Thursday, 6 November 2014

Garth Nix - Sabriel (1995)

Cover image by Leo and Diane Dillon.

The Story



I interviewed Garth Nix recently for The Big Issueand came to the same conclusion that I often come to with prolific writers. They're like swans; they seem all glidey and smooth on the surface of the water, but really their little legs are whizzing away like motors underneath. Nix must be off with the actual fairies to come up with the bizarre settings that he does, but he doesn't even give a hint of it in person. It was all terribly mysterious. 

Sabriel is the first book in a rough series of (so far) four books. Nix sets the story around a rift between two universes. The Victorian Gothic country of Ancelstierre is populated by prim and proper schools, automobiles, and, almost definitely, no magic. On the other side of the rift is the perilous dark ages style land of the Old Kingdom where absolutely anything (but probably not anything nice) can happen. 

Our protagonist, Sabriel, is the daughter of the Abhorsen, a sort of necromancer-priest of the Old Kingdom whose task it is to hunt down revenant spirits and ghouls and return them to the realms of Death. 

Sabriel wakes up in an uneasy state one night in her Ancelstierran private girls' college. Emerging from her room, Sabriel discovers a ghoulish visitor wandering around the schoolhall with a package and a message. The ghoul (actually a ghoul), passes on the message that her father is stranded in the realms of Death. He had sent it to deliver the tools of the Abhorsen's trade: seven bells ranging in size, and a sword scored with runes. 

A remarkably cool, calm and collected character for a fantasy tale, Sabriel decides to leaves her life of safety in Ancelstierre to trek across the desolate, undead-infested Old Kingdom in search of her father and unravel the mysteries behind his disappearance. 

The Tasty Bit

The treacherous nature of death magic is probably one of my favourite fantasy tropes. Sabriel feeds this theme back in a number of ways, each of them terribly satisfying. 

Necromantic magic in this book involves the use of a special set of bells to raise and bind dead spirits. And while musically-induced magic is a fairly standard concept in fantasy, Nix's use of bells is, to me, more reminiscent of the old Catholic exorcism ritual of 'the bell, book and candle', which casts unclean spirits back to the realm from whence they came. 

In popular culture, the exorcism ritual carries with it the possibility of setting dark and demonic forces free from their confines. The person exorcising the demon is at most risk, because exorcisms come down to a battle of wills (an iconic example being The Exorcist), with one mind seeking to overpower the other. 

In Sabriel the psychological battle isn't so much with the evil spirits that she faces so much as the implements of the exorcism themselves. The seven bells, when wielded by a necromancer, can summon spirits from Death, bind them to a task or set them back to sleep. But the bells each have personalities of their own and dislike being used. If the necromancer's willpower falters, the bells' directive (they have names like waker, walker, sleeper, binder) will take control of the necromancer's mind. Losing control of the bells results in the necromancer being forced to do things like walk themselves into Death, or raise something that is best left slumbering. 

Sabriel is a great standalone book. 

Don't get me wrong, its sequels are solid and definitely worthwhile, but they don't necessarily add anything to the mystique of the world that Nix has created. And it's the mystique that makes this book so easy to devour, the world has a multitude of aspects that remain inexplicable yet at the same time seem deeply significant. Nix weaves these significances together into a complex reality that forever eludes your grasp, but keeps you searching for more. 

Other Stuff
According to Nix, the popularity of Sabriel, and The Old Kingdom series as a whole, was a bit of a slow burn. It did modestly well in its initial release, but where other books fell to the side and were forgotten, Sabriel was remembered and passed on (and down, and up, and back again) until it hit the New York Times best seller list with a million sales.

The latest book in the Old Kingdom series, Clariel, has recently come out. Not that I'm recommending post-2000 literature you understand. Just mentioning, you know, out of completeness.