Book Review: Sabriel

sabriel book cover

I have such a fuzzy, happy hangover from this book that I’m not even sure I can review it objectively anymore. Sabriel was written by Garth Nix, and is part of the Old Kingdom Trilogy. It was recommended to me by none other than Isa, and I’m really glad I listened to her.

Plot Overview

Eighteen year-old Sabriel spent most of her life in Ancelstierre, where magic is uncommon and where tales of the Old Kingdom are mere legends and fairy tales. When her father goes missing and leaves her with his sword and set of necromantic bells, Sabriel leaves the shelter of Wyverly Academy and heads into the Old Kingdom, determined to find and rescue her father. She then learns that his name, Abhorsen, is actually a title for one who puts the dead to rest – a title that she is destined to inherit. Joining her on her quest are Mogget, a powerful creature bound to serve the Abhorsen for centuries, and Touchstone, a young Charter mage and former Royal Guard who was imprisoned by a curse for two hundred years.

With the Dead hounding her and time running out for her father, Sabriel’s quest is not easy – especially since an powerful creature, classified as one of the Greater Dead (or, quite possibly, the Great Dead), is behind it all.


This is the kind of book I wish I read when I really was a young adult. Not that I feel that the reading experience was diminished by my age, mind you – I just feel that I missed out on a huge part of my life as a bookworm by not reading this book sooner.

Sabriel, as a character, certainly earned my sympathy and affection. What I love about her is how she continues on with her quest to save her father and do what’s right for the Old Kingdom, despite her personal fears and misgivings. It’s not something you’d expect from a cloistered schoolgirl.

One thing I love the most about the world that Garth Nix crafted for Sabriel and the rest of the Old Kingdom novels is the magic system, specifically the necromancers’ use of bells in their craft.  According to the FAQ found on his official website, there were “two points of inspiration” for the necromantic bells: the first was his research on exorcism while trying to find a source of inspiration for the Abhorsens’ magic, where he found that “Possibly the most famous form of exorcism is ‘by bell, book and candle’.” He went with bells because he “wanted something different from books of spells”, and “[candles]would not be very dramatic and also highly impractical.” He also discovered, through Dorothy L. Sayers’ murder mystery The Nine Tailors that church bells usually had names, and that made him “look into naming the bells.”

I love it when authors have a decent explanation for the awesomeness they put in their books. I think that’s a good way to tell if the author is really skilled and actually serious about his/her craft, unlike some people who pull sparkling vampires out of their rear ends.

Final Verdict

Before this gets any longer than it should be, let me just say that Sabriel was a very enjoyable read. Garth Nix has crafted a fantastic world with a unique sort of magic system, and does a great job expressing the feelings of a teenager going through the pains of growing into an adult while kicking undead creatures’ behinds to boot.

2 thoughts

  1. I LOVE this series. ‘Good guy’ necromancers! =D
    I really like the more ‘spiritual’ aspect of the undead, I’m kind of burned out of the whole modern zombie (and vampire) thing where it’s all ‘military experiments’ and scientific-ized mumbo jumbo. Originally, the undead were very much tied to people’s fear of spirits and the afterlife, and I think it’s a shame that so many of the interesting magical rules that used to bind them aren’t really used anymore in movies and such (for example the ‘can’t cross running water’ limitation).

    I also like the Charter Magic system, I think it’s a cool concept.

    1. Hurrah for good guy necromancers! It’s always nice to see books that break stereotypes in awesome ways. XD

      Thank you for pointing that “spiritual aspect” of the undead out! I completely agree with you. I myself haven’t been into vampires/zombies much (though I do love Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and some games with undead in them, like World of Warcraft), and the lore of the undead in the Old Kingdom Trilogy is just refreshing.

      The magic system in this series is absolutely amazing. I just finished reading Lirael, and man, even the Clayr’s “magic” is well-thought out!

Leave a Reply