“Five Great Charters knit the land
Together linked, hand in hand
One in the people who wear the crown
Two in the folk that keep the Dead down
Three and Five became stone and mortar
Four sees all in frozen water.”
When you can read a book; dive into a world over and over again for the better part of 16 years, you know that you have found something special. And Sabriel gave me a storyline that felt more grown up than other things I was reading at that time, just the right amount of darkness, moments that were a little frightening but still captured in age appropriate narration. The fact that the world of The Old Kingdom is still being explored, that years later we are getting more books (NUMBER FIVE IN THE SERIES, GOLDENHAND, JUST CAME OUT YESTERDAY!) fills me with a powerful sense of nostalgia and desire to share my love for this story with as many people as possible.
Let's start with Sabriel; the girl who was born dead. The book dives right into this, a prologue in italics which gives you the sense that you are most likely reading something from the past. You meet Sabriel, a newborn infant, still beside her mother's equally cold form. Then you meet her father, the immediately intriguing Abbhorsen, who shows off his unique skill by traveling to the spiritual river of death, rescuing the infant from a shadowy and vile creature named Kerrigor, and bringing her back to life. That much action, just in the prologue...and it leaves you wanting to know more. All good things are worth waiting for though, and you have to wait a little, because chapter one's atmosphere changes drastically. it modernizes, we zoom in on Sabriel as a young woman, having grown up at a boarding school in Ancelstierre. This region is separated from The Old Kingdom by a wall, and the magic we saw in the prologue is not as prevalent here. Sabriel is not at all a normal schoolgirl though, which is immediately apparent as she brings a schoolmate's pet rabbit back to life. In terms of character Sabriel is smart, she has a good head on her shoulder. Though her relationship with her father is not traditional and she has grown up separated from the lifestyle he lives, her love for him is immense, and her desire to be someone he'd be proud of is filtered throughout the story. When it becomes apparent that her father is missing and in danger, Sabriel sets out to find him with a very singular mindset; a young girl who is worried for her parent, who is terrified at the idea of a personal loss. Our heroine grows with the story, in more ways than one, coming into her power and confidence as the next Abbhorsen, while also realizing that she may have to put her personal desires for her father's safe return aside for the greater good. Sabriel is smart, resourceful, she doesn't pretend that she doesn't feel fear or doubt, but she forces herself through those moments and is an amazing example of the various forms of bravery that exist; the kind that come from sword and magic bell, and the kind that come from heart and fortitude of spirit.
You might be asking "What is an Abbhorsen?" The answer is that they are a very special form of necromancer. While some use their abilities to pull the Dead into the living world, enslaving them into grotesque servitude, the Abbhorsen is loyal to Charter Magic, they exist to bind and keep the Dead where they belong. The main villain of our story, Kerrigor, is a dark shadow creature, stubborn and vicious, attempting to break his way out of death to terrorize and claim power over the living. He's a perfect villain, especially as more of his story starts to unfold before the reader. There are no placeholder characters in this tale, everyone from the Charter Mage Touchstone to the strange and snarky cat Moggot are all teeming with curiosity inducing depth. Nix is an example of everything I love in an author who really builds a world. You are left with questions about the difference between charter magic and free magic, you are left wondering about the dark creatures in death and if the story is really done. The answer is it's not. With five books in the series you have lots to keep exploring, learning a little bit more about the world with every single story. That's what keeps me going back. You take familiar characters with you, meet new ones, and with every question that gets answered you come up with ten more. The Old Kingdom is the world that keeps on giving, in a way that is dark and sprinkled with moments of humor.
If you like a powerful story with a strong female lead, this book is for you. If you like detailed worlds that grow and unfold before you with such clarity that it becomes hard to remember that it's not real, then this book is for you. If you like your magic mingled with darkness and moments that will make the hairs raise on the back of your neck, this entire series by Garth Nix is for you. I hope that you, like me, find it to be a world you want to dive into over and over again.