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.

The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

wyss-map

Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

wyss-cover

Speechless (2015), by Jennifer Mook-Sang

I really struggled with this review. The book is so simple, so refreshing, even though it is dealing with what are, to an elementary school student, major issues. It was a delight to read; I hope that comes across sufficiently.

Speechless

mook-sang-speechless“Jelly”—Joe Alton Miles, or J.A.M.—has a problem. Well, Jelly has a collection of problems, but one in particular: stage fright. It wouldn’t be a big issue except for the school speech competition, with the amazing prize of a tablet computer with enough power for online gaming. Which brings up Jelly’s next problem: Victoria, a popular but sly and manipulative classmate.

As a character, Victoria might seem to be a bit of a stereotype, but sadly, her type is all too common in our schools. I’m pretty sure you all know her: the girl who demands adoration, the one weaker classmates strive to appease because, as Jelly’s friend Samantha affirms, “if you want any friends, you have to friends with Victoria.” (Sam, notably, feels no such compulsion: “Too much drama” (50).) Victoria is the student Jelly needs to beat to win that tablet, and Victoria excels at winning. She also plays nasty: spreading rumours about Jelly, faking injury when he pushes her slightly, making snide sotto voce comments at all his efforts. Everyone who has ever suffered under unjust adult discipline will feel Jelly’s pain: he’s smart, a good kid trying to help others, and yet the adults are duped by Victoria’s manipulations.

Supported by his developing friendship with Parker’s twin sister, Sam, Jelly navigates the social quagmire of elementary school. They manage to diffuse the effect of Victoria’s rumours, but Jelly still flounders about in a tangle of playground politics. This is perhaps what I liked best about Speechless: Jennifer Mook-Sang really gives us a sense of how daunting life can be to an eleven-year-old boy. There is a simplicity to Jelly’s thought processes that belies the importance of the complex life lessons he is learning. Standing up to bullies, both physically and intellectually; missing sleep to help others because he promised; figuring out ways to succeed in spite of his insecurities and fear: all these are big life lessons, but Speechless is in no way heavy-handed. Jelly’s cheeky narrative voice and personality, at once both clueless and self-reflective, make us both smile at his youth and cheer his growing maturity.

Small Saul (2015), by Ashley Spires

spires-saulWhen Ashley Spires first began publishing, I had the joy of reviewing her first two picture books: Binky the Space Cat (2009) and Binky to the Rescue (2010). Her books have delighted young readers and parents ever since, and this year Small Saul was chosen as the TD Grade One Book Giveaway title.

Every year, Toronto Dominion bank sponsors the TD Children’s Book Awards, which “rewarding the best literary work by Canadian authors for children.” In addition to this sponsorship, since the year 2000, TD has joined with the Canadian Children’s Book Centre to create “the largest free-book distribution program to school-aged children in Canada. All English and French Grade One students receive a free copy of a Canadian children’s book … which they can keep to take home and read with their parents and caregivers.” What a marvellous program, and what a great book to have chosen.

Small Saul has always loved the sea, but is rejected by the navy due to his height. Undaunted, he turns to piracy, because “pirates aren’t so picky.” The incongruity between our notion of pirates, the courses at the “Pirate College” Saul attends, and Saul’s diminutive stature and gentle nature, are fodder for Spire’s quirky humour. Saul’s exuberate joyousness contrasts with the pirates’ stereotypic roughness—in both words and images—culminating in a very pirate-like moment: “Small Saul was so engrossed … that he didn’t even notice when the captain pushed him overboard. The Rusty Squid sailed away… ” But don’t worry! No small pirates were injured in the making of this narrative. The pirate crew find it hard to return to life without the comfort of Saul’s care, and retrieve him.

This might not seem the most earth-shatteringly original of ideas—that our differences are what make us special—but it is a message that deserves to be reiterated often. When it is presented with Spire’s humorous and adorable illustrations, the story is impossible to resist. (And I really like the dress Saul makes for the seagull…)