I came late to young adult books. OK, in all fairness to myself, YA wasn’t the big thing it is now when I was a young adult. Right, now I sound old… Anyway, I jumped straight into adult fantasy at the age of ten and almost entirely missed young adult books. In fact, even to this day, I have only read a few – Tamora Pearce’s set about the young girl, Alana, who wants to be a knight, read very early in my forays into fiction, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, read at high school, and of course, as has everyone else, Harry Potter, which I read long after my young adulthood had been and gone. There may be a few others I don’t realise, as I don’t really think of books in terms of adult or young adult.
Of these, I would have to pick Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy as my favourite. Why? It’s difficult to say. I haven’t read it in a while (and I now have the uncontrollable urge to stop typing this and go read it instead) but I remember a book that thoroughly sucked me into its world and its story.
Sabriel, the first in the trilogy, is the tale of a girl called – funnily enough – Sabriel, whose father is the Abhorsen – a unique necromancer for good, laying the dead to rest and exorcising the evil undead. As his daughter, she has ventured into Death, almost a physical place, since she was twelve. As the book opens, she is attending a college for young ladies in Ancelstierre, a place where magic is foreign and unknown except here, at the Wall, where Ancelstierre meets the Old Kingdom and sometimes the wind blows the wrong way…
Sabriel’s journey begins when a spirit arrives with her father’s bells and the news he is missing. Armed only with the bells that are an Abhorsen’s tools of the trade, she must set off alone into the Old Kingdom, where something is gravely amiss, to find her missing father.
I love the unique elements of this story. The Abhorsen – a good necromancer! Necromancers are so typically cast as villains, a force for evil, and any magic relating to the dead as vile and unclean (guilty as charged) but this trilogy takes an old story element and gives it a new spin. I just love the name ‘Abhorsen’ too.
And the Abhorsen’s bells – a fascinating and novel way of doing magic. Not the music, per se, because there are plenty of stories where music creates magic, but the idea that seven specific bells cast in seven specific sizes to create seven specific tones provide a complete toolset against the powers of death. It’s almost as precise as a thief’s lockpick set! Each bell has its own sound, its own character, its own abilities. Some of them can be used to achieve similar outcomes, but may work less effectively than others, or may be less reliable. Some of the bells are tricksters, and can ring themselves, with dire consequences! It’s like a toolset that’s always looking for a way to trip you up – and when one walks the river of Death, that’s hardly the friend you want watching your back.
Sabriel is, of course, eventually joined by companions in her quest, one of whom is the cat, Mogget. It’s unclear what Mogget is, except he is apparently some kind of spirit or entity that an ancient Abhorsen subdued and has been in service to Abhorsen after Abhorsen ever since. But Mogget, too, is tricky. No friend of the Abhorsen, he, and only compelled to service. Despite knowing that, I can’t help but like him and think maybe there is more to him than he would like us to think. And cats are, you know, so self-importantly cool.
When I first read Sabriel, I believe I had received a book award – an award for something, probably some kind of academic excellence, where you get a book voucher or choose a book and they present it to you. The bookshop I had to go to didn’t have a huge selection of my usual fare – no Robert Jordan, no Terry Goodkind, no Terry Pratchett. Sacrilege almost! I picked up Sabriel because it looked like the best candidate of what was, all round, a rather sorry lot. I still don’t know why that rather boring, educational bookshop actually stocked the book – perhaps because it was written by a local author (Garth Nix is a fellow Sydneysider here in Australia).
Whatever the reason, that’s how I wound up with Sabriel, unknowing it was only the first in a trilogy. In fact, I was well into my twenties and a university degree or two when I discovered there was not just one sequel, but two! Oh, happy days! Needless to say, I promptly bought and read them.
I know these are classified as young adult, but really I think there’s plenty of appeal in them for those of us who have moved beyond young adulthood. I’m going to go dig Sabriel out of the bookcase, and if you haven’t read it yet, I strongly urge you to do the same!