You may call me Mogget. As to what I am, I was once many things, but now I am only several.
In 2016, George RR Martin’s blog linked to this speculative cage match fight between a couple of characters from his Song of Ice and Fire series (Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth) vs. a couple of characters from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (Sabriel and Mogget).
“Who in the world is Sabriel?” I thought, stupidly. Apparently, she is a character in a major fantasy series that I somehow had never heard of before. Intrigued, I bought the first book in the series, Sabriel, and then promptly let it sit unread in my iBooks app for two years.
I finally got around to reading it last year. I really should have done that sooner. Sabriel is one of the most surprising, interesting, unusual fantasy books I’ve ever read.
The novel is set in two neighboring countries. One country has technology levels and a culture similar to World War I-era Britain. The other country, the Old Kingdom, has magic and a more medieval tech/culture. The countries are separated by a wall. Technology does not work so well in the Old Kingdom and magic doesn’t work so great in the more-modern land. Things get hazy on the border.
The narrative itself is straightforward: a teenage girl named Sabriel goes on a journey into the Old Kingdom to find out what happened to her missing necromancer father. There is magic and adventure and scary monsters and bells and the lands of the Dead and a kitty cat.
It’s the style of Sabriel that’s unusual. It doesn’t really read like a fairy tale, modern YA series, epic fantasy, or really anything else I’ve ever read. It’s…weird, with an unnatural stiltedness. It kind of felt like reading an adventure described in an obscure religious tract that was written 100 years ago that had been translated from English to some other language and then translated back into English. Somehow, this works for the book, giving it a sort of timelessness, seriousness, and haunting beauty that a more straightforward telling would not have. It just took some getting used to.
The worldbuilding is pretty immersive. The reader is left to decipher references to stuff like Free Magic, Charter Magic, the nature of Death, and the Dead. A quick introduction is provided on Sabriel’s main weapons — 7 bells, each with a specific name and purpose — but the reader is then assumed to remember each bell in detail for later action. It’s demanding.
I saw some reviews/descriptions of this series as being for children or something. I…wouldn’t go that far. The monsters in this book are pretty dang advanced-levels of scary, there is nudity, and there is death (that’s not a spoiler: it’s about a freaking necromancer, of course there’s death). I’d say that teens and particularly hardcore sixth graders could probably handle it, but just fair warning: I’m 40 and it creeped me out sometimes.
Those that are able to handle the more difficult and creepy aspects of the novel will be treated to one of the best protagonists around. Sabriel is a badass. She’s moral, capable-but-not-all-powerful, smart but doesn’t know a lot about the world, brave, curious, and loves her family and friends. In short, she’s like a lot of real 17-year-old girls. For a book written in the mid-90s (before Buffy the Vampire Slayer!), that’s pretty groundbreaking stuff.
Don’t be like me and wait too dang long to read this. If you’re a fan of fantasy, Treat. Yo. Self.
My rating: 5 stars