“Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him. She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories.
As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death – and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.”
If nothing else, Garth Nix’s Sabriel treats the reader to a Strong Female that is not A) emotionless, B) fundamentally opposed to All Men, Ever, or C) in possession of a trademark tragic past that will inevitably – and tragically – influence every future interaction, related or not, that she is unlucky enough to have. For that reason alone it’s a breath of fresh air, and a worthy contribution to a genre to a contribution that has, arguably, become somewhat bogged down with the exact opposite.
That’s it – that’s the review.
Well, not quite. There is, of course, more.
For instance, Sabriel is, at least in some sense, a combination of the coming of age story and the journey of self-discovery, complete with a quest, awkward and mostly unhelpful relatives, and a cat with a dubious attitude towards hard work, travel, and the truth. Yet although Sabriel – the main character from whom the title of the book is derived – undoubtedly experiences enough to encourage change, and although Sabriel gains both strength and confidence throughout the entirety of the novel, it is by no means an easy, inevitable, measurable process. She experiences setbacks and failures, takes one step forwards and at least three – potentially even a leap – backwards worryingly regularly, and even at the conclusion of the novel experiences and displays the kind of realistic emotional responses that many similar novels steer well clear of unless they happen to involve the opposite sex.
Which is, needless to say, a little bit dull.
Additionally, although as I’ve previously mentioned – or should have mentioned, as my intended structure for this was chucked out long ago, alongside a particularly shocking title – Sabriel does change and develop, she doesn’t magically become a good person, free of the flaws that plagued her at the start of the novel, and suddenly in possession of every single skill that she previously lacked. Neither does she turn into a paragon of moral virtue, whatever one of those happens to be, or discover her confidence, belief, and power all in one measly afternoon.
Not to sound like a cliché self-help book, but her development is into a better version of herself. She changes, and grows, but she remains ultimately recognisable, an interesting, layered character, developed well, and portrayed consistently.
She also falls in love, which is far from a revelation, I’m aware, but it’s not presented as the most important plot aspect – in fact, it’s hardly a plot point at all. It simply happens, quite naturally, alongside the action, as two hitherto unattached people become aware of exactly what feelings have developed over the course of the unexpected acquaintance. It neither eclipses the plot, nor detracts from the importance of Sabriel’s personal growth. Both Sabriel and Touchstone are fully developed as independent characters before any hint of romance as introduced.
The only aspect of the novel that I didn’t like – I’ve finished waxing lyrical about it, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know – is the pacing. It starts slowly; setting the scene very deliberately, and then seems to rush ahead as soon as Sabriel crosses the wall. It more or less fluctuates between the two speeds throughout the novel, and although there’s more than enough description to set each scene, and more than enough imagery to encourage the reader to become thoroughly immersed, the jarring pace ruined that aspect for me.
To conclude, then, I enjoyed Garth Nix’s Sabriel for many, many reasons, not least of which is the introduction of a strong heroine given shape not by a sudden inexplicable romance, but by her own development. Although there are aspects that I think work less well, they do not detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel.