She’s eighteen and she’s getting a little impatient with life at her boarding school. She doesn’t see her stepdad very often. She knows more about magic than the teachers at Wyverly College, but even though the school is within twenty miles of the Wall that separates mundane from magical lands, she’s never been in the Old Kingdom. Her name is Sabriel.
Then one night a dead creature stalks into the dormitory. This is a messenger, who brings her father’s magic bells and Charter-marked sword. If her dad’s not already dead, then he’s being held somehow near one of the nine gates that separates life from death. Sabriel has to find her father’s body, somewhere in the deadly Old Kingdom, and then retrieve his spirit. All in a day’s rite of passage.
Garth Nix, the author of Sabriel, uses a very familiar setup: a quest, a young protagonist, some magical peril, and even a map at the front of the book. All the signs of the umpteenth stale fantasy clone. But the cynical side of me got quite a surprise: the book has a breathless, page-turning feel to it, accompanied by — the biggest surprise — some admirable prose. It’s an impossible balance, to make something flow and sound sharp and intriguing, prose-wise, at the same time.
Here’s one way Nix does it. Fantasy stories like this struggle with a structural problem: quests are episodic, rambly things. Going from here to there, random stuff happens in the meantime. With some hard work, Nix puts this to his advantage. Sabriel is structured around five or six memorable setpieces, action-packed enough to keep everyone on the edge of their seat. When I was done the book, I found that I could remember each of the big scenes, and in order. Wow, good writing.
Looking back, I could see that it wasn’t just the action that made it all work. Sabriel herself grows as a person and learns more about the world around her. This happens mostly in the quieter passages between the breathless moments, and Nix gets this calm-before-the-storm approach just right.
Sabriel has some goodies for fantasy junkies too. Nix comes up with an inventive system of magic: the restless dead can be put in their place by any magic item with Charter markings. The Charter is a necromantic pact from long ago powered by a series of massive standing stones (distressingly, Sabriel finds a few that have been recently broken). Sabriel also has seven bells from her father, each bell with a specific purpose in sending spirits back to the realm of death. The book becomes quite dark, darker than most YA novels.
And there’s no shortage of YA fantasies right now. The 200 million pound gorilla in the corner is of course Harry Potter, he of the Hogwarts and the market saturation. But there were always great fantasies for kids before J.K. Rowling — C.S. Lewis, Robin McKinley, and Susan Cooper come to mind — and Nix is not the only one doing great work in the field now. A certain number of Harry wannabes are inevitable, but they’re relatively easy to avoid. On the evidence of Sabriel, Nix is one of the writers doing interesting stuff.
Another name to watch for is Philip Pullman. The title of this article is from a famous speech by Pullman* in which he basically says that story is the most important thing when writing for kids because they always want to know what happens next. In a sense, he is saying that the age group keeps a writer honest — there’s lots of craft involved, a lot of hard work, but you can’t get too distracted by your own brilliance or you will lose your audience.
The flip side of Pullman’s formulation — stories never fail us — is something that he doesn’t seem to want to talk about. Of course stories in their ideal form are wonderful things, but it’s also obvious that there’s a lot of crap out there. How do you find the good stuff? Even in the case where you’ve found a good author, will they always be reliable? For example, I’ve been burned before when I’ve recommended the first book of a trilogy to friends without having read the subsequent books.
Could that be the case for the two books Nix has written after this one? Sure. But by the end of Sabriel, all of the typical ‘rite of passage’ items have been checked off (not to give too much away about the ending). If the story continues, Sabriel will be an adult, having already proved herself. Nix did well enough within the familiar confines of the standard growing up story… what will he do next?
* Philip Pullman’s Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech.