Nix is a man on a mission with this book, and he doesn't waste readers' time with a lot of flowery descriptions and metaphors. He's got an exciting story to tell, and he gets straight into the action. There's a lot of movement in this book, and it covers a long journey and tons of adventures, so Nix doesn't dwell on his characters' inner thoughts for long stretches of time—there's too much going on to dilly dally.
When Sabriel first arrives in the Old Kingdom, we don't mess around with talk of landscape or even what's in her head—the action starts right away:
Sabriel found the first dead Ancelstierre soldier six miles from the Wall in the last, fading hours of the afternoon. (4.1)
The time of day is described—"last, fading hours of the afternoon"—but that's about it. Sabriel's just arrived in a place that is totally new to us as readers, but the emphasis remains on what's happening, instead of what it all looks like. This is no Tolkien-esque journey with descriptions of every last kind of tree and what Sabriel cooked for lunch—no, this is a flat-out sprint from one location to the next. It fits the adventure-filled plot perfectly.
Sabriel fits pretty neatly in the classic coming of age genre. Even though our protagonist is nearly done with her teenage years, her story is about her transition between a sheltered life at school in Ancelstierre to her new role as an adult in the Old Kingdom. It shares a lot of typical themes with other stories in young adult literature that focus on coming of age: responsibility, self-reliance, and moving from a protected life into a high-stakes situation.
There's certainly a whole lot of magic in this story—as well as supernatural creatures, daring adventures, and alternate worlds—so Sabriel's adventure should satisfy everyone who hangs out in the young adult fantasy section of the bookstore. It's also got a hint of magical realism, since its initial setting of Ancelstierre is primarily a non-magical place, but the magic kicks in so quickly that the book has a lot more in common with Harry Potter than with Life of Pi.
Sabriel. It has a certain directness about it, don't you think? It also gives our heroine a rock star vibe. Think about all the celebrities who only need a single name: Madonna. Prince. Cher. Adele. And Sabriel, with her potent power to walk through Death, is definitely a rock star in her world. Not to mention, the author never reveals Sabriel's last name, or even if she has one. Sabriel herself spends a lot of time convincing other characters to stay on a first-name basis with her too. So, on every level, this one-name title makes a lot of sense.
So here's where Sabriel is kind of an unusual book: it ends abruptly. Really abruptly. After a dramatic build-up culminating in a cinematic final battle at Sabriel's alma mater, where Sabriel and Touchstone fight Kerrigor and his zombie army, Sabriel dies.
Yep, the main character actually dies.
Should we be surprised by this? Well, maybe not. Sabriel dies at the beginning of the book, too—so maybe it's only appropriate that she die at the end. Plus, in between, this book is all about death. Turns out that dying as a baby wasn't Sabriel's time to go, but dying at the final battle isn't her time either. (Sabriel can't seem to time this dying thing right, can she?)
Sabriel's deaths add a nice kind of symmetry to the story, but after Sabriel's Abhorsen ancestors bring her back to life in the epilogue, that's it—no extended happy ending, no aftermath with fireworks and flowers. After a long and exhausting adventure, Sabriel wakes up alive next to Touchstone, and that's that. After Touchstone comments in astonishment that Sabriel's alive, she replies with some surprise herself, saying, "'Yes, I am" (E.17). End of story.
Presumably she lives happily ever after, but the more we think about that presumption, the more we're not so confident. Sabriel is the Abhorsen, after all, so it seems likely that she's got a long life of hard work ahead of her instead—though that doesn't mean it isn't a happy life, too. We just don't know.
If you want to find out what happens to Sabriel, you can always read the remaining two books the series, Lirael and Abhorsen. Be warned, however, that Sabriel herself is not the protagonist in either book—instead, the next two books are about her children. Sabriel's starring role ends here.
Sabriel's adventures revolve around two different worlds, separated by a vast, guarded Wall. On one side, we've got the Old Kingdom: an ancient, uncharted magical realm. On the other, Ancelstierre, which is a lot like turn-of-the-20th-century England.
Ancelstierre (say it with us: An-Sell-Stee-Air) is Sabriel's home for most of her childhood and school years. It lies south of the Old Kingdom on the other side of the Wall, where it enjoys entirely different weather from the Old Kingdom and remains largely free of magic. Magic is still present, especially close to the Wall, but it's kind of like the elephant in the room no one talks about: "Magic only worked in those regions of Ancelstierre close to the Wall which marked the border with the Old Kingdom" (1.24)—okay, more like elephant to the side of the room.
Technology in Ancelstierre includes things not found in the Old Kingdom, like weapons, cars, and electricity. Just as magic starts to lose its effect in Ancelstierre once you travel farther south, technology from Ancelstierre similarly stops working on the other side of the Old Kingdom border.
To this effect, guards who patrol the Wall on the Ancelstierre side use a mix of both medieval and modern weapons, although "the Perimeter was much more successful at keeping people from Ancelstierre out of the Old Kingdom, than it was at preventing things from the Old Kingdom going the other way" (2.2). Looks like one side's a little more powerful than the other.
Sabriel's school, Wyverley College, is much like a traditional English boarding school, with dormitories and a Great Hall. They do teach magic, but it's a subject that everyone likes to pretend doesn't really exist. Sabriel herself is a "runaway first" in her class in Magic, but "that wasn't printed" on her graduation certificate (1.24). Yup—mum's the word when it comes to magical education, it seems.
Bain is the town nearest to the Wall, just north of Wyverley College. It's just outside Bain that Kerrigor conceals his body, buried in a sarcophagus in a nearby hillside.
In direct contrast to Ancelstierre, the Old Kingdom, which lies to the north, is governed by an ancient Charter of magic, and spells are deeply woven into the land itself. The spells, which show up as Charter runes, are woven into both the Wall and Charter Stones, nodes of magic which are scattered throughout the land. All those born in the Old Kingdom who follow the Charter, which seem to be most of its citizens, are baptized into it, and bear an invisible Mark on their foreheads bestowed at birth.
Because of its deeply magical nature, the Old Kingdom has no readily available maps. Because of this, Sabriel has some difficulty navigating without help from spirit guides and her companion Mogget. However, readers are a little bit luckier—we get a helpful map included in most editions of the book, which shows the Old Kingdom as having one long coastline that stretches north, as well as forests, large rivers, and a capital city encircled by a body of water called the Sea of Saere.
Water here is crucial, as it prevents the movement of Dead creatures, so places like Belisaere (the capital city) and Abhorsen's House are built in locations near deep, flowing water. For more on water, be sure to check out the "Symbols" section.
When Sabriel first enters the Old Kingdom, the weather is snowy and cold, but it begins to vary as she journeys northward. Weather in this land is also important, since direct sunshine hinders the Dead. Needless to say, getting a tan around these parts is kind of difficult.
Packed with action, this book is a serious page-turner and should be smooth sailing once Sabriel's journey gets going. No flowery descriptions here—Nix keeps things pretty simple so the adventure can race ahead.
However, there are a lot of new place names to remember, as well as a detailed magic system, especially Sabriel's ten necromantic bells and all of their different powers. Our edition of Sabriel came with a map, which totally helps since Ancelstierre isn't exactly easy to place, or we don't always remember how to get from Belisaere to Holehallow. If your version is for some reason map-less, though, worry not—just click here.
Magic is a way of life for many of the characters in Sabriel. There are no holy cow moments of astonishment or whimsy when we first see the Old Kingdom—nope, it's snowy, dangerous, and lonely.
This system of magic is deeply important, and the author treats it as such, writing about necromantic bells, Charter symbols, and binding spells as if they're completely real. And this realism creates a truly immersive fantasy world, adding to the sense of life-or-death peril in Sabriel's adventure. No silly spellcasting or amusing place names here—we've got no choice but to take magic seriously.
We first see Sabriel cast a protective spell atop Cloven Crest, and she seems just like a kid about to take an exam, except she's trying to make magic:
Sabriel bit her lower lip till it hurt and her hands, almost unconsciously, fidgeted, half-drawing Charter spells in nervousness and fear. (5.13)
Because Sabriel's nervousness seems real, the magic seems real, too. And because Nix keeps the language simple—we're not caught up in the language of an elaborate spell in the passage above, for instance—we move through this reality with ease.
Death is a frosty place in Sabriel's world. When necromancers visit Death, they wade through an icy river so cold that their physical bodies, left behind in Life, become visibly frozen. And when Sabriel finally discovers her father's body in the underground reservoir, he has been trapped in Death so long that he's like an Abhorsen Sno-Cone. The coldness of Death makes it abundantly clear that this isn't a happy-go-lucky kind of place.
