by Jarad Johnson
I think as readers your tastes in books ebbs and flows, much like the way a river crests in spring and dries out in the summer drought. You can go through, “reading slumps,” where nothing is appealing at all, and you can go through what I refer to as, “Book Mania,” where every story grabs at your attention. I have been in somewhat of a reading slump for most of August (where did August go, by the way? Has time truly lost all meaning? I’m still stuck in July!). Every book I picked up I felt like I had read before. Sometimes, every plot feels redone, and every storyline too familiar to be entertaining. This is when I fall back on old favorites: Tolkien, Harry Potter, and all the other high Fantasy novels that helped tolerate the enormous imbecility that surrounded me in high school.
This time, I chose to read Sabriel by Garth Nix, the beginning of the Old Kingdom series. It’s about a young girl who possesses necromantic abilities. She inherited these from her father, called the Abhorsen, whose job is to put the dead back where they belong. You know, because they have a pesky habit of un-planting themselves. When she was a child, her father sent her beyond the realm he lives in (called the Old Kingdom) to a place where he thought she would be safer. A wall separates the Old Kingdom from the New (very Game of Thrones, but without the misogyny, trite plot devices and incest. It’s a low standard, but there you are), a wall that is better at keeping people out of the Old Kingdom than keeping things in.
You know, I’ve always had a love for fantasy, both high and otherwise. What is the best part of being an avid reader if you’re not transported to other worlds, sometimes with seemingly more appeal than the one we live in (Hello 2020!) and as detail oriented reader, the world building really appeals to me. A caveat: fantasy, especially high fantasy, can either be really good or really bad. After reading it for a second time, I say Sabriel falls into the former category. I finished it in two days, and I was completely hooked. There’s adventure, magic, a grumpy cat, and a cute guy in tights. What’s not to like? Oh, and zombies. Those are not so cute but they add a little flavor.
Every time I read a fantasy novel or series, I inevitably (as someone with a terminal obsession with all things witchcraft) look at how the magical system works. This is actually where you see a lot of variation amongst authors. Magical systems in books vary greatly. For example, broadly speaking, Harry Potter uses magic in a completely different way than Tolkien does (although people have spent their entire lives studying Tolkien’s worlds, so he really has his own category). What we see here is a magical system based on lots of ritual and ceremony. Sabriel doesn’t just wave her hand and move things with her mind, she has to follow a series of steps to put the dead to rest, and to enter the world of the dead. Sabriel’s power comes from her bloodline, but magic (necromantic and otherwise) appears to able to be learned by anyone, although they may not be able to wield as much power.
I also find the creatures of this world intriguing. There are lots of creatures that can come from the land of the dead. There are 9 gates in the world of the dead, and after a soul goes through the ninth gate, they can pass on to their eternal rest. This is like purgatory, an in between place. Of course, sometimes souls hang on, and don’t pass as they should. They then become twisted and warped and gain power, but they are no longer human. Necromancers can summon Hands (basically zombies) they that use as slave labor. There is also mention of something called a Mordicant, a much more powerful fiery creature (similar to Tolkien’s Balrog, actually) that seems much more sentient, and all manner of spirits in between, both malevolent and benign. That part of the book seems well thought out, and I appreciate that there is intention behind most of the author’s plot points. In certain novels (especially YA) I often find that the author seems to have taken a template and slapped their own story over it. Not to say that every plot or novel is unique from the other, but there’s a certain two-dimensional quality that pervades many books. Nix gave depth and character to every part of his world.
I’d like to touch on a thought that has been rattling around in the back of my mind for a little while now. As someone who writes myself (kinda), I often wonder why an author makes the choices that he or she does. Why include that scene or touch on this subject or that? Many times, I find myself wondering why the inclusion of gratuitous violence was necessary. Indeed, I wonder why our culture as a whole is more comfortable seeing violence than sex. We are so uncomfortable, oftentimes (although lately this seems to have waned a little), with seeing people having sex as opposed to being too comfortable (in my opinion) with extreme violence. It’s not that the violence bothers me necessarily, I love a good horror novel or book around this time of year. However, in this genre specifically, I often see authors fetishize violence (I feel as though I should explain that when I say fetishize, I don’t mean in an overtly sexual way, although that could be an aspect in some instances. The other definition of fetishize means to obsess or glorify). Nix thankfully chose not to include this sort of thing in his book. There is violence, but it isn’t voyeuristic. Possibly, this could be absent because the book was originally marketed towards a younger audience, although of course all ages of readers can enjoy this book. It is neither overly simplistic or childish. I don’t really have a conclusion to this little tangent, but I thought you might enjoy some food for thought.
I really, really, enjoyed this book. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air amongst a pile of stagnation. It’s really funny how books can change your mood, but I was very glad of this welcome distraction. I look around my overflowing shelves of books, and I see a lot of fantasy series that I haven’t picked up in some time. I guess the only question is which shall I visit next?
Jarad recently graduated from college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He is a fervent gardener and is fascinated by all related topics and has spent several years writing about this passion. He has been gardening for 6 years and believes that Nature is our greatest teacher. He majored in English with a concentration in literature and plans to pursue and master’s degree in Ecocriticism.