Monday, December 5, 2011


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:



Lokaiwen said...

Was this a long read, Ryan?

Ryan said...

Not even. 491 pages seems like a walk in the park compared to others in the genre.

Merc said...

You might want to do a little research before writing a review. Sabriel (1995) was written BEFORE A Song of Fire and Ice (1996) AND Harry Potter (1997)- which makes your accusations of plagiarism wholly unfounded and quite offensive.

And though it is true, that a lot of fantasy literature draws upon Tolkienian aspects- The Old Kingdom Trilogy draws little on any those usual suspects, save for some medieval-style setting references. There are no orcs, elves, or dwarves and though there are Charter Mages, which could be compared to wizards- the type of magic used in this novel seems closer to a Christian based faith vs. a pagan earth based magic.

Actually, in some ways this novel has qualities not unlike the His Dark Materials trilogy- but the 'Sabriel's' stance on religion is more positive than negative, as in 'His Dark Materials'. I digress though, as this kind of analysis is beyond your interest apparently.

But seriously, it appears that your reading comprehension skills are low, as all the things you've complained weren't explained - were indeed explained. It makes me wonder if you even read the book, or merely skimmed it?

Personally, I am bothered by readers who can't enjoy a subtle approach and instead demand that everything is spelled out for them with an exhaustive detail that is downright condescending to the audience's ability to put two and two together. This kind of need is reflective readers who do not challenge themselves with higher level reading material, and rather stay in a comfort zone that doesn't require them to grow. This demand leads to the dumbing down of popular modern literature. But, as I said, that's just a personal pet peeve.

Though you may never be a fantasy convert, I do think that you are being unfairly dismissive, especially considering your absorption of the material in question. My suggestion: take a class.

Ryan said...

Merc, thanks for the comment and honesty. You have me on the publishing date. I noticed that but completely failed to make the connection that it was indeed older than both. I have been unfair on that aspect. The information literally stared me in the eyes while writing this and I didn't put two an two together. I will leave that in as a testment to my reading comprehension skills.

As for the rest, I'm standing by my assessment. I didn't skim the book. I spent a lot of time with my brow furrowed trying to figure it out thouh and it wasn't for lack of classes, haha. At no point in the book did Nix explain the Charter (who wrote it, what it does and doesn't do, how it applies to the Old Kingdom), Free magic (I have my suspicions on this one) or any number of key ideas in the book. I'm not asking writers to spell everything out. But there has to be a level of give and take between a writer and a reader and I felt Nix held FAR too much back. Perhaps it is my lack of knowledge in the genre and many of these terms don't require definition, but that just feels exclusionist to me.

While he doesn't have to spell everything out, like you say, a little more expansion on some of his characters (Sabriel's childhood and relationship with her father), setting (I'd have enjoyed a more three-dimensional description of the realm of Death, backstory (some substance behind the paper-thin kinship and falling out between Touchstone and Rogir). Also, his characters could show a little more emotional depth. I could go on, but you get the point.

I wholheartedly agree with you concerning the dumbing down of modern literature. But I think Sabriel is a fine example of rather than a beackon against the erosion of quality literture. The novel seemed rushed and superficial. Which is a shame. There were some really interesting ideas in the book that deserved much more attention.

Ryan said...

I should have spell checked that comment. Sheesh.

Merc said...

Rereading my post, I realize my tone was a bit harsh. It was, however, influenced by your review's condescending comments about Fantasy readers. Though I myself, wasn't always interested in it, I'd never belittle those who enjoyed the genre as you did. Keeping this in mind, I am glad to keep the discussion going civilly. So now that I've cooled down a bit, let's continue...

Considering this book is a young adult selection, it's definitely not the deepest book ever written. Yet, with that in mind, I feel that it bridges the gap between young adult & adult fantasy (which if you have read any other young adult fantasy, you're aware how dull & unchallenging some of them can be). I haven't read Sabriel in a few years, so forgive me if it's not as fresh in my mind as it might be in yours. I have, however, read the whole series- so I'm filled in on the background a little more than you.

To begin, Sabriel is a fairly short novel, in which Nix may have intended to only reveal background info he thought necessary for the sake of pace. Also, Sabriel was originally written as a stand-alone book & not intended to be part of a series. I'd venture to guess Nix realized that there where many things that could be expanded & explored further, thus he wrote more. Which I'm glad he did, because it was in the next book, Lirael, that, in my opinion, found the emotional core for the series. Without revealing spoilers concerning the rest of the series (which I urge you to read), I'll help you to understand more.

Abhorsen is a term that is exclusive to this series. It is a type of Necromancer, generally an evil sorcerer that can raise the dead for their own purposes & use them as minions (Necromancers are found in other Fantasy lit). Nix creates the Abhorsen role as a way to balance a Necromancer. Whether evil spirits are raised from the dead or try to escape on their own, an Abhorsen sends them back through all the levels of Death- banishing them from the realm of the living, like a kind of Death police. Nix also opens up the idea that Death should be respected not feared with the Abhorsen role.

The realm of Death is described ingeniously, starting as a stream of water & gradually becomes deeper & wider as one journeys through. I disagree that Nix needs to add more to his description about this realm. If you are left wondering what Death is like, it is probably purposeful, as Death is ultimately a mysterious place. It's a technique to drive our curiosity as the series progresses. It is the journey that is important here & Sabriel's journey is one of emerging adulthood & it's subsequent responsibilities.

