The country of Ancelstierre exists comfortably in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Only near the northern border -- the border it shares with the Old Kingdom -- does anything seem backward or awry. Not all the soldiers who guard the Perimeter understand why they must carry swords as well as rifles, and not all the girls who attend Wyvverly College in nearby Bain are offered lessons in magic. Only when the wind blows from the north, when electricity fails and the Dead walk, is it clear that things are different on the other side of the crenellated stone Wall that marks the border -- different, and getting worse.
At this crossroads between modern realism and medieval fantasy begins Sabriel, the first book in Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy. Over a period of twenty Old Kingdom years, these three books trace the destined path of Sabriel, of her family, and of the bloodlines that bind and guard the Old Kingdom. Sabriel's father, Abhorsen, is the only necromancer who will walk the roaming Dead to their final end, and her book follows her journey to save him. Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr begins the tale of Lirael, the only girl of the Clayr clan born without the gift of clairvoyance; and of Sameth, Sabriel's son, reluctant heir to the title of Abhorsen. The two of them discover their unique talents and set out -- Lirael due to prophecy, Sam out of friendship -- to rescue a citizen of Ancelstierre from a necromancer who would unbind the entity that nearly destroyed the Old Kingdom in the past. The final book, Abhorsen, pits them and their kin against the Destroyer. These high fantasy novels achieve an uncanny blend of mythic resonance and solidity of setting that makes the stories personal and immediate, despite their grandeur of scale and style.
Near the end of eighteen-year-old Sabriel's last term at Wyvverly College, a shadowy messenger presents her with her father's sword and bandolier of necromancer's bells. Knowing that her father must be trapped beyond one or more of the Nine Gates of Death, determined to save him, Sabriel ventures into the Old Kingdom for the first time in fourteen years.
Even nature obeys different laws in the Old Kingdom; Sabriel crosses from Ancelstierre's clear, cool Spring into a cold Winter on the other side of the Wall. The Old Kingdom, after two hundred years without a ruling royal and twenty without even a regent, is slowly sinking into decay. The Dead walk, and without her father's Abhorsen skills to still them, Sabriel must take up his sword and necromancer's bells. If her father lies in death past the next full moon, the soul-hungry Dead will cross the Wall and prey upon the Ancelstierrans as well.
Magic is dangerous -- and the more powerful the magic, the greater the peril to the caster. Primal Free Magic, too strong for humans to bear, corrodes the body and the soul. Reputable mages use only Charter Magic, a logical system of marks and sounds that draws strength from the Wall, the destined bloodlines, and the Charter Stones that dot the Old Kingdom. Charter Magic seems the more wholesome and better tamed of the two -- but tame does not mean toothless. When spoken inexpertly, a Charter mark can blister the spellcaster's lips or scorch their throat. Free Magic smells of electricity and wrongness; its presence can make a Charter mage ill.
Necromancy, operating outside the Charter that keeps the Old Kingdom whole, is a special school of Free Magic; the necromancer's seven bells are tricksome, and can sound of their own accord. Only the Abhorsen can combine necromancy and Charter Magic. Each of Sabriel's seven silver bells -- and later, each of Sameth's bells and Lirael's pipes -- sounds a distinct note with its own ability to affect the living and the dead. Colloquially, they are known as Sleeper, Waker, Walker, Speaker, Thinker, Binder, and Weeper.
The characters and style, as well as the compelling plot, keep the reader riveted. Sabriel's bravery and near-saintly devotion make her admirable and sympathetic. Nix tells her story in a complex and beautiful style, but the language of even the Old Kingdom seems less formal in the books about the more ordinary Lirael and Sameth. Lirael, moping over her lack of the Sight that should be her birthright, immediately endears herself by seeming (especially in contrast to Sabriel) like a very normal fourteen-year-old. It's a pleasure to watch her grow from a miserable, cowed adolescent to a strong, quirky young woman. Sameth, who starts as a spoiled boy unwilling to follow the path before him, faces his own weaknesses and discovers a far more palatable fate than the one he fears.
Luckily, none of these heroes walks the path alone. Sabriel finds Mogget, an inherited servant to the Abhorsen line. "I was once many things, but now I am only several," he says mysteriously, but Mogget looks, acts, and (many aficionados of the feline would say) talks like a spoiled, fluffy, white cat. Mogget's cranky comments, his reluctant help, and his sly entreaties to remove his Charter-marked collar contrast neatly with Sabriel's blind bravery and Sameth's pouty resignation to being an Abhorsen-in-Waiting. While exploring one large section of the Clayr's vast Library, Lirael encounters the Disreputable Dog, a cheerful being in the large, bounding shape of a talking dog. These unpredictable characters liven up friends' journeys with their animal-like lightness -- fresh fish is as important to Mogget as a safe place to sleep, and the Dog admits she doesn't need food but never turns it down -- and each plays a part in the Old Kingdom's destiny.
At the heart of these real books lies a mythical one. The Book of the Dead can be opened only by a necromancer and closed only by a servant of the Charter. Its pages change so the reader sees what they need to see, and the reader remembers only what the book allows. Despite the Book's shifting nature, it asks every reader, "Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?"
In these books, Nix manages the rare feat of telling a world-encompassing story through the eyes of lovable, credible characters. The two countries feel equally real, and magic makes as much sense as science. He merges lofty prophecy with gritty sword fights, pits a well-conceived magical framework against World War One weaponry, and addresses Death as both a common experience and a personal one.
Likewise, reading these books is a personal experience. Different points and aspects surface with re-reading, just as the protagonists find when reading The Book of the Dead. Between the lines of the Abhorsen trilogy lies the question, "Does the reader choose the book, or the book the reader?"
Copyright © 2003 Laura Blackwell
Laura Blackwell lives near San Francisco, where she works as an editor. Her previous reviews for Strange Horizons can be found in the Archive. To contact her, send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.