In most stories, death is the last thing you want, right? But in the Old Kingdom, death can be a very good thing.
Sabriel, the first novel in Garth Nix's trilogy set in the fantasy world of the Old Kingdom, gives death a capital D. It's not just a state of being in this book—it's an actual place, with waterfalls and paths and gates. Call it the final vacation destination.
Death is a huge part of the world's system of magic in this book, a system of rules and knowledge more detailed than the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons. In the Old Kingdom, necromancers who know what they're doing can stroll right into Death itself which, as Sabriel—our hero—knows, doesn't always make for the most enjoyable trip.
In her final year at boarding school, Sabriel has bigger problems than studying for finals. Her father is the Abhorsen, a necromancer who uses magic to keep dead things in Death where they belong—but when her dad goes missing, Sabriel has to leave her school in the mostly magic-free world of Ancelstierre and journey to the chaotic and supernatural Old Kingdom. Sabriel sets out to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance and steps up to take his place in a good old-fashioned fight between good and evil.
Sabriel, first published in 1995, has many elements of truly classic fantasy: swords, sorcery, a treacherous journey, a lost prince, a power-mad wizard, and even a talking cat. But where many fantasy novels have a character roster bigger than the phone book, Sabriel departs from tradition to zoom in on one girl forced into a tough situation. Sabriel is about swords and magic, but it's mostly about dealing with Death at a young age—and in Sabriel's case, quite literally.
If you find yourself completely addicted to Nix's world, there are two more books in the trilogy, Lirael and Abhorsen, as well as a novella, "Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case," published in Nix's collection of short stories, Across the Wall. In other words, though death might seem like the last stop in our lives, when it comes to necromancers, the adventure's just getting started.
Why Should I Care?
We might care about Sabriel because ever since Harry Potter, we can't get enough young adult fantasy. Or because Garth Nix created a magic system that's totally immersive and detailed. But who are we kidding? We care about Sabriel because it's about death, and death is totally fascinating.
The thing about death is that while our lives are all filled with all kinds of different experiences, death looms at the end for each of us. It's the one thing we all have in common—besides being born, of course—and the point that each of our roads lead to. But unlike being born, which science can pretty much tell us all about, dying more or less remains a mystery. There are tons of different ideas about what happens after death, but that's just it—they're all just ideas.
Maybe you think you know what happens when we die, or maybe you've got absolutely no clue. Either way, Sabriel takes a good, long look at death, inviting us as readers to hang out with Nix's take on this great unknown—and in the process, watch Sabriel come to terms with death and the role it plays in her life. So perhaps, when all is said and done, we'll see that death isn't just part of the Old Kingdom's system of magic—it's part of what makes our own lives magical too.