“A book! WTF, Jake? How the hell does that relate to retro gaming?” I’ll admit, book reviews fit in with as well with retro gaming as Bernie Sanders fits in with the Wu Tang Clan. But I’ve been asked to write a few book reviews, and since most of them are sci-fi or fantasy, I thought your interests as a gamer might just imply a few things about your reading habits. If not, read on anyway. It should be entertaining, at the very least. And expect a few more of these in the months to come. I’m a little crunched for time, so I thought they’d be a good way to prevent slipping into the every-other-week pattern you may have noticed lately.
In the past twenty years, the name “Garth Nix” has begun to inspire awe and wonder among Fantasy readers, despite sounding like a Sith Lord who moonlights as a country music singer. Fantasy has, unfortunately, never been known for being an especially progressive genre, what with C.S. Lewis lacing his work with Christian Allegory and Tolkien ethnically cleansing the orcs off the face of Middle-Earth. Kings are good, emperors are bad, and no one has ever innovated a single piece of technology–it’s all just sort of always been there, unchanging, as though crossbows, saddles, and blacksmithing were residue left over from the Big Bang. Most of all, the only people who matter in Fantasy are heroes, powerful, intelligent young men armed only with their father’s sword and the blessings of God who undergo bloody combat to harden themselves in order to face the evil idolatrous sorcerer bent on ruling the world through global slaughter. Sabriel is…not actually any different than that. But the hero is a girl! That ought to count for something.
Nix’s novel begins with Sabriel on a long-term study abroad program in Ancelstierre, a country separated from her native “Old Kingdom” by an ancient wall, which, let’s be honest, does nothing to keep Mexicans from crossing into the Old Kingdom to look for work or White Walkers from coming south to haunt Ancelstierre. But the wall exists to give citizens of Ancelstierre peace of mind because they fear magic and want to deny it’s existence, much like comprehensive sexual education south of the Mason-Dixon line. And also like sex ed in the south, Sabriel’s school will only teach magic with the written request of a parent, and even that is rather discouraged. So our heroine finds herself confused about why her father, Abhorsen, sent her to this strange country for most of her life to receive a magical education. (Perhaps the next book in the series will send her to Texas for a Ph.D. on climate change.) One night, when Abhorsen doesn’t answer her mystical Skype call, she gets worried and heads into the Old Kingdom to search for what she somewhat presumptively assumes will be his bloody, mangled corpse lying in a ditch, bloated with maggots. She soon discovers first, that Abhorsen is a title, meaning she’s the kid with the weird father who insists that his children call him “President Dad,” and second, that upon his death, she will assume the duties of Abhorsen.
The Abhorsen, named for the executioner in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, is tasked with going around the Old Kingdom, knocking on graves and checking, “You still dead in there?” Death is depicted in the novel like a Justin Bieber concert or a theater playing an M. Night Shyamalan film, and once the dead realize how boring it is, they just want to step outside into Life for a little fresh air. As part of her inherent magical talent, Sabriel can travel freely between Life and Death as though she’s trying to get St. Peter to fill up her punch card for a free latte.
The unique addition to the standard Hero’s Journey trope, other than a hero who only makes 79% of the average hero’s salary, is the coming-of-age angle. The eighteen-year-old Sabriel leaves school, comes to terms with adopting a new identity, searches for a father she barely knows, discovers romance, and stands up to the pressures of professional responsibility. Just throw in one quirky, best-friend character and you’re one saccharine trope away from giving the reader diabetes. Fortunately, though, Nix’s handling of the situation uses more Splenda than sugar, and the best-friend character follows more of a Sabrina the Teenage Witch path, giving her a feline companion who houses the spirit of a great evil.
The story is entertaining, if not groundbreaking. Nix outlines the skeleton of the Old Kingdom, leaving it a little threadbare, and he leaves his system of “Charter Magic” and “Free Magic” frustratingly underexplained, dangling inferences for us to piece together, like trying to understand the plot of Star Wars by splicing together footage from the film trailers. Still, Sabriel behaves as a realistic and interesting character, and it’s a nice adventure that breaks from the tradition of meat head knight/swordsmen protagonists. Any fans of general Fantasy, especially those with an interest in magic, would enjoy it, but the feminine protagonist could also serve as an entry point for a lot of girls to enter a genre that has, until recent years, been a bit of a sausage fest.