Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sabriel, by Garth Nix

This has been on my radar for a while, though I'm not certain where I heard about it. Possibly as a "Things To Read While Waiting For The Next Harry Potter" recommendation, possibly as a series that has a very solid fan base. Certainly, it has gotten some incredibly positive reviews.

I picked it up because I found it on CD at the library, and I really love good audiobooks on my iPod. This one is read by Tim Curry, who has a wonderful voice and it a very versatile actor. So, onto the iPod it went. And what can I say about this novel?

Tim Curry is a wonderful reader.

This is like saying that as a singer, Britney Spears is a good dancer.

I did not like this book at all. By the time I was through about a third of it, I was frantically Googling reviews to see why it was so damn popular. In the end, it has to be a matter of taste, but I was fundamentally disappointed.

The story, such as it is, is about eighteen year old Sabriel, who is newly graduated from a girls' school in Ancelstierre, which is very similar to post WWI England (Angleterre?). Her father is a sort of a necromancer who lives in the "Old Kingdom," a place that is kept separate from the rest of the world by a heavily militarized border, complete with machine guns, trenches, barbed wire and magic. The action begins when Sabriel's father doesn't turn up for a scheduled visit, and instead sends a sort of shadow zombie, to deliver his magic sword and bells. He is called Abhorsen, the Abhorsen, whose job is not to raise the dead, but to put them back down into death.

Sabriel takes her father's professional gear and goes to the Old Kingdom, blah blah blah quest, blah blah learns her role in the world, blah blah coming of age cakes. Which is as one would expect from this kind of novel--where I part company with the fans, however, is in the execution.

To start with, Nix has a crucial obligation to explain the difference between the dead, and The Dead. There is bound to be a lot of death in a book loaded with necromancy and machine guns, and there really needs to be some fundamental difference between the two. When our good guys die, Nix treats these deaths as the tragic and dispiriting losses that are necessary to avoid a greater evil. However, since the "greater evil" is that the dead then come back to life. . . I am no longer convinced that we have a convincing case for Good vs. Evil.

In point of fact, once one starts questioning the difference between the Dead and the living, the story devolves into a sort of racial battle--anti-mordicism, or something. The living don't want to die, and the Dead don't want to be dead. So everyone is basically trying to not die. The living eat fish and animals, and the Dead eat the living. Who then become animated Dead, as far as I can see.

Both living and Dead enslave living humans, and they both use the spirits of the dead to create servants. Sabriel's ancestors don't use reanimated corpses as servants, exactly, but they create "magical sendings," whatever those are, who have a human shaped form, behave like humans, and remain servants for centuries. They just don't fall apart from decomposition.

There is also a magic cat called Mogget, who is actually an enslaved magical being. He slips his bindings twice in the book, and both times turns into a vindictive and blood-thirsty magical cyclone, with an entirely different sets of goals, a different personality, and a raging hatred for the Abhorsen who have enslaved him, also for centuries. Yet, once magically recontrolled, he acts embarrassed about his behavior and seems to appreciate the civilizing influence of his enslavement. Ew.

Nix has a problem wielding this magical world as well, almost as if he is making it up as he goes along. There is a distressing lack of advance information: as soon as he introduces a magical item, or a new term, you can bet by the end of the chapter that item has become important. The most clumsy is his use of a magical ring. Sabriel is making plans to leave her father's house, and Mogget offers to come along. He then hacks up--not a hairball, but a magical ring. "You better have this, if I am to come along" he says. "You will know when you need to use it."

Yup. First thing that happens after they take off in a magical airplane is that Mogget gets free of his binding, and Sabriel uses the ring to rebind him. We then don't hear about the ring again until Mogget gets free again. This pattern is repeated over and over--"what's that thing chasing us?" "Oh, that's a [insert invented word here.]" "What do they do?" "Oh, they're only dangerous when [insert unlikely event here.]" "Oh no! [Unlikely event] is occurring!"

Yes, this is a first novel, and I should probably cut the writing some slack, but it is a bit overheated in a Lovecraftian way. There are lots of dead bodies stumbling around, and that's (I guess) unnatural, but rather than describing what is happening so we can imagine it, Nix loads the prose with heavily weighted adjectives. The Dead aren't just dead, they are routinely "foul," "obscene," "corrupted;" words that give moral rather than descriptive information. Which is probably a solution to the problem I noted above--that the living have no factual moral superiority over the Dead, so the bad guys need to be made bad by the adjectives.

Sabriel is the first of a trilogy of books about the Abhorsen--a trilogy that I am going to pass on, based on the current evidence.

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