Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, including Sabriel (1995), Lirael (2001), and Abhorsen (2003), is usually referred to as a fantasy series. However I have always considered the trilogy to be science fiction, and because the definition for the genre is so vague I will continue to think of it that way. Regardless of category the series is amazing, and I hope that my blog entices you all to go out and buy it.
Sabriel, the first book in the trilogy, continues to be one of my favorite novels almost a decade after I first encountered it. I read it at least twice a year, and I still remember exactly how and when I discovered it.
I spent the majority of my middle school experience in the library, reading a novel or two each day. My school library did not have a science fiction section, so my selection process involved picking through the general fiction section until I found an interesting title or cover. Unfortunately I went through my library’s science fiction and fantasy selection within a year, and though other genres interest me my heart really belongs to science fiction.
Spending all of my free time in the library, I noticed immediately when new books were added to the fiction shelves.
When my school received Sabriel late in 2002 it caught my eye as soon as it was shelved. The spine was papyrus-colored with dozens of strange symbols etched faintly along it. The black title, in the coolest font I think I had ever seen, remains one of the most awesome and intriguing female names I know. I remember pulling it off of the shelf and examining the cover, on which a pale girl with dark hair is ringing a tiny bell as a giant black shadow with fiery eyes advances upon her from behind.
I was captivated. After reading the summary on the book’s back cover I rushed to the check-out counter, eager to become the first student to take the book home.
About the book
Sabriel did not disappoint me. Like me you may be perplexed at the odd cover art. What defense could a tiny bell in the hand of young girl actually offer against the massive black shadow that looks ready to attack?
The answer both shocked and excited me. The small bell is one of seven, and the set comprises the tools of a necromancer, a sorcerer who raises the dead. The bells are also used by the Abhorsen, whose job is to lay the undead back to rest. Sabriel, the young woman on the book’s cover, is the most recent in a long familial line of Abhorsens. The young girl with the little bell is quite formidable, and she is the tough and courageous heroine of the novel.
I mentioned before that I consider Sabriel and its sequels to be works of science fiction. My reasons lie in the trilogy’s setting, which is composed of two very different countries separated by an enormous wall. Ancelstierre, a realistic country very similar to modern England, is located South of the wall. Ancelstierrans do not venture North of the wall, nor do many of them believe the rumors of magic that infiltrate any discussion of what lies beyond their Northern border. The mysterious land North of the great wall comprises the Old Kingdom, an ethereal country in which modern technology does not function. The Old Kingdom is a place of magic of all kinds, good and bad, and it differs from Ancelstiere in time and season.
The sharp contrast between the two countries creates a science fiction setting for me. We have a country similar to our own in matters of technology and government located right next door to a magical world where the dead come back to life and a powerful, magical teenage girl is tasked with laying them back to rest. Does this setting not incorporate the definitions of science fiction that call for a world that includes rational and realist scientific and technologic structures while also incorporating an improbable or impossible alternate reality?
I think it does.
The contrasting settings are presented through the experiences of Sabriel, whose father sent his Old Kingdom-born daughter into the relatively safer and undead-free realm of Ancelstierre to receive her education. Unfortunately his efforts to protect Sabriel end earlier than expected when he is imprisoned in a purgatory-like state and must bequeath the title of Abhorsen to his young daughter.
Sabriel journeys home to the Old Kingdom to save her father, who is trapped in Death. An Abhorsen must often enter Death, a river that carries deceased souls to the unknown beyond, to return wayward dead beings to their rightful state. Sabriel is accompanied on her journey by Mogget, a magic being that assumes the form of a cat.
This novel appeals to me because Sabriel is such a terrific heroine. She begins the novel a little unsure of herself, unwilling to accept her father’s title and her role in the world. However she eventually accepts her power and becomes this awesome, butt-kicking heroine of a role model. She portrays the perfect quest hero, even rescuing her own damsel-in-distress. Of course the damsel is a handsome young man trapped as a ship’s figurehead, but the idea is the same.
With her cat and damsel in tow Sabriel journeys though her birth country in search of her father, growing in power and strength along the way and ridding the world of the undead. She demonstrates that power, authority, and success in battle are not elements reserved for men, and her courage really infiltrates the reader.
Sabriel is my favorite science fiction heroine, and her title novel is the best book in the series. She is just so cool! Is there any heroic aspect that she doesn’t have? She’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s brave, and she’s saving the world.
Don’t you want to read her story now?
If you are interested in the novel, check out Garth Nix’s website: http://www.garthnix.com/
He’ll even send you a postcard if you ask! I did, and am waiting very excitedly.