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.

Conjuror (2016), by John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman

Barrowman - ConjurorWho knew? Captain Jack Harness is an author in his own right, as is his sister Carole. In addition to his two memoirs, Anything Goes (2008) and I Am What I Am (2009), the pair have collaborated on previous YA fantasy novels, including The Hollow Earth trilogy (which I now feel compelled to read). I ran across Conjuror in an online book sale, and have to admit that what drew it initially was the authors’ name. These online book stores do little to help distinguish one YA fantasy from another; it is impossibly to tell from the descriptions which might be worth paying for, which not. Conjuror is.

The premise is a little reminiscent of Inkheart, in which the reading or writing of a story transports characters between our world and the phase space of the narrative. In Conjuror, the Animare can draw their way into paintings, travelling through space and time; they can create tangible articles merely by drawing them into being. Conjurors possess a similar magical ability, controlling their environments through song and music. The history of art and music thus features strongly in the novel, which provides an intellectual interest as well as grounding the fantasy in our own world. The plot, described in short, could be perceived as derivative: American Rémy is the descendant of a North African conjuror sold into slavery; Rémy is running from the magically powerful man who killed his mother and great-aunt, but failed the attempt to kill Rémy. British twins Matt and Emily are young, impetuous but potentially powerful animare who reject the Council and are recruited by the “MI6 of the Council,” the Orion, for whom they become probationers. So we have the set-up. Rémy only vaguely understands what is going on in his life, his powers having been hidden by his mother through fear for their lives. Matt and Em—on a quest to capture the rogue animare Caravaggio and bind him permanently within a painting—stumble into Rémy’s quest, finding what he is looking for and thus becoming targets for his enemies. For Rémy is (as far as we know) the last conjuror, and the prophesy of the Camarillo, a group of evil animare and sorcerers, is that only a conjuror can prevent the coming of the Second Kingdom, which will—in Tolkienesque fashion—“cover all the world in a second darkness.” While Tolkien is not quoted, intertextual allusions abound. When asked what he knows of the Spanish Inquisition, the foundation of the Camarillo, Rémy cheekily replies: “No one expects them, I can tell you that much.” “The Professor looked blank,” but the reader will not. Even better, the Professor at one point informs Rémy that “time is more wibbly wobbly that you think.” Those who have picked up this novel because of the authors’ name will feel themselves to be part of a larger geekdom of understanding. As they truly are.

The characters are not drawn in great depth, either; this is a novel about action and magic, not about deep human emotions. And it works very well as such. The machinations of the plot, the ways in which music and art, historical figures and places, weave together, create a fast-paced narrative that keeps the reader engrossed throughout. It is to the Barrowmans’ credit, too, that the story is self-contained, despite the publisher’s announcement at the end of the novel that “the next compelling installment in the Orion Chronicles will be released in spring 2017.” Dang. I have to wait that long?

Bottom line: even with some superficially stereotypic elements, Conjuror brings enough new material to the realm of fantasy literature to be welcomed into the canon with no hesitation.

Book of a Thousand Days (2007), by Shannon Hale

Hale - book“Mama used to say, you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul” (25).

Dashti is a Mucker, a peasant from the steppes who, orphaned, seeks work in the city. She pledges herself to Lady Saren, and by choice is condemned with her lady to a seven-year imprisonment, walled up in a tower stocked with food but with only a flapped opening through which to jettison their waste. Lady Saren’s crime? In traditional narrative fashion, she refuses to participate in an arranged marriage, having promised herself to a younger, kinder man. While partaking of this trope, Book of a Thousand Days nonetheless has much that is original; Shannon Hale once again shows herself more than capable of constructing a fictional world that is both unique and internally consistent.

The Muckers’ tradition involves healing through song, a talent Dashti has been taught by her mother. When her abilities are discovered, she is taught to read and write in order to be trained as the condemned Lady Saren’s handmaiden. The story unfolds through Dashti’s diary, kept as a record of “our seven years in a tower and out adventures thereafter” (epigram). Much of the narrative is initially devoted to learning how Dashti reconciles the practicalities of imprisonment with her understanding of the duties of a handmaiden; her backstory is slowly revealed through her musings about Saren and her reflections on their predicament.

Saren is weak, both physically and emotionally, and Dashti has to be strong for them both while remaining subservient, a balance which becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Saren refuses to marry Lord Kharsan not on principle, but out of fear; the young Khan Tegus, with whom she had been exchanging letters, is a safer man to tie herself to. On some level, though, she is afraid of him as well, and insists that Dashti impersonate her when Khan Tegus comes to see if he can garner their release. Lord Kharsan visits, too, and Dashti immediately understands Saren’s fear. He is more than intimidating: he is consummately evil, revelling in their fear and promising pain and even death should Saren become his. Dashti has to revisit her assessment of Saren’s choices.

Not unexpectedly, Dashti’s impersonation of Saren plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the novel, but to say more would lessen readers’ enjoyment. We know the girls escape; they then make their way to Khan Tegus’s city, and eventually (necessarily) come to his notice. How this all unfolds matters far less than how Hale presents her characters. Dashti’s voice is believable not only for its balance of intelligence with folk wisdom, but also in its consistency: rather, in its carefully calibrated development, as Dashti learns the ways of the gentry and where her meager power can best be exercised. As she learns to navigate her new world, her unshakable sense of self is strengthened; even in her fear, she knows who she is and refuses to behave elsewise. Saren, too, undergoes change; Dashti’s songs finally help her heal, giving her the strength in turn to help Dashti in her need. The hierarchy of mistress and maid blurs, and Saren admits: “Dashti is my sister. … we spent nearly three years locked in a tower and when we came out it was as if we were … being born anew” (296-7). Dashti, too, recognizes Saren’s development:

I’d seen my lady begin to change … but never until that moment had she looked like I thought gentry should. Like anyone should. More than a thousand days we’ve been together, more than a thousand songs I’ve sung for her, and only now, I think, do I see Saren truly begin to heal. (297-8)

Saren’s healing, and Dashti’s growing awareness of her own strengths, have forged a sisterhood out their at-times tenuous relationship. They have glimpsed each others’ souls, a source of solace and healing for both.

Trip to the Moon (2013), by Vera Evic

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 19.2.

Evic - MoonTrip to the Moon tells of three Inuit boys enjoying their world in the fashion of boys everywhere: they ride their bikes, skip stones in the water, and go poking in the dirt. What Kevin, Jacob, and Michael find, though, is an old oil drum, situating them in a rural environment as much as does mention of their town: Pagnirtung, Nunavut. The simple story in English is repeated below by the same story (I assume) in Inuktitut. The drawings are simple—in differing and mixed media—with the sky a seeming homage to Emily Carr.

The oil drum, it turns out, is magic, and transports the boys to the moon, where they meet a race of little people and explore the moon’s environment much as they explored back home. When their stomachs rumble, they begin their return flight, only to have Michael slip off the drum and … “he landed—on the floor, next to his bed” (20), conforming to the “all just a dream” motif.

The story is simple, almost clichéd; the language is plain and uninspired, containing no poetic rhythm or language, no echo of oral story-telling. The drawings are acceptable, but what makes this book special is the parallel English and Inuktitut, providing a story of their culture, in their language, to young readers in Nunavut. “Inuktitut books for children” is a very slowly growing library: any addition is greatly to be welcomed.