Sabriel: A dark YA fantasy with uncommon magic

Sometimes the stories that immerse us most are the ones full of dangerous magic in dark worlds. Garth Nix’s novel Sabriel is exactly that: a dark adventure that whisks a teenage girl into the world of the dead.

Sabriel book cover

Sabriel’s father was a powerful necromancer known as the Abhorsen, a sort of keeper of the underworld. Using bells, he was able to charm demons, protect the living from the dead, and either revive the dead or keep them rightfully in their resting places. Those bells, along with a sword etched in magical symbols, even enabled him to enter Death itself.

When Sabriel learns of her father’s passing, she sets off to find him — but that means entering the Old World, full of dangerous Free Magic. The kind Sabriel uses at her boarding school is a safer kind of magic known as Charter Magic, which lets her cast spells by tracing Charter symbols in the air. Now she wields her father’s magic as well, whistling to catch the wind and preparing for the dangerous business of entering the realm of Death.

Sabriel is not alone on her journey, but she struggles at times to know who to trust. Her main companion is a talking cat named Mogget, who’s sometimes helpful and other times malevolent. Though his sarcasm adds levity to the journey, Sabriel wonders what sort of demon he could be and whether she can truly trust him. Later, they bring to life a young man who was dead for a couple of centuries — Mogget nicknames him Touchstone — and gradually unravel his mysterious past.

Chased by spirits, Sabriel has to run and fight her way through the Old Kingdom. Though the book is filled with action scenes as Sabriel faces the zombie-like dead who are after her, she’s not an instant hero with nerves of steel. When she uses her magic, she’s not always sure it will work. But she thinks things through and relies on her study of magic to face her fears.

As far as YA fantasy novels go, Sabriel feels a tad old-fashioned for its descriptive language. Even so, for the patient reader, the story is full of action and wit, and I appreciated its detailed depiction of a truly original world. The realistic female protagonist makes it stand out among traditional fantasy reads, too. If you enjoy the magic, humor, and excitement of the plot — Sabriel is being chased by the dead and traveling with a snarky demon-cat, after all — this novel can be a true treasure.

Who Might Love It: If you’re looking for a dark fantasy story with unique magic and a believable female hero, Sabriel fits the bill.

Age Rating: Recommended for ages 13+ due to action scenes with zombie-like enemies, death, and brief mentions of sex and nudity.

Feature photo by Jack Cain on Unsplash

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