By Garth Nix
(edit: As a commenter noted below, Sabriel was published in 1995, predating both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. My claim of plagerism is both inaccurate and most likely offensive. I don't know how I missed that, but I did. Sorry to Garth Nix and anyone who might take offense. I'll be careful about my research in the future. Anyway, I'm leaving my gaffe up for all to see. I'm not going to edit out my stupidity and gross inaccuracies.}
What is it with fantasy fans?
Mention to a fantasy fan that you don't happen to like fantasy and you're going to get this annoyingly predictable response:
"Oh! Well, you've haven't read the right stuff! Let me lend you..."
And now you're obliged to read a bunch of nonsense about mages and wizards and some sort of underaged Christ/David metaphor wrestling with a Satan/Goliath archetype with elves and dwarves and elementals and other such nonsense because said fantasy fan really believes they can turn you on to their particular brand of nerdism. Fantasy fans possess an almost fundamentalist missionary zeal. They're like the Jehovah's Witnesses of book readers. It's almost Jihadic.
I've blogged on this phenomenon before when I wrote about Game of Thrones, which I happened to enjoy. I knew at the time that I should curb my enthusiasm for the book lest my friends, who know I hate fantasy, interpret my enjoyment of George R. R. Martin's opus as an invitation for recommendations and book lends that will only lead to hurt feelings when I tell them how much I hate their taste in books (you must remember that I will and do read everything that I get due to my lack of English books). I'm all about honesty when it comes to books.
Unfortunately, I raved about Game of Thrones and lo and behold one of my friends leant me a series of books by Garth Nix called The Old Kingdom Trilogy. The first in the series is called Sabriel and so resembles the plots of both Game of Thrones and Harry Potter that I considered filing a plagiarism lawsuit myself (but then I reminded myself that all fantasy is plagiarized Tolkien and let it slide). The story revolves around a young woman named, oddly enough, Sabriel, who is the daughter of something called an Abhorsen, a term that is never fully explained (forgive me if this is common vernacular in the fantasy lexicon. I'm a bit of an innocent). She lives in a place called Anceltierre which sounds and feels suspiciously like England circa 1916 with its fancy new motor cars and biplanes and machine guns and (gasp!) tanks.
Ancelstierre borders something called the Old Kingdom. There is a (surprise, surprise) wall between the two countries, mainly because one country (Ancelstierre) is modern and free of magic and the other (the Old Kingdom) is freaking riddled with the stuff and they seem to want to keep it that way. The Old Kingdom is governed by something called the Charter and Charter marks, neither of which is ever explained (at all) and something else known as Free Magic (another term left suspiciously unexplained). The line between life and death is decidedly fuzzy. There seems to exist several gates after death and a soul must travel through them all before it is well and truly dead (leaving it virtually impossible to actually die in the Old Kingdom... Billy Crystal would be heartened to know that many people can be simply "mostly dead.") Charter mages, necromancers and Abhorsens can move freely between life and death. How and why? I still don't know. I guess the Abhorsen's job is to guide restless souls past the final gates so that they don't disturb the living. If that's the case, a lot of Abhorsens have been slacking on the job. Apparently there is a war brewing between the living and the dead, and the dead have the upper hand.
All of this might sound intriguing, and I suppose it is. early-modern western nation bordering on a fantasy world that is on the brink of a Civil War of biblical proportions. It's just that there is so much nonsense about bells and Charter marks and Mordicants and Charter stones and free magic and the rules of the Old Kingdom that were never once fully explained to me. I know Sabriel is the first in a series of three books (I have all three) and I kept checking and rechecking to see whether I was inadvertently reading the second in the series.
Furthermore, this book read like a really bad second rate Hollywood blockbuster. It had all the trappings of a typical action movie arch. A slow start followed by a seemingly never ending chase that, only at the very end, takes a turn and allows our hero to gain the final advantage and secure the climactic ending.
This last point is a personal pet peeve of mine. In recent years, far too many authors have adopted the story arches used in Hollywood movies and superimposed them onto novels. Novels, like movies, have become little more than flash-quick action sequences followed by a brief lulls to catch the reader/viewer up with the plot advances. Add a romantic sub-plot and a sassy sidekick and the formula is complete.
Nix does very little with this book other than drive the plot along. As much as I hate fantasy, one of the hallmarks of the genre is the way the best writers establish their character's personalities and idiosyncrasies as well as the beauty and majesty of the setting. Nix does absolutely none of this. Sabriel, her father and Touchstone remain as two-dimensional now as they were when they were introduced and Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom remain nothing more than cardboard backdrops behind these entirely uninteresting characters. Never mind the realms of death. Here Nix had a wonderful opportunity to describe the corporeal world beyond the grave and failed entirely. By the end I found myself cheering for the bad guy, Voldemo... I mean Kerrigor. He seemed to be the only character of any interest although his descent into evil was (also) never fully explained. Do you notice a pattern with this book yet?
Anyway, Sabriel fails on so many levels that I'm really hesitant to pick up the second in the series. I know I will because they're on my shelf, but I suspect they will wait for a long time. Honestly, fantasy fans... if this is anything close to a good example of modern fantasy writing, you're never going to win converts, even if you hand this book out door to door.
Also reviewed from this series: