‘Sabriel’ by Garth Nix

Mount Readmore Book Review 2018, 139/200


Audiobook Edition

Finished on 9/20/2018


Genres: Fantasy, YA, Fantasy Classic, Dystopia, Old Kingdom

Zombies in Fantasyland

Spoiler-ific review

This is a re-re-re-re-re-re-read for me, so it’s safe to say I’m partial to this book and series. It’s been more than five years since I’ve read it last, so I felt it was about time to go on an adventure with Sabriel and Touchstone again. I’m going to do my best to be analytical about this one, so bear with me on this review.

It’s hard to explain what makes this book so good. If you read a description of this story it sounds rather generic: a schoolgirl who is about to graduate must go find her missing father before he’s killed. To do so she must befriend a talking cat and a cursed prince, and defeat a nefariously evil ghost-cloud so they can live happily ever after. But such a summary leaves out so much that it honestly does a disservice to this book as a whole.

Let’s get started with this book’s strongest aspect, it’s pacing. The book never lulls. It’s an impressively tightly plotted work of art which only rarely slows down. The book isn’t all combat (in fact there is honestly very little violence but when it is used it’s used well), but it is action-packed. The characters are constantly running away, flying on magic airplanes, hiking on moonlit nights, venturing into undead infested palaces, sailing up coastlines. They are always actively doing things, even when they author is using that time for worldbuilding and exposition purposes. This activity makes the characters feel like go-getters, as opposed to people who are responding to events passively.

Next, the book’s setting is magnificent. The author doesn’t include massive infodumps and very little in the way of exposition, but instead he has crafted a haunted world which seems like it’s on the brink of civilizational collapse. He never explains that evil sorcerers have created portals to a very real hell all over the place and that zombies are coming through those portals; we instead learn about the massive abundance of zombies and the dozens (if not hundreds) of open hell-portals along with the main characters. The author enlightens us gradually to the setting’s creepiness, making the reader (and the characters) slowly realize just how screwed they are. More, the dialectic between safe Ancelstierre and the dangerous Old Kingdom worked really well at adding to the spooky factor.

The author does a great job of conveying the setting through mood. The Old Kingdom has a horror movie feel, where you are only a few moments away from death at all times. If you get stuck outside after dark? You’re dead. An unexpected rainstorm obscures the sun? You’re dead. A necromancer breaks the village Charter Stone? Your entire village is dead. We see the general societal collapse in the Old Kingdom, and are made to understand that things are only going to get worse. It gives the book a strong horror feel even if the book isn’t a true horror itself.

The plot was a really, really good variation of the Classic Hero’s Journey. Its contains everything from Rejecting the Call (‘I’m not Abhorsen, my dad’s Abhorsen.’), The Journey to the Underworld (Entering the palace to save her dad from Kerrigor. Also, entering the Old Kingdom. Also entering Death (duh).), The Mentor Dies (Dad dies.), The Magic Flight (Flying on the Paperwing to Ancelstierre), and Returning Home Again (Returning to Ancesltierre at the end of the book).

The author innovated upon the formula, such as by having the evil undead follow Sabriel Home Again so the climax happened after she Returned Home Again. Overall this book was very formulaic (which isn’t a bad thing if done right!). I think this is the best Classic Hero’s Journey novel I’ve ever read.

Now for constructive criticism.

The characters were bland. Sabriel was ‘Generic YA Protagonist: Schoolgirl,’ while Touchstone was ‘Generic YA Love Interest: Angsty Self Guilt.’ The author was talented enough to make these generic characters compelling, but in the end he was working with base clay. Lirael, the protagonist of the next book in the series, is a WAY more interesting character because she has internal conflict. Neither Sabriel nor Touchstone has a compelling character arc, as they start and end the book in the same place.

The author’s prose was, at times, a smidgen embellished. He uses a few too many adjectives and adverbs in his work. While I disagree with the statement that ‘you should never use adjectives,’ (and indeed in this case the lugubrious prose at times enhanced the spooky factor), I think in this case the author could have toned things down a bit.

Overall, I Highly Recommend this because of it’s setting and it’s pacing, and for leading into LIRAEL which is in my top 5 personal favorite books. This is not a flawless book, but the author created a fully realized setting which has a visceral haunted sensation to it. This is a YA book, but I think it has adult enough themes to be enjoyable by most adults.


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