"Sabriel" combines horror, action, adventure and steampunk in a rich and memorable fantasy. "The Abhorsen Trilogy" should be a staple of any fantasy shelf.
The Story Unfolds
On a cold night in the Old Kingdom, a baby is born dead — and resurrected by her father, a necromancer. As the Abhorsen, it is his duty to keep the balance between Life and Death. The Abhorsen names his daughter Sabriel and sends her away from the Old Kingdom, across the Wall to the “modern" country of Ancelstierre. Eighteen years later, Sabriel is a mature young woman excellent in Fencing, competent at Etiquette and top of her class in Magic. But an ordinary education cannot prepare Sabriel for life across the Wall. When she receives a desperate message for help from her father, she has to leave Ancelstierre, cross the Border, and venture into the Old Kingdom to find and rescue him — if she can avoid falling into the same trap.
The Plot Thickens
Sabriel soon realizes that the Old Kingdom is not the place of her childhood memories. Ever since the slaughter of the Royal Family two hundred years ago, the kingdom has been ruled by anarchy. There is no law and the people live in fear of the Dead — corpses, spirits and demons animated by necromancy. The Abhorsen is gone and so is the balance of life and death.
As the Abhorsen’s daughter, it is Sabriel’s job to right the balance and restore order — but she fears she is too inexperienced to fill her father’s shoes. With the help of Mogget, the sarcastic white cat and sometimes-demon in service to the Abhorsens, Sabriel starts out to find her father. Along the way, she rescues a young man called Touchstone from a two-hundred-year enchanted sleep. Touchstone cannot remember (or refuses to remember) his true identity, but Sabriel suspects he was involved in the murder of the royal family and the downfall of the Old Kingdom. Something evil from the Kingdom's past is plotting again — and now that the Abhorsen is gone, Sabriel and her companions are all that stand in its way.
A Complex World
From early modern Ancelstierre where science governs society to the Old Kingdom where electronics don't work because of magic, the world of "Sabriel" is fascinating and memorable. Things like the Dead, Free Magic, the Charter, a family of good necromancers, and a talking cat that is really a bound demon make up the tapestry of "The Abhorsen Trilogy."
Traveling between worlds is a major theme of "Sabriel." As Abhorsens, the heroine and her father travel from Life into Death and back. Sabriel also travels between Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, two completely different worlds --- one with magic, one without. Even the seasons on either side of the Wall are different. Inside the Old Kingdom, its capital --- the last outpost of a failing society --- is protected from the Dead by water, making its own small world. Sabriel also brings Touchstone from a world of enchanted sleep back into life. The convergence of all these worlds is the climax of the book.
Theme of Death
"Sabriel" is also worth looking at for its treatment of death. When in balance with life, Death is natural. But when out of balance --- as in war, murder, or in the case of "Sabriel," necromancy --- it is terrifying. The Dead that trespass in Life are in direct opposition to the Charter --- the magic of order, life and nature. This makes the battle between Abhorsens and necromancers, their evil counterparts, important on a cosmic scale.
In "The Abhorsen Trilogy," Death (with a capital D) is a literal place the spirit goes after the body dies. Drawning on Aztec and Egyptian mythology, Garth Nix's Death is a land of nine rivers, each with a different challenge for the spirit or the travelling necromancer. Death as a river is a fairly common image in mythology, and in "Sabriel," the river realm of the Dead becomes almost a character in its own right. Fascination with death and the mystery of what comes after is a universal human question that Nix exploits very well in this novel.
Review of "Sabriel"
Unlike the heroine, you don't need to memorize "The Book of the Dead" in order to find your way through "Sabriel." Even disregarding the brilliantly constructed fantasy world, the story, characters, themes and writing make it a book well worth reading. Sabriel is a likable and sympathetic protagonist, not quite getting everything right but brave and resourceful enough to try. As for the secondary characters, Mogget's sarcasm makes for some entertaining dark humor. Touchstone develops from a mopey lackey into a layered, complicated character and potential love interest. Sabriel's father, a shadow in the background of the story, is a charismatic figure who clearly cares for his daughter despite the fact that Abhorsens don't make the best parents. The few scenes between him and Sabriel are touching. The horror elements of "Sabriel" are downright frightening --- don't read this book after dark! But despite the novel's heavy focus on Death, it is not morbid. Even in the midst of suffering, war and death, the characters never lose sight of what is important in life.
Nix, Garth. Sabriel. HarperCollins, 1995.