[Book review] Sabriel by Garth Nix.

[This post is done as part of GaCoWriMo, my own personal twist to NaNoWriMo.]

Source: Goodreads

Source: Goodreads

Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him. She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories. As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death—and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.

With Sabriel, the first installment in the Abhorsen trilogy, Garth Nix exploded onto the fantasy scene as a rising star, in a novel that takes readers to a world where the line between the living and the dead isn’t always clear—and sometimes disappears altogether.


Sabriel is a book I really wanted to like. It’s a Young Adult Fantasy, right up my wheelhouse. It has an interesting Chosen-One concept (a la Buffy and Avatar). It’s critically acclaimed. It’s been recommended by several readers and Booktubers. It’s short (for quick reads) but part of a series (for fleshier development). Sadly, it’s also not very good.

The story of a young feisty necromancer who heads into an unknown land in search of her missing father sounds like it would make for a terrific (if not terribly original) read but at almost no point did I feel invested in the book or the characters. The main players in the story are hard to get a read on and go through almost no development and, for a young girl suddenly thrust into this situation with not much experience or training, Sabriel always seems to be able to do exactly what she needs to, no matter how impossible it seems.

Like the characters, the worldbuilding feels weak and haphazard. The world in Sabriel is separated into two countries, one with modern technology (cars, tanks, weapons) while the other is ruled with “wild” magic. Not only is the coexistence of these two countries never really detailed or explained, the modern world feels redundant since the story is pretty much entirely told in a classical fantasy setting. Several times, I totally forgot the existence of modern technology until it was explicitly brought up, which just broke my suspension of disbelief. Plus, the rules of the magic system are never really explained, except for an unnecessarily complicated bell list.

Of course, all these negatives could be overlooked if the story itself is well told. Unfortunately, the pacing is so laboured that it took me almost two weeks to work through the 300 pages. Nix spends a lot of time describing scenes and settings that aren’t essential to the story, leading to the painting of vivid but not very engaging imagery. These overflourished tangents happen so consistently that they reduce the story to a plodding mess and it’s only in the final quarter of the book leading up to the climax that the pace picks up. Plus, it never seems like Sabriel has a plan, just meandering around until she lucks into the next plot development, making the previous plot points feel contrived.

That’s not to say that Sabriel is a terrible book. The concept of the book is interesting enough and, stripped of the overly detailed descriptions, the action is decent, especially nearing the end. Plus, Nix does describe well. I might pick up the next book in the series since I’ve already spent time on this one and see if it gets better but I’m not holding my hopes too high. I don’t think it’s bodes well for the first book in a series that I had to spend a fortnight working through its short length just because it couldn’t grip me.

Rating: Buy/Borrow/Bin, and even then only if you don’t have other better choices


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