Review: Sabriel

Sabriel by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Sabriel is a fantasy tale off the beaten track, exploring elements unseen in other fantasy books. The plot and setting for Sabriel are quite original. It’s about a girl with anti-necromancer powers. Rather than bringing back the dead, she has to put them to rest. Using magical bells that affect the dead and a sword, she has to defeat an ancient evil. I liked the idea of the 9 gates of death (technically a purgatory), where once you passed the ninth gate, there is no turning back. The ‘magic system’, although having a narrow focus on only the dead, is pretty creative and rigorous. Akin the Brandon Sanderson type of magic: where the magic is like a science, with universal laws.

Setting wise, one thing that surprised me was the split in the world between a WWI type country and a magic medieval country, separated by a wall. This is quite an uncommon trope and it seemed to work in this book. However, the semantics of how two such countries would work together seem slightly unbelievable. Both countries seem to have not influenced each other in any way, other than the few people living near the borders.

Setting aside, the plot flowed well and tied up well right at the end. Elements found throughout the book were used again; no excess writing here. No deus ex machinas either, which is A+ work to me. Although it’s really a hero’s journey type story, Sabriel avoided a lot of cliches and overused tropes. For example, there is no single mentor figure, but several, and these several come in different forms. In a book about necromancers, character deaths actually do happen, and the surviving characters have to deal with it. A lot of other reviewers have mentioned that this is not really unique, but for a book written in 1995, I would argue that it is.

For all the tropes that this book managed to avoid, it does, however, end up having an abrupt and unnecessary romantic sub plot. I guess it’s more to do with appealing to YA readers and the writing style rather than a bad plot.

I’d expect a published book to have a certain standard in terms of writing, but the standard here was not met. It wasn’t as if it was un-readable, it was more so that the setting and fantastical elements weren’t explained as well as they could have. A lot of missed opportunity here really. I had to go to Wikipedia (when i was 1/3 thru reading) to figure out that there were two countries with different levels of technology or magic. I have to admit also that I never fully understood the whole ‘free magic’ and ‘charter magic’ bits in the book. Blunders like these made a lot of readers give up reading (as can be seen on the 1 to 3 star Goodreads reviews). There were other oddities in the writing, such as a sudden POV shift to the #2 character in the book inserted seemingly random points throughout the narrative that was mostly focused on Sabriel, the protagonist.

Even through bad writing, character growth shines in this book. Sabriel, the protagonist, grows a lot from the start of the book to the end. From a girl finishing school, she becomes the anti-necromancer, shouldering the burden of subduing a most powerful of the dead. She is believable and relatively relatable. Her transformation due to the happenings in the plot are logical and make sense. The character growth is also consistent from plot point to plot point.

I like this book, even though I thought it could have been so much more. I will recommend it to regular readers of fantasy, and I will read the next 2 books in this trilogy to see what happens. Considering that this is Nix’s first published book, it seems that the next two books will be way better.

P.S. This book has a cat in it.

Score Breakdown:
Story/Plot (50%): 4.5/5
Character Development (25%): 4/5
Writing style (25%): 2/5

Total : 3.75/5

– I read this as an audiobook

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