Snow and ice appear in a much more tangible sense when Sabriel first journeys to the Old Kingdom. The division between the magical world on one side of the Wall and non-magical Ancelstierre is evident from the abrupt weather shift on each side:
[…] it was clear and cool on the Ancelstierre side, and the sun was shining—but Sabriel could see snow falling steadily behind the Wall […] as if some mighty weather-knife had simply sheared through the sky. (2.6)
Sabriel prepares for her trip to the Old Kingdom by packing cross-country skis. Here the division between magic and non-magic is illustrated by a walk into the snow—and like the icy river in Death, cold seems to evoke both the otherworldly and supernatural in Sabriel's world, in addition to danger.
Touchstone is frozen when we first meet him, although not in ice—he's preserved as a wooden figure on the prow of a ship. He's suspended in time, caught between worlds, just as Sabriel's father was frozen between two worlds as well, which his immobility represents. That he's frozen in a way that isn't icy cold, though, also immediately clues us into the fact that this guy is one of the good ones.
Water plays a big part in the magic system of the Old Kingdom, and—quite literally—it prevents Death. Dead creatures can't cross running water, so bodies of water are used as barriers for protection. For instance, Abhorsen's House is built on an island in the middle of a river, and the villagers of Nestowe take refuge on an island at sea when their town is besieged by the Dead. Okay—so water represents keeping danger and Death out.
That's not all water symbolizes, though. A powerful spell prevents Old Kingdom residents from discussing the Charter, but all bets are off once you're sailing on the open ocean. Sabriel finally gets a few long-overdue explanations on the history of the Charter and the Old Kingdom when she sets sail with Mogget and Touchstone en route to Belisaere. So here water is not only their protection, but also serves to free them, in this case from the effects of a spell.
The way Sabriel talks about it, water is better than a day at a health spa: Out at sea, Sabriel "[…] felt relaxed, momentarily carefree, all the troubles that lay ahead and behind her temporarily lost in single-minded contemplation of the clear blue-green water" (18.30). Water provides a respite from the endless trouble that lurks on land for Sabriel, allowing her to just be for a little bit, and get a much-needed break.
Water and life are pretty traditional symbolic pairings, and it's no different here, where rushing water is the only thing that can prevent a troop of zombies from marching into your house, and being at sea is the only time you can speak freely and catch up on your rest.
There are tons of walls in this story, the most obvious of which being the capital-W one that divides the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre. This Wall is a crucial barrier, serving to separate the magical and non-magical world. Soldiers patrol the perimeter, armed with both modern and medieval weapons, and it's defended by "[…] barbed wire, bullets, hand grenades and mortar bombs" (2.2). All this suggests that it's pretty important to keep magic and technology separate in this world.
We've also got the walled-in, fortress-like Abhorsen's House, the walls and aqueducts surrounding the capital city, and the giant boom chain stretching across the mouth of the sea at Belisaere—yep, there's even a barrier hanging over the bay near the capital.
Metaphorically speaking, there's the invisible barrier between life and death, which necromancers get to know pretty well, and every time we see a wall or other sort of barrier, we are clued into the fact that we're in a place where life and death are dangerously close to one another.
All of these walls and barriers serve another really important role: they keep things where they should be. Dead things should stay on the Dead side; living things should stay in Life. It's risky to cross any wall in Sabriel's world. Just as Colonel Horyse and his troops devote themselves to patrolling the Wall, Sabriel and the other Abhorsen risk their lives to make sure that nothing gets out of Death that shouldn't be in Life. And in this way, walls and the like also symbolize order. There's a system in place here that should work so long as everything stays where it belongs.
So what's going on with the key symbol on Sabriel's Abhorsen garb? The official tunic is "dusted with embroidered silver keys that reflect the light in all directions" (10.37). An entire tunic covered with silver keys seems like a pretty blatant use of symbolism—yet the Abhorsen doesn't seem to use keys of any kind. Bells, yes. Swords, sure. But keys? Not so much.
So what gives? Well here's what we think. Keys represent links between places, a way to go from point A to point B. And in this book, there are two places that everyone is very much interested in keeping separate—Life and Death—and yet this doesn't always go as smoothly as folks might hope. There is one person, however, the Abhorsen, who can move freely between these two realms, and when they do, it's generally to try to right some sort of wrong. In this way, the Abhorsen is a key—the key between Life and Death, and the key to solving problems.
This is one of those symbols that definitely has room for different interpretations, though, so what do you think?
Let's talk about Sabriel's bells for a minute. Her set of necromantic bells, passed to her by her father, is the most important tool of her trade, in addition to being a dramatic fashion statement, worn on a leather bandolier:
Seven tubular leather pouches hung from it, starting with one the size of a small pill bottle; growing larger, till the seventh was almost the size of a jar. (1.62)
Each bell has a different function, and an associated sound. Ring one, and it puts everyone to sleep; ring another, and it banishes everyone who hears it deep into Death, including the ringer.