The 2 magic types: The Charter always reminded me of the Holy Covenant in Christianity (whether this is Nix's intent, I don't know). In this world it represents sanctioned magic; magic that is good & holy & controlled. The Charter Mark symbol on the forehead, is a way to identify those who are part of the Charter, like a visible mark of Baptism. Free magic is unbidden to any rules & therefore possibly dangerous. Besides death, it's power is an unknown quantity that can be evil or good.

I'll wrap up with a final thought on the Fantasy genre. Fantasy literature, at it's best, uses symbolism & allegory to comment on social, political, & theological conflicts in the real world. It's a genre that has stood the test of time; so give it a chance without the attitude that it's beneath you. Also, when you are critical of devices in a book, instead of blowing it off as a flaw, ask questions:
-Why did the author choose to write it in this way instead of what I expect? What does this reveal about the author's intent?
-As a reader, how does this style of writing make me feel in relation to the themes in the story?

One more thing about Fantasy: As with movies, "suspend your disbelief" & delve in wholeheartedly. You might be surprised at what you find when let go.

Merc said...

I got my typo in there too... that last line should be "when *you* let go".

And hey, if you really dislike reading Fantasy, that's fine- just say "it's not my cup of tea". But just because you don't like Fantasy doesn't mean it's nonsense.

Ugh, it's late. Night.

Ryan said...

If I came across as condescending it was probably due to my consternation while reading this book. The blog post is a sort of written catharsis over the troubles I had with ithe book in specific and some of the troubles I have with fantasy in general. It was not my intention to belittle a genre or its fans. As a science fiction fan I'm certainly not in the position to belittle anyone of anything.

I'm almost inclined to side with you concerning Nix's description of Death except that the only time in which he really gets into details is toward the end of the book when Sabriel goes through several of the gates in search of her father. It all seemed to move too fast and I desperately wanted it to slow down. I see his literary motives in play, I just don't like them.

Actually, this is the problem I had with the entire book and a lot of modern literature. Like I said in my blog, far too much flows like a Hollywood action movie. Flash action followed by precious little information to explain the pervious action before we are thrust back into the fray once again. Characters come and go without much background or thought. It's a trend in movies, television and literature that I have been railing against for a long time.

My copy of the book is just that: a copy. No cover or such. There is little to denote whether it was YA or not, though I was able to figure that out along the way. I tend to be especially unforgiving of YA fiction for some reason. I didn't read much of it growing up (move straight to adult books) and have always found them tedious. I always ask why an author writes the way he or she does, but I couldn't really figure it out in this novel. I don't know why Nix decided to hold so many cards when there was no reason not to play them, especially if he is knowingly dealing with a younger audience that may benefit from a little more explanation.

As for the rest of the series, I will read them. I have to. The entire reason for this blog is that I live in a place where there are virtually no English books and I read everything I get (which is enough, but not always within my comfort zone). That's why I ended up reading and writing about a book and genre I know little about. It's been eye opening. If I had access to unlimited books I wouldn't have ever read fantasy at all. I read and enjoyed Game of Thrones (which surprised me). I have all three of the Old Kingdom books on my shelf, so they will get read.

When I do get to the second book I promise to be more open minded and fair in my views. I am certain that my biases against fantasy probably clouded my enjoyment of this book very early on (probably at the first use of the word "mage"). I'll check my preconceived notions at the door when I crack number two.

Again, I appreciate the discussion. I tend to have very strong emotional reactions to literature and while I'm not going to apologize for that (I will apologize for factual errors, of course) I am more than happy to engage in discussion and debate from anyone that disagrees ith my strong reactions.

Mercuryal said...

I do understand your comments on the cinematic qualities of the writing. I guess since I'm a big cinephile and former film major (hey now- be nice), it didn't bother me so much. Though it can be understandably frustrating when you'd like a little more clarification. A friend of mine recently lent me a YA Fantasy trilogy she recommended, that had moments so unclear, I'd reread paragraphs a few times just to make sure I was comprehending correctly. I don't recall having moments like that in Sabriel & if I did - my memory has graciously glommed over those parts. But yes, point taken.

I am glad to hear you're open to reading the sequels, however-it might allow you to forgive the flaws of the first book, or not... who knows.

But anyway, I just happened to stumble upon this blog, so it's interesting to hear you have limited book choices, but read them anyway. That's admirable.

Well, like I said, I didn't start out reading a lot of Fantasy, in fact I stuck to classics & plays for a long time. I'd say if you want a more mature Fantasy read, try Lev Grossman's "The Magicians" if you can get a copy. I've been describing it as a "Catcher in the Rye" meets "Harry Potter" in college. Very good writing- challenging and descriptive. There's a sequel out now too, but I haven't read it yet.

Ok, for reals- it's super late here. Time for bed. Good discussion though, thanks.

Amber said...

"Fantasy fans possess an almost fundamentalist missionary zeal. They're like the Jehovah's Witnesses of book readers. It's almost Jihadic." -- Yikes.

"Though you may never be a fantasy convert, I do think that you are being unfairly dismissive, especially considering your absorption of the material in question. My suggestion: take a class." -- Ouch.

Good debate. I'm excited to reread this series.

Anonymous said...

Aren't most modern books just remixes of older plots? And older plots remixes of old fantasy, mythology, lore, and nature itself.

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