Flashback to last week – I was so busy getting ready for taking my daughter’s Girl Scout Daisy troop on their first camping weekend that I forgot to mention that it was also Mother Reader’s 48 Hour Book Challenge, which I very much enjoyed participating in the last two years. I did not think I would be able to focus on reading while keeping a group of five- and six-year-olds out of poison ivy and lake. Indeed, one of my little campers got poison ivy despite our efforts to the contrary, though the girls all figured out how to paddle canoes and were very proud of themselves. I’ve been enjoying reading over the posts of all my blogging friends who did participate in the Book Challenge, though – you could go and enjoy a vicarious intensive reading weekend, too.
Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen by Garth Nix. Read by Tim Curry. Listening Library, 2002, 2002, 2003.
After listening to the new entry in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Chronicles, Clariel, in December, I realized that my overall memories of this series were pretty hazy, despite my having read at least Sabriel more than once. I decided that that, combined with this being one of my favorite series to recommend to teens in search of a new epic fantasy series, warranted a re-listen.
I started off with Sabriel, of course, and was reintroduced to the world of the Old Kingdom: a medievalish kingdom where technology doesn’t work and evil and good necromancers battle to bring the dead back to the world of the living or send them back to the realm of Death, respectively. Kingdom is loosely applied in this case, as the monarchy was overthrown some 200 years previously, with rank anarchy for the last 20. The Old Kingdom share a long border with the kingdom of Ancelstierre, where magic only works when the wind blows just so across the Wall that separates them, and where the technology level is roughly 1910s, with telegraphs, bicycles, and rudimentary airplanes.
Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, the good necromancer whose main duty is to enforce the boundary between Life and Death. She’s about to graduate from an Ancelstierran academy for girls of good breeding, though her father has visited often to teach her the skills she’ll need to follow in his footsteps as Abhorsen.
Then Sabriel receives word that her father has been trapped in Death, along with his sword and the bandolier of magical bells that are used to control the Dead. It will be up to her to rescue him and stop the magical villain who’s trapped him from ending the world. She’s helped along the way by Mogget, a magical cat who’s the unwilling servant of the Abhorsen family, and by Touchstone, a young man whom she found trapped as the wooden figurehead of a ship.
Sabriel wraps things up tidily, and Lirael starts with a whole new heroine. Lirael is a daughter of the Clayr, one of the three magical families (along with the Abhorsens and the Wallmakers) who keep the magic of the Old Kingdom running smoothly. We met the Clayr briefly near the end of Sabriel and were introduced to their role as the seers and prophets of the Old Kingdom. Lirael has always felt out of place among the Clayr, both because she hasn’t inherited their typical coloring of dark skin and light hair, but also because she is past the age when she should have received her gift of Sight.
Instead, she’s given an apprenticeship at the Great Library of the Clayr, which houses not only All the Books (magical books, needless to say), but also magical artifacts and monsters, not always successfully contained. (It’s always been a dream of mine to make her Second Assistant Librarian uniform, so clearly described here with red waistcoat, brass whistle attached on the shoulder for hands-free blowing in case of emergency, and a magical mechanical mouse in the pocket that can also be sent to summon help.) There she tries to make herself a dog construct as a companion, summoning instead the Disreputable Dog.
Meanwhile, we also meet Prince Sameth, son of Sabriel and Touchstone, and his best friend Nicholas Sayr. An ancient evil is trying to break free from its prison, and is using Nicholas as its voice in the world. Sameth has his own issues, as the presumptive heir to the Abhorsens with a horror of Death and the Book of the Dead that he is supposed to be studying. Tension mounts as Sabriel and Sameth work separately to stop the terror, which Nicholas is contributing to without knowing it. At the same time, King Touchstone and Sabriel journey to Ancelstierre to address the situation there, which is contributing to the difficulties in the Old Kingdom.
Lirael ends at a dreadfully tense point in the plot – naturally, someone else had checked out the next book in the series, so that I had to wait for a month to continue on with Abhorsen, the resolution of the story arc that started with Lirael.
Even though the plot is tense in all the books, I found that the details had mostly slipped away from my memory in the decade or so since I had last read them. What I remembered was the dark atmosphere and the magic, the River of Death with its seven gates and the seven bells, each with its own name and powers, that the Abhorsen uses to fight them, and the Charter of flowing golden marks that the baptized can reach into for individual spells as needed. I remembered the characters, particularly Sabriel, Lirael, and their companions, Mogget and the Disreputable Dog. Re-listening, I recognized details that had appeared in Clariel that I should have recognized, but didn’t, including the pan pipes, villains and their goals recurring through the centuries, and Clariel’s discomfort at reaching into the charter as opposed to the comfort it gives all the other characters.
This series has stayed on top of several lists of books to recommend to library patrons for years now, including epic teen fantasies, books for teen boys starring girls, and books for zombie-lovers. My love and I have successfully given it to teens (especially boys) of the voraciously reading but reluctant to try new books type. With good characters, a tight plot, and stellar world-building, this series is still strong, despite having started a couple of decades ago. I really hope that Garth Nix does carry on with more books in the series, as he’s said he will.