Sabriel is a 1995 fantasy novel by Garth Nix. It is the first in the Old Kingdom trilogy. It won the Aurealis Award for best young-adult novel and best fantasy novel, as well as being an ALA Notable Book and a short-list nominee for the 1996 Ditmar Award. Regardless, I had a horrible time getting into this book. So bad, in fact, that I am still working on it.
Before the negativity begins, I will say there were a few things that I did really enjoy about the book. I love that it features a strong female character who displays compassion and intelligence. The world is well developed — there’s a map at the front (who doesn’t love a good map?). The characters are interesting. I know a fantasy fan would find a lot more to love about this story. But that’s about as far as I get.
A lot of the book left me bewildered. Why is time marked by Western calendar years — are we actually in the 1600s? Why does the map in the front of the book look like an inversion of Game of Thrones? For some reason, it’s acceptable for girls to travel alone, but they still have to go to finishing school. What kind of bizarre gender norms makes that possible? What is a Charter Mage? Why is there no glossary at the back of the book? Where is Gandalf to explain the parameters of this mission and give us some historical context?
I’ve been carrying the book around for the last week or so and was approached by a very enthusiastic fan that loved the series. I admitted that I was struggling to enjoy it. It’s the magic, I complained. There’s no clear transition between magic and reality, and I don’t understand the rules of the magic. The fan (to her credit) thoughtfully considered before answering. She suggested that since she’d been younger when she first read the series, perhaps it was easier for her (and other readers who love the series) to accept the magic and worry less about the technical details. While I’m sure it’s more than that, I think that’s a valid point.
I know there’s a lot that appeals to a lot of people about fantasy, and just because I struggled with this book doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it. Garth Nix is well loved and this particular series is critically acclaimed, meaning that I’d definitely feel comfortable giving it as a recommendation. Reading the book, I have learned, can be about more than just enjoying the story. I now have a better understanding of the book’s reading level and the intended audience. At the very least, I have a good grasp on elements of the story that might appeal to other readers.
Why is it that every fantasy book just feels like a rip off of Lord of the Rings? Is it because they all follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (the hero’s journey)? Or is that the point? For a certain fan base, it is that this story simply never gets old? Or maybe it’s just me – maybe I am the factor that has gotten too old, too analytical, and too cynical.