"Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was."
The first time I read this book I did not like it and had to abandon it at page 25. Now after having finished the whole thing in less than 36 hours, I realized I hardly gave it a fighting chance and that wasn't fair because it's actually good. Garth Nix surprised me in that all the objections I had about Sabriel as a character are remedied later on in the book. I have never been bored enough with a book to abandon it only to like it a lot after a second try. The writing is much better than what we've come to know as YA fantasy. It has depth, vibrancy, and distinct style of narration that doesn't weigh the story down--given the subject matter, you'd expect to be pounded over the head repeatedly with lectures on morality. Moreover, the world of Abhorsen and its characters are dark and ambiguous and violent, usual for YA which only makes it all that more interesting.
The story starts with a night of confusion and urgency, and then it moves on to the "present setting," which I think might be post-WWII English countryside. Sabriel, the only daughter of a powerful mage called Abhorsen, grew up in a boarding school on the South side of the Wall, far away from all the violence and dark magic of her home in the Old Kingdom. She has some basic magical knowledge and is familiar with the ways of the dead, but has had very little training. One day, she receives news of her father in distress, and then later she finds out that he's gone missing somewhere deep within the North, possibly at the center of magical and necromantic unrest. So Sabriel leaves school and makes her way North to her father's house, hoping to retrace his footsteps to track him down.
The journey starts out as a quest, with a little adventure on the side, then soon turns into a mission to save the land from an invasion of death. Zombie apocalypse, you ask? Well... yeah, I suppose. A lot of side characters die and whole populations are wiped out over night. The body count is unusually high for a coming of age story, but then again, necromancy is a force to be reckoned with, so the body count makes sense.
After having lived a sheltered life, Sabriel finds herself drowning as the weight of the world is put on her shoulders. The journey takes her from her childhood home to the heart of the Old Kingdom, from innocent schoolgirl to powerful mage, from an unprepared apprentice to a walker among the dead. But she isn't alone in her mission. She is aided by Mogget, an ancient mysterious being that takes the form of a sardonic white cat, and Touchstone, a not as ancient but equally mysterious displaced young man from the Old Kingdom. Together, they combine forces to search for Sabriel's father and make a last stand against death.
The complex aspects of the world, various sectors of dark magics, and even each individual character are difficult to sum up without giving too much away. The reader learns about these things as Sabriel is made aware of them. Nix does a nice job of revealing story arcs, otherworldly forces, origin mythology, and other necessary information as the story progresses, and as Sabriel gradually becomes who she is meant to be, we see her characterization improve dramatically.
Last words from the Abhorsen
"Let this be my final lesson. Everyone and everything has a time to die."
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The reason for my abandonment of the book has nothing to do with the book's content or the writing. It was because I'd hit my quota of heroic fantasy for the year. At the time, I had just finished Lynn Flewelling's Tamir Triad, a similar coming of age trilogy about dark magic and high fantasy, and while I really liked Flewelling's trilogy, I was tired of adolescence and any story that had to do with finding oneself or finding one's place in the world or both. Time was what I needed to take in this book and appreciate it for what it is--a standout among a sea of generic coming of age fantasies.