Sabriel by Garth Nix (awesome name, by the way) is the first in a series of fantasy novels for young adults. It features the eponymous girl, who is the latest in a long line of Necromancers –magicians who deal with death and getting the dead to shuffle around on this side of the grave. Only Sabriel’s clan is unique in that they specialize in putting the dead back down and protecting the world from them. So when her father dies, Sabriel has to shoulder the mantle of his office –until she can track him down and bring him back from the dead. Along the way she must face –yes, you guessed it– an ancient and deadly evil that threatens the entire world.
Nix has some really neat ideas in Sabriel. The whole necromancer angle is interesting, too, and Nix sets up some intriguing world building with the magic and silver bells that Sabriel and her brood use to ply their craft. So that’s cool. He also sets up two “kingdoms” that exist in parallel –one magical and old world, and the other non-magical and modern by the standards of early 20th century England. Sabriel is from the former and raised in the latter, presenting a nice duality that makes her easier for young readers to identify with her.
But that’s also a problem. The whole book is so incredibly, aggressively Mary Sue that it was hard to see Sabriel as anything other than a vehicle for fantasy fulfillment. This is a young girl who is mature beyond her years, the best at everything she does, unusually powerful, and without any real flaw. She’s just there to be a bland stand-in for the author and/or any young person reading the book. In fact, this is a criticism that can be leveled at just about any character in the book, especially Sabriel’s love interest, “Touchstone.” Who is, of course, really a handsome prince with all the personality of a brick. None of the characters have any spark, any sense of personality, no emotional range, and they speak in dialog that could probably be delivered with more passion by a Speak-And-Spell. Also, Sabriel has a pet cat. That talks. No, not kidding.
I can cut Sabriel some slack for being a young adult book. That’s clearly the audience, and it could be argued that Nix is doing some of this deliberately and the act is not unlike feeding bland, formless food to a baby just learning the mechanics of eating. And maybe the book would appeal to that kind of audience. Everyone else, though, should be aware that despite the glowing reviews it’s not the kind of YA book that crosses over well to other audiences.