Wrapping up the first week of the KYD YA Championship, Holly Harper discusses the power of her YA favourite, Garth Nix’s Sabriel.
When I first heard of Sabriel by Garth Nix, it wasn’t because of a book recommendation or by browsing the shelf – it was because of a tattoo. A Swedish friend of mine was describing the design she had planned: a circle with a T through it called a ‘Charter Mark’, a symbol of magic in Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy. Listening to her talk about how much she’d adored Sabriel I couldn’t help but marvel at the impact that this novel – which was ostensibly for teenagers – had made on my 30-year-old friend.
It was only once I began working in the children’s section of a bookshop that I finally picked up a copy of Sabriel. Almost immediately I saw why my friend had been impressed enough to have a permanent reminder of it on her body. I had read my fair share of both adult and YA fantasy, but nothing came close to Nix’s tale of a world beset by undead creatures who claw their way up through the Dante-esque circles of the afterlife to walk in the lands of the living.
Sabriel has spent most of her life in a boarding school in Ancelstierre, a land not unlike England in the 1930s or 40s. To the north of these lands lies the Old Kingdom, where things are very different: Free Magic is wielded against restless spirits who have risen from beyond the grave. Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen, the mage in charge of keeping dead things dead, and when he goes missing, it’s up to Sabriel to fill his shoes. With next to no training, she must wield the Abhorsen’s weapons – namely, seven silver bells worn across the chest that do everything from silencing the dead to sending them into the deepest circle of the afterlife.
Sabriel was the book that shot Nix to international fame, and rightly so – he’s now considered one of the world’s best YA fantasists. His world-building is always so original; to read a Garth Nix novel is to journey to a place you’ve never been before. I doubt any of the other titles in the KYD YA Championship challenge can boast death magic, enchanted paper planes and talking cats between their covers!
But this is so much more than just a travelogue through a fascinating world. While the world-building is captivating enough to fill a whole post, it is the characters who really bring the story to life. Sabriel is a girl drawn into a situation she is unprepared for and, refreshingly, she is neither a hardened fighter nor completely clueless; instead she reacts like a normal (albeit strong-willed) teenage girl would when faced with the task of finding her missing father. She lives by relying on her wits and accepting the help of those around her, such as Mogget, the aforementioned talking cat, whose snarky advice makes him a standout character. Why there haven’t been any Mogget ‘press and play’ stuffed toys, I’ll never know.
There are any number of reasons Sabriel deserves to win the KYD YA Championship, not least of which is its ability to appeal to any age or genre preference. I haven’t gone so far as getting a tattoo, but Sabriel will always stay with me as one of my cherished favourites, and I have no doubt that once you pay a visit to the Old Kingdom, you’ll feel the same.
Holly Harper is a children’s bookseller at Readings in Melbourne, and also writes books for younger readers under the name H.J. Harper. Find out more about her Star League and Bureau of Mysteries series at hjharper.com.
If you want Sabriel to win the KYD YA Championship, you can cast your vote for it here! Vote now and you can also go into the draw to win some amazing prizes.