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.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.


The Blackthorne Key (2015), by Kevin Sands

I was discussing Kevin Sand’s The Blackthorne Key, which won the John Spray Mystery Award for 2016, with a friend, who thought that it was a little bit predictable. No (she thought a bit about it)… it was just that perhaps the protagonist, Christopher, should have figured things out more quickly, given his purported intelligence. I had to ponder why I didn’t have this same criticism, because when she pointed out some examples, her position made sense. But I didn’t have that response: I was so immersed in the novel, so convinced by the characters and intrigued by the plot, that no criticisms had the space to rear their ugly heads. In teaching rhetoric, I tell my students: “If as an author you make a mistake, and your reader notices, you will have lost them. So don’t make a mistake.” As far as I could tell as I read The Blackthorne Key, Kevin Sands makes no mistakes: I was enthralled from start to finish.

Sands really does understand his setting. Christopher, his friend Tom, even his master Benedict Blackthorne and the other apothecaries, do not sport modern sensibilities lurking beneath the narrative trappings of the seventeenth century; their characters are, rather, consistent with a world in which the boundaries between science and faith and magic are blurred. Christopher, for all his innate intelligence, is still a young boy at the same time as he approaches manhood: his youthful exuberance hatches the (illegal but oh-so-much-fun) plan to build a cannon; his intelligence gives him the means to do so; his lack of experience results in his blowing up the stuffed bear in his master’s apothecary shop. By the end of the novel, though, as he is thrust into the adult world, he has gained a maturity far beyond either his earlier self or the middle-school readers the novel is aimed at.

In the case of the bear, as throughout the novel, Sands creates a balance between authenticity and reality: Christopher is not beaten for his exploits, but we are let know in no uncertain terms that others in his position would have been. Benedict Blackthorne is presented as a reasonable, intelligent master, who values Christopher’s sharp mind, even as he strictly controls his activities. As the novel progresses, though, and Christopher and Tom are pulled into the shady dealings of the apothecaries’ guild, we—as much as they—are uncertain where Blackthorne’s loyalties really lie. The plot is sufficiently complicated, the events sufficiently believable within Sands’s carefully constructed temporal and social setting; questions the reader might have about Christopher’s world are all ultimately answered, and we are left satisfied.

What really engaged me first as a reader, though, is Sands’s sense of humour, slightly sarcastic narrative voice, and clever word play. Christopher narrates the story with language that melds a sense of the period (1665) with a typically boyish irreverence and delight in really bad ideas. When Tom comments that “people can’t just build cannons,” Christopher responds: “But that’s where cannons come from: People build them. You think God sends cannons down from heaven?” And he later laments, “I wished God’s warnings would be a little clearer. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for the Almighty to write STOP STEALING STICKY BUNS in the clouds or something.”

Throughout the novel, I grew more and more fond of Christopher; as he gains knowledge and maturity, he loses nothing of his boyish charm. The Blackthorne Key introduces us to Christopher; his story continues in The Blackthorne Key: The Mark of the Plague. Happily, though, The Blackthorne Key is completely self-contained; we do not need to read the second book, but I, for one, certainly will.

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.