Sabriel was born in the mysterious Old Kingdom but raised at a school for girls in Ancelstierre (similar tech level to early 20th century Australia). One day Sabriel is sent a messenger bearing her father’s necromancy tools of bells and sword along with instructions that she must venture into the Old Kingdom to stop a terrible evil from returning to Life.
My favorite aspect of Sabriel is the vivid worldbuilding that has just enough detail to leave you imagining more when you finish reading. The stark difference between the Old Kingdom and the rest of the world is a perfect mysterious setup to get us invested in the story right away. The way Garth Nix imagines necromancers is so cool, unique, and creative. In general he makes good use of sensory evocations, between the different tones of the necromancers’ bells, the smell of free magic (brilliant! Smell is such a powerful sense for imagination and memory and I’ve rarely seen it used this simply and strongly), and the icy temperature of Death. Nix re-imagines a layered Death realm like the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno but wet and cold instead of fiery, and the effect of this imagery was so memorable and distinct. The mythology and mystery Nix builds around Death and the Dead with rules like how the Dead can’t cross running water, and then the way he leverages his own rules to create tense plot moments, makes for such an enjoyable read.
Sabriel isn’t terribly strong in the character department, but for the first half or so that honestly makes sense because it’s largely Sabriel going places alone. A lot of characterization in general is accomplished through how people interact with each other, and there’s no one for her to interact with for a large chunk of the novel. Sabriel still doesn’t talk much after Touchstone joins the party, though, which leaves their romance feeling contrived. I didn’t feel like I got much of a sense of who Sabriel and Touchstone were outside of YA fantasy protagonist tropes, e.g. Sabriel is brave, smart and overwhelmed; Touchstone is broody and tragic but ultimately has a tender heart toward Sabriel. Mogget was more distinct than either of the heroes. I love Mogget. He’s basically my cat, Harley. I love the tension that he adds to the story, leaving the reader guessing at his motives and allegiances.
The novel has a straightforward adventure structure that doesn’t surprise the reader much, but there are two scenes of very cinematic payoff that are memorable and page-turning. The showdown with Kerrigor in the reservoir where Sabriel’s father sacrifices himself by ringing the most powerful and dangerous of all the bells is so incredibly cool. The buildup to that moment with Touchstone and Mogget trying to hold the protection circle while Sabriel dives into Death, ice crackling outward into the waist-deep reservoir water from her Death-chilled body, and Kerrigor’s minions creating a deeply threatening corridor as the reader can feel his approach like encroaching doom…damn. The second showdown with Kerrigor at Sabriel’s school feels so desperate with the barricading of the school and the slow realization that no one can help them. Garth Nix is a master of dread. And then when the heroes defeat Kerrigor by turning him into another free-magic cat prison to have a long snooze with Mogget it’s ridiculous in the best way.
I really love this book and the series as a whole. I think Sabriel would make a great video game. The world of this book is interesting and engaging, the magic system is well-defined enough to build mechanics off of but open-ended enough that you could adapt it many different ways, and the progression of the story is very “go to place, fight evil, talk to someone new” repeated several times. I often daydream about how to satisfyingly translate the bells into rpg combat controls.