I picked up the recommendation for Sabriel in a few different places with everyone rating it highly, but for the first half, maybe two-thirds, I was teetering on the edge of walking away from the book. In the end I was glad I stuck with it, but the story takes a very long time to get going and because the characters spend a large part of that confused, lost and clueless of what they’re up against, I felt the same way.
Even while I was thinking the plot was boring the imagination in the books grabbed me and formed a wonderfully full and complex place inside my head. The land is split into two parts: Ancelstierre is the ‘normal’ world, kind of an early 20th Century England, where cars and tanks are still fairly new, and the fantastical Old Kingdom, where the dead rise and walk the land and magic is practised. Dividing the two is The Wall, which keeps the Old Kingdom magic away from Ancelstierre and which is defended by guards with guns, swords and, in some cases, with magic powers.
Sabriel is the daughter of the current Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer whose family have always born the name Abhorsen, an office that involves travelling the Old Kingdom and putting the dead back where they belong: in death. When an underling from beyond the grave delivers her father’s sword and bells (used to fight the dead), Sabriel sets off to find his body and bring him back from beyond the grave. Along the way she frees a bastard prince, the last of the Old Kingdom’s royal line, who has been imprisoned in death for 200 years, is saddled with Mogget, a form of malicious free magic that is kept in check by a collar set on him by a previous Abhorsen, and faces one of the greater dead, who is trying to make his stay in the land of the living permanent.
When it finally gets going you’ll be engrossed and the characters and locations are all well-drawn and a nice step away from the stereotypes of the fantasy genre. You know what’s going to happen in the end, even if there are a few twists and turns on the way, but it’s got enough action, intrigue and thrills to keep you entertained (once you’re past the first half). Don’t let people tell you this is a kids book, it’s one for all ages.
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Reviewed: 19th December 2005