The tolling of Sabriel's bells can signify death, sleep, binding, enslaving, or casting someone free—but whatever the intended action, the noise of these bells is one of the most powerful magical forces we encounter in Sabriel's adventure. Because of this, each bell represents whatever power it particularly possesses, in addition to power in general.
We're reminded of John Donne's famous phrase, "for whom the bell tolls," also used as the title of a Hemingway novel, or the ringing of church bells—there's something final and inescapable about the clang of a bell. So bells don't just represent power in this book—they represent absolute power.
When Sabriel dies in her final battle with Kerrigor, impaled on a sword, a familiar image is visible on her face:
Her sword loomed above her, blade and hilt casting the moon-shadow of a cross upon her face. (28.50)
Did you catch it? Yup—we're talking about the cross. Just as our hero dies, the a cross shows up on her body, and we can't help but think of a certain dude named Jesus when this happens. After all, crosses are kind of his thing, and just like Sabriel, death isn't the end of his story. This reference to Jesus, then, is also a moment of foreshadowing: if we're reading carefully, this is a pretty big clue that Sabriel's death isn't going to be final. And sure enough, just like Jesus, Sabriel returns to the land of the living.
This isn't the only time the cross gets mentioned, though, and it also shows up when Sabriel last bids her father farewell:
She hugged him tightly, her arms meeting around his back, his arms outstretched like a cross, sword in one hand, bell in the other. (23.38)
We guess you could say it runs in the family—or that it's part of the job. Either way, though, being the Abhorsen comes at a steep price.
In Sabriel, we have the advantage of a third person omniscient narrator, allowing us to hop in and out of different characters' heads as needed. Usually we are treated to Sabriel's point of view, since she's our main character and all, but on several different occasions we get glimpses of what some of the other characters are thinking too.
In the prologue, for example, we get to experience Sabriel's father's point of view while he rescues baby Sabriel. Then later on, we step inside the eyes of Touchstone as he's awakened from his two-hundred-year nap, which really doesn't seem pleasant:
"[…] fierce red light, pain exploding everywhere, rocketing from toes to brain and back again." (14.2)
We're right there with him, blinded by the light and tuned right in to his misery. And while there isn't any clear pattern to these leaps in viewpoint—for instance, we even get to briefly experience life as Thralk, the undead creature who attacks Sabriel when she first arrives in the Old Kingdom—the switch always provides some essential context to a scene. It also keeps us interested as readers, because we never know when we're going to get the chance to consider the story from a different perspective.
Sabriel's a student at boarding school, but the magic she studies isn't taught in class. Her dad's a necromancer, and he's been teaching her necromancy most of her life. What does Sabriel want to be when she grows up? We don't really get to find out, because Sabriel doesn't have much choice—she's about to step up and use those necromancy skills for the first time.
Sabriel's dad goes missing, and sends her his most prized possessions via ghostly FedEx. A monster may be responsible, so Sabriel has to go to the Old Kingdom to find out what happened—and once she gets there, monsters pretty much chase Sabriel for most of her journey. Can Sabriel make it to safety before a flaming death spirit turns her into a zombie? Can she trust the talking cat that joins her for the journey? How about the two-hundred-year-old naked guy she rescues? Sabriel needs to keep it together while her life gets really dangerous and weird.
Kerrigor, the Dead Guy Formerly Known As a Prince, is the power-mad monster behind all the evil stuff that's been happening. Sabriel nearly has a big showdown with Kerrigor in the capital city just as she finds her dad, but her dad tells her to run away. And you know what? She does. Her dad dies, but Kerrigor doesn't—and this means we get an extra bonus climax. Lucky us, though not so lucky for Sabriel.
At long last, it's Kerrigor versus Sabriel, complete with extra zombie action in the background. And… Sabriel destroys Kerrigor's body. She's nearly got him, folks—she's trapping him with her magic ring. But wait—is that a sword? Kerrigor swings and hits, and… Sabriel's down. Wait… what? We thought this book was called Sabriel, not Kerrigor. How can Kerrigor win?
Guess what happens when you're fated to be the world's most important necromancer? If you die, your dead relatives send you back to life to do your job. Sabriel is saved by the bell—okay, not really, because in this universe, bells do something else—and returns to the land of the living.