Fantasy doesn't need dragons in order to be fantasy, but it does need a little magic. Contrary to popular belief, the presence of magic does not necessarily serve to make things easier for the protagonist. Magic is a built-in set of complications that contradict conventional reality (for example, "If you want a woman to dream of you, toss a chandelier crystal in a river at dawn, but never eat a potato with lunch"). Sabriel, by Garth Nix, is an excellent indoctrination into the world and rules of fantasy.
Author Garth Nix crafted the magic governing his Old Kingdom with attention to language and music; arts that are both set in stone and open to improvisation. A practitioner (known in this novel as a Charter Mage) is necessarily someone with book-learning, but also able to think outside of the box in the blink of an eye. There are no wands or fireworks or prank magicians. Magic is a dangerous tool. To know it is to know the language of creation.
Beyond the ingenuity of the author's design, there's a deep sense of nostalgia infused in these pages. The Old Kingdom has fallen into disrepair, and the reader can't help but feel invested in the quest to put it aright.
The first chapter opens with a kindly necromancer, Abhorsen, bringing the infant protagonist back from the dead. This scene does well to introduce the main character, Sabriel. From page one, she has already traveled unbelievable distances and lived to tell of it. The classical Greek dramas involved heroes venturing to the Underworld somewhere around the 3/4 mark. Garth Nix demonstrates that Sabriel isn't going to waste any time tiptoeing around the subject of death, but address it boldly and with a clear mind.
The plot is equally dire. In order to rescue Abhorsen from the icy realm of death, Sabriel must learn his necromantic arts. She is nothing if not equal to the task. If Hermione Granger had paid more attention to Professor Snape's lectures, she might have turned out a bit more like Sabriel.
Which isn't to say that this book is lacking in humor. Sabriel's companion (a talking cat named Mogget) combines snarky wit and sagely wisdom into a valued and believable character, if not a wholly lovable one. His worldly attitude serves as a perfect counterbalance to Sabriel's comparative naivete. While she is curious about the Old Kingdom's history and ways, Mogget acts as though he's heard enough, and would prefer an extended nap over any further adventuring, thank you very much.
The Old Kingdom is a world where death is within the means to manipulate. In that context, the difference between good or evil can seem less obvious. Sabriel is put in the position to master a dangerous and controversial art that will not earn many friends, and could easily corrupt her from the inside out. In this facet she continues the tradition of Elric of Melnibone, though with less melancholy.
Sabriel is quick-witted, but her lack of practical experience means she stumbles along the way, and the reader always wants to know how she'll get back up. The books of the Old Kingdom are very fine indeed, and one hopes that Garth Nix returns to them sooner rather than later.
Will you read Sabriel? If you have, did you like it?