Sabriel (1995), by Garth Nix

When I first read Garth Nix’s Mister Monday (2003) and Grim Tuesday (2004), I was told that, really, I had to read Sabriel; it was his best. That was in 2004. It has taken me this long to pick it up.

I have to admit that the reason I read it now was because the digital version was on sale. Reading it on a Kobo only served to reaffirm two issues I have with digital texts—or rather, two components of one overarching issue: You can’t flip through the pages. 1) This meant in the case of Sabriel, that I couldn’t easily flip back to the page where we are told what each of the Abhorsen’s bells is named and what its power is and 2) when trying to review the novel, I couldn’t easily flip through the pages to glimpse words quickly and remind myself of the plot and the feelings elicited by particular passages. I have come to the conclusion that this “not able to flip pages” issue is beginning to far outweigh the convenience of not having to hold a large book, and of being able to read at night with the lights off.

But I endeavor to do credit to what is apparently one of the favourite fantasies of a number of my friends and children’s literature associates. And I did like it, really. But like the Keys to the Kingdom series, I did not read on…

 

Sabriel (1995)

nix-sabrielSabriel is a well-executed portal fantasy—a narrative in which characters can cross through a portal from a fantasy world into ours and back. The portals in these narratives can be physical or magical; the ability to move between worlds can be controlled through any number of mechanisms. A good portal fantasy, then, will contain an interesting fantasy world, with strong internal consistency; a portal that makes logical sense in terms of both construction and utility; and a representation of our world that integrates successfully with the fictional fantasy world the author has created. No easy feat, that. In both the Keys to the Kingdom series and Sabriel, Garth Nix does it well.

Sabriel is from the Old Kingdom, but sent into our world as a young girl for safe-keeping. This trope in portal fantasies is replicated in characters such as Harry Potter (1997+) and Tristran Thorn in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (2006), and in each, narrative expectations are met by the young protagonist’s importance in the fantasy world. In the Prologue to Sabriel, we are given a glimpse into the power of Abhorsen, whose “name was one of secrets, and unspoken fears,” to travel into the world of the dead and bring souls back into the world of the living. The child he brings back from the borders of death—his daughter and heir—is Sabriel.

The baby Sabriel is sent to Ancelstierre—a parallel to the reader’s world, with buses and ambulances, policemen and border soldiers, and Wyverley girls’ school—where she grows up, developing her magical abilities, but not really understanding them. So when Sabriel receives her father’s sword and bells through a “sending” from beyond the Gates of death, and she knows she must return to the Old Kingdom she has no idea how to proceed.

What follows is an archetypal quest narrative; what makes it interesting is the world that Nix has created, and the way that his magic functions. Incorporating notions of the afterlife from Greek mythology—the rivers of the underworld, nested levels of death, the bartering for passage—Nix creates his own complex mythology, a sign of strong fantasy narrative. As Sabriel travels through the Old Kingdom on her quest, it is not obvious to the reader where she will need to travel, nor whether she will actually succeed in her goals: another characteristic of a strong narrative. We learn about the Old Kingdom and Charter Magic organically, as Sabriel discovers her purpose and history. While some plot elements are predictable, given narrative expectations of the archetype, the minutiæ of Nix’s world is engaging. The seven bells that control the Abhorsen’s travels through the underworld; the obligations that come with the Abhorsen’s power; the confusion when those obligations are thrust, unexplained, upon a young girl raised in Ancelstierre: these are all handled with a forthright narrative style that carried readers through to the end—in my case in one sitting.

So why, then, did I not read the second novel in the series? The answer lies only partially in practicalities. I’m rather busy, but that would have been overcome except for two issues. The first is that Garth Nix doesn’t really write a very good romantic relationship. Sabriel and Touchstone are both richly envisioned characters; the intersection of their histories is carefully constructed, but the romantic aspect of their relationship feels shallow within the intricate world Nix has created.

“I love you,” he whispered. “I hope you don’t mind.”

Sabriel looked back at him, and smiled, almost despite herself. Her sadness … was still there, and her fears for the future—but seeing Touchstone staring apprehensively at her somehow gave her hope.

