Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Double Book Review: Sabriel and Mister Monday

I read Sabriel the first in the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix because of all the glowing recommendations people gave it. Often I heard "You should read this! It's so good!" and since it was an author I was familiar with and loved already, I did. Unfortunately, Sabriel disappointed me. Rather than comparing it to books by other authors, I'll compare it to Nix's other YA fantasy series Keys to the Kingdom which began with Mister Monday.

The first books I read by Garth Nix were his Keys to the Kingdom series which are seven books set in two universes - our modern universe and the bizarre fantastical dimension of the House. The
protagonist in this series is a reluctant teen named Arthur who is prone to life-threatening asthma attacks. He stumbles upon a clock key that leads him into a supernatural battle and quest to save the world. His quest carries through the seven books in the series, each book named after the adversary he's supposed to defeat in that book.

I loved the theme that connected this series and relied on it when Nix's prose got a little convoluted, which, after reading Sabriel, I've realized is just his style. I loved the influence of the seven deadly sins concept in the development of Arthur's adversaries and their respective floors of the House. I loved the outright bizarre quality of the setting, in spite of the occasional arbitrary solution to a problem Arthur was faced with. Arthur was satisfactorily transformed by the end of the series and had grown from his adventures, which is what you expect from a series with a concept this big.

Sabriel is set in Ancelstierre which is similar to England in the early 1900's, and the Old Kingdom which is more medieval and governed by a magic system. The protagonist is Sabriel, the teenage daughter of a powerful necromancer who banishes and lays the dead to rest instead of raising them. When something untoward happens to her father, his role and responsibilities suddenly fall to Sabriel who embarks on a quest to find him. Sabriel learns about her significant lineage along her journey, fighting the undead and evil spirits that have ventured into Life to spread destruction.

The concept of Sabriel is absolutely amazing. A female necromancer, a magic system using bells and symbols to fight and control the dead, a world in which magic is the ruling order, horrible undead monsters, and a talking cat. However, after the prologue, the pace slows to more of a crawl and the writer's tendency to weigh down sentences with stiff language and unneeded descriptions is difficult to read. It became painfully evident that this was his first foray into young adult, but I gritted my teeth and kept reading.

The stilted language wasn't the most difficult part of reading Sabriel. While we followed Sabriel through most of the book, we didn't actually get to know her. We didn't see inside her head, only what the author told us was there, so the book read from the outside like watching a movie or playing a game. Even when we were introduced to the love interest there was barely any romance. What romance was hinted at was clunky and felt like an afterthought, included just to spice the book up, which it failed at. This was sad, because I rather liked the guy.

The most emotional part of the book was the conclusion to Sabriel's quest to find her father. Their relationship was more compelling to me than any other in the book. I somehow liked her father as much or more than I liked Sabriel, even though I only saw him in the prologue and after she found him again. I'd really like to know his story.

I liked the world-building and magic system in Sabriel and don't have any qualms with it. I do have qualms with the third-person head-hopping Nix did toward the end of the book. I don't know why he chose to suddenly change perspectives from Sabriel to her love interest, then to two minor characters, and back to Sabriel. It felt jarring and left me with unfullfilled expectations.

Between the two book series, Keys to the Kingdom was easier to read and the pace matched well with the YA genre. They both had great concepts, but I wish Sabriel hadn't been so much of a 'tell' rather than 'show' book. While it was plot-driven, I still think Nix could've done a better job developing the MC.

Have you read either of these? What did you think?

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