book! The workings of the Old Kingdom and its concept of magic aren’t easy to get into, but the characters are quite engaging: Sabriel is fiercely kick-ass, her cat companion Mogget is an endearing sourpuss, and her swordman Touchstone (originally a half-dead man trapped in the figurehead of a ship, whom she brings back to life) is one of the hottest guys I have ever read about in a book (did I mention she finds him naked?).
The story moves along at an exciting pace, with Sabriel and her team battling the undead Dead throughout their quest, and we get to know the lay of the land in the Old Kingdom — how Charter magic was formed, the different bells (Ranna, Mosrael, Kibbeth, Dyrim, Belgaer, Saraneth, and Astarael) used by necromancers to send the dead back beyond the ninth gate, lessons from the grimoire “The Book of the Dead,” the end of the royalty, the various bloodlines in the Old Kingdom, as well as the supernatural creatures that exist in it.
Quite unexpectedly, one of the highlights in this novel is the brewing romance between Sabriel and Touchstone. I must say, their moments are few and far between (no time for mush when there’s a horde of Dead baddies to send back into the Other world, and verbosity isn’t Nix’s style), but the chemistry sizzles between the lines, and I must say the book has one of the best kissing scenes I have ever read — I was literally holding my breath at this point
Sabriel and Touchstone both stopped, almost in mid-stride. They felt a terrible urge to leave their bodies, to shuck them off as so much worn-out baggage. Their spirits– their essential self — wanted to go, to go into Death and plunge joyfully into the strongest current to be carried to the very end.
‘Think of Life!’ screamed Sabriel, her voice only just audible through the pure note. She could feel Touchstone dying, his will insufficient to hold him in Life. He seemed almost to expect this sudden summons into Death.
‘Fight it!’ she screamed again, dropping her sword to slap him across the face. ‘Live!’
Still he slipped away. Desperate, she grabbed him by the ears and kissed him savagely, biting his lip, the salty blood filling both their mouths. His eyes cleared and she felt him concentrate again, concentrate on Life, on Living. His sword fell and he brought his arms up around her and returned her kiss. then he put his head on her shoulder, and she on his, and they held each other tightly till the single note of Astarael slowly died.
Siiiiiiiigh (hahaha pardon this very girly moment!)…
I also found I could relate to Sabriel’s disbelief and grief about her father’s passing (I lost my dad when I was eleven, and a friend’s dad passed away this week), and I got a bit teary-eyed when he says his final words to Sabriel:
‘I have not been an ideal parent, I know,’ Abhorsen said quietly. ‘None of us ever is. When we become the Abhorsen we lose much else. Responsibility to many people rides roughshod over personal responsibilities; difficulties and enemies crush out softness; our horizons narrow. You are my daughter and I have always loved you. But now I live again for only a short time — a hundred hundred heartbeats, no more — and I must win a battle against a terrible enemy. Our parts now, which perforce we must play — are not father and daughter, but one old Abhorsen, making way for the new. But behind this, there is always my love….
… ‘You are the fifty-third Abhorsen, Sabriel. I have not taught you as well as I should — let this be my final lesson. Everyone and everything has a time to die.’
Sabriel was a delightful discovery, and I can’t believe it took me so long to read this series! I look forward to reading Lirael and Abhorsen soon; I have a feeling this series gets even better in the next books!
Sabriel, trade paperback (P201 at National Book Store), 4/5 stars
Book #152 for 2010, N for the A-Z Challenge