“I don’t mind,” she whispered back, leaning towards him. She frowned. “I think … I think I might love you too …”

That’s it. Except for the requisite sorrow at the end when at different points they each think the other has died. I’m not asking for sexually explicit scenes, but a little more emotion, perhaps, please?

The second issue I have is that the next volume is not about Sabriel. So: her relationship with Touchstone is not developed; the stories we can imagine of her role as Abhorsen are not told; the questions we have about her place within her world—raised through the narrative Nix gives us—are not answered. We are left unsatisfied. The other books in the series are stand-alone novels set in the Old Kingdom, not sequels to Sabriel. Anyone who reads my blog very often will now be raising the cry of “hypocrite!” but not entirely justly. I am really not fond of novels that demand that the reader picks up the next volume. In this case, though, Nix has written a wonderful novel that almost stands alone, but yet not quite. I do not feel like we have really explored Sabriel’s possibilities as a character; but even more than that, I do not feel the author has told us enough about what happens in her life. We are left with too little dénouement, too much uncertainty, a frustration in not being given a glimpse of what comes next.

When Morning Comes (2016), by Arushi Raina

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Having been a juror for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People for the past two years (it is a two-year appointment), I have to say that When Morning Comes stands a very good chance of being the winner for 2017. That cannot, of course, be reflected in my review for Resource Links, but I wanted to add that opinion to my appreciation of Raina’s excellent novel.

When Morning Comes (2016)

raina-when-morning-comesI am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was

I am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was Cape Town (2012), by Brenda Hammond; then Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters; and now When Morning Comes, by Arushi Raina. They just keep getting better. Raina’s complex characterization and intricate plot kept me enthralled from my first meeting of Zanele and Jack and Meena through to the devastatingly inevitable conclusion. Raina does not capitulate to simplistic narrative expectations of some current YA genres, wherein the teen protagonists rise above the socio-political powers against which they struggle and succeed; this is perhaps because the novel is based on historical events, but it is nonetheless admirably handled. Raina’s characters are young: inexperienced yet passionate, afraid yet determined. They behave immaturely under pressure. They make mistakes. They—and more importantly those around them—suffer for those mistakes. And so they learn, but that learning sometimes comes too late. The bravery of some characters seems at times almost excessive, but it is always believable.

The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1976. We meet Zanele as she and her friends attempt to bomb a power station. The attempt fails; two of her friends are arrested; Zanele escapes. Theirs is but a small act of terrorism aimed at helping to overthrow the apartheid government. As the novel progresses, Zanele’s life becomes inextricably entwined with that of Jack, a naïve white boy who is entranced by Zanele; Meena, daughter of a South Asian shopkeeper who is being extorted by a local gang; and Thabo, one of the gang members and Zanele’s childhood friend. The intricate connections Raina constructs in her narrative all lead inexorably toward the tragedy that erupted on June 16th, 1976. The Soweto Uprising is infamous in South African history for the police brutality used against the 15,000 students in the protest that quickly became a riot. Raina’s novel traces the path from the government imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction, through the Soweto high school students’ growing dissatisfaction, to their cohesive plan of action. The short “historical intro”—significantly at the back of the novel—informs the reader of the real historical moment, but the novel itself is a far stronger exposition of the students’ anger and power than any historical commentary could be.

Missing Nimâmâ (2015), by Melanie Florence

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.3.

On 17 November 2016, Missing Nimâmâ was awarded theTD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the highest honour (and greatest monetary award) available for writers of children’s literature in Canada.

The intended age group for the picture book was listed in the competition literature as 9-12, which differs from my earlier assumptions in writing this review.

Missing Nimâmâ

Illustrated by François Thisdale.

Florence - Missing“Once upon a time there was a little girl, a little butterfly, who flew to the telephone every time it rang, hoping against hope that her mother was coming home.”

Missing Nimâmâ is a truly beautiful book. I’m not sure, though, who the audience is. François Thisdale’s illustrations enhance this poignant story of a young Aboriginal mother torn from her family in an unexplained way, like so many Aboriginal women in Canada have been. Kateri’s mother is lost; Kateri is being raised by her nôhkom, her grandmother, while her mother’s spirit watches over her.

The story is told in both voices. We hear the spirit of the young mother as she watches her daughter grow to womanhood. We watch as Kateri tells her own story as she matures under the loving care of her grandmother. We never learn what happened to Kateri’s mother; Kateri is a young woman, married, and expecting her first child when the call comes that they have found her mother. What happened is not the issue, though, so much as the years of not knowing, of growing up without a mother, or missing a daughter, a sister, a wife – and having no answers. The depth of this ongoing tragedy is hauntingly portrayed through Florence’s poetic words and Thisdale’s evocative illustrations.

But to return to my earlier question: who is this book for? It is truly beautiful, but perhaps too powerful for young readers, even if presented through the filter of an adult reader. But who am I to say? I have not lost a mother; I have not needed this story. And it is a story that needs to be both told and heard.

Uncertain Solider (2015), by Karen Bass

Bass - SoldierWhen I was young, I saw the 1978 movie version of Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973). Until then, I hadn’t thought about what “our side” did with prisoners of war. It was more obvious with Allied prisoners in the European or Asian theatre: the prisoners were held there, where the battles were being waged. (Hogan’s Heroes, the comic TV series that ran from 1965 to 1971, was also a popular entertainment of my youth.) Less traumatic than the American Summer of My German Soldier, Uncertain Soldier tells the story of Erich Hofmeyer, a German prisoner of war held in Alberta in the winter of 1943-44.

The story begins, though, in the voice of young Max Schmidt, a Canadian lad born of German parents, who is persecuted for his heritage and understandably struggles with his identity as a result. His father is almost violently insistent that Max remain proud of and stand up for himself and his German heritage. What Max is subjected to is impossible to stand against, though: a systematic, targetted bullying that readers will recognize as being a pervasive response to otherness, not just the product of war-time Canadian prejudice. When the bullying becomes life threatening, Max runs away. Max’s flight is the impetus for an act of bravery by Erich on both a physical and an emotional level, a distillation of the uncertainty that has been tearing at Erich throughout the novel.

Erich’s uncertainty regarding his conflicted national and cultural identities gives rise to the novel’s title. While Max’s struggle is the weft of the fabric of Bass’s narrative, Erich’s is the warp. Max is persecuted by his classmates; Erich’s very life is threatened by his complex position as a German national with British relatives, who speaks English perfectly and who silently rejects Hitler’s insistence on the superiority of the Aryan “race.” In the prison camp outside of Lethbridge where Erich is initially held, the Nazi party members rule as strongly as within the German army. Beaten close to death by those in power, Erich is granted a transfer to a work camp for prisoners deemed to be less of an ideological threat. Here, too, though, the dynamics among the prisoners is infused with mistrust of each other and of the Canadians the men work with. Some of the Canadians are generous and kind; others are resentful; and at least one person is filled with a hatred that leads to murderous intent. As both linguistic and cultural interpreter between the German prisoners and their English-speaking boss and fellow lumberjacks, Erich sees both honour and mistrust on both sides, and his honest, empathetic perspective makes him an ideal negotiator but also puts him in an almost untenable situation.

Uncertain Soldier is a solid, intelligent interpretation of the politics of the time and the effect of opinion on morale. Through the richness of its characters, the novel gives voice to a gamut of attitudes, revealing the complexity of life during the 1940s far more thoroughly and effectively than what is taught in history classes. In contrast to the Canadian Sam’s violent insistence that “a few firing squads last war would’ve fixed it,” Erich’s British grandfather astutely notes that “more mercy by the Great War’s victors might have prevented the fight that loomed” (103). The parallel with history is made more powerful by its subtlety; most readers will not hear Sam’s vehemence as an echo of French military politician Ferdinand Foch, who noted at the time that the Treaty of Versailles was “not peace [but] an Armistice for twenty years,” asking for harsher restrictions to be place on the defeated Germany. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Erich’s grandfather’s position is reminiscent of John Maynard Keynes’s insistence that the conditions were too harsh, that the Treaty was a “Carthaginian peace,” a peace ensured by the complete annihilation of the vanquished, such as Rome’s conquering of Carthage. Historians still debate the political “what ifs” of the first half of the twentieth century, and this uncertainty, manifested at all levels of society, is brilliantly woven into the fabric of Bass’s text.