BATliotheca #1: The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix


Heeeeyyyyyy! Welcome to an experiment of mine. I know Point Horror / the Devil’s Elbow is full of recaps of various horror movies / books / etc. It’s a great site and we have a lot of wonderful recappers involved, you really should invest some time and check them out!

I wanted to do something involving books, because I love books and I hope I never have to move ever again because half my house is full of books and moving books is awful and heavy and I hate it. I talked to Wing about what I wanted to do and the result is this, the first entry into BATliotheca!

That said, I suck at recapping books. Movies, great, it may be a novel-length recap, but I can handle that. I’m better at live tweeting along with television but, I’m old now, and 24 no longer makes new seasons. Why are books so hard? Because recapping a book reminds me of writing book reports. I made the mistake of doing a book report in 8th grade on Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, which if you don’t know, has 67 chapters and an epilogue to boot. This was not only over ambitious but stupid of me, because I did not understand all the intrigue going on in the book and wasn’t remotely familiar with the period of French history in which the story is set. Yeah, don’t trust a Disney-fied simplistic film “version” to base your decision on when choosing a novel to write a book report on. (Yes, this another piece in my Kiefer Sutherland: Trival Pursuit token. Sigh.)

I think that’s why the thought of spending hours attempting to recap a book entirely turns me off. BUT! Reviewing and getting people interested in something (movie / television / books) I’ve enjoyed? THAT I CAN DO. [Wing: I have never read The Abhorsen Trilogy and possibly nothing by Garth Nix at all, so this also bat’s first challenge: Can she hook me on something I’ve long known about but never picked up? (Odds are stacked in her favour, true, I love a lot of things she recommends to me.)]

I read. I read a lot. Not just fiction. I read a lot of non-fiction medical and science, history (okay, a lot of specific history but still history), fantasy, YA, YA fantasy, some horror, some sci-fi, I’ve read some of the classics (I don’t like being told what to read and I don’t think every book on some list is worth reading, especially if you don’t enjoy it) and I AM VERY GUILTY OF BASING MY CHOICE ON WHAT I’M READING ON COVER ART.

Woe be the author who ends up with shitty cover art. Because I will be an instant snob and walk right on past. Cover art sets the tone for me, it can spark my imagination, and is almost better than any plot summation blurb on the back. And god help you if you change the art mid-series and it no longer matches the initial books. The Saturn side of my OCD brain will scream and murder you, I am not kidding. I have taken books to Powell’s and turned them in to have credit to buy copies of the same books with the CORRECT cover art, just because I hate things not matching.

And there are book series from my childhood that if I do not own the copy with the correct cover art, I am less likely to read said book until it is the cover that cemented in my memory. (This is also true of DVD and CD art. Do not ask me how mad I am about not owning the correct CD art for the Stone Temple Pilot’s album Purple, after my mother made me sell my first copy at a used CD store because she didn’t approve of it and it took me years to get another copy but it wasn’t the right artwork and I’m still pissed… that was in 1994, right? Well, it’s been a long time.)

All this ranting about cover art is actually an excellent segueway into the series I’ve chosen to for the inaugural review of BATliotheca. See, I did that on purpose, totally.

Abhorsen Series by Garth Nix
The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix

A little background: Garth Nix is an Australian author who’s had quite a prolific writing career in the past couple of decades. You may be familiar with his YA fiction series The Keys to the Kingdom or The Seventh Tower. One of my favorite stand alone novels by Nix is his very dystopian YA novel, Shade’s Children. I will honestly reread that book every few years, it hits all the buttons, is super dark, but has a surprisingly optimistic outcome.

I digress. I’m here to talk about The Old Kingdom series, also known as The Abhorsen Trilogy. Setting the stage, I found the first novel (which was the only book at the time and remained so for many years) in a tiny independent book shop on an island. I was around 14 or so, pretty much the target age, and again this is where cover art is so important in how I pick books.

Sabriel by Garth Nix
Sabriel by Garth Nix

You have a dark-haired woman with a sword, a bandolier of bells, and a huge dark cloud with glowing eyes behind her. The blurb on the back of the book talks about said woman, Sabriel, being a young girl who is visited by her father in Death because he’s trapped there and, oh yeah, there’s a nasty necromancer running about in the Old Kingdom and Sabriel needs to figure out what happened and stop the evil that is devouring the land.

Set in what’s been described as an alternate history version of 1910s-1920s England (there’s a detailed map in the front of the novel and I immediately recognized it as probably-England) the story takes you from the modern kingdom of Ancelstierre – where then-modern convinces exist and Sabriel is attending boarding school – to the Old Kingdom, where magic exists and dangerous creatures and restless spirits have taken control after a coup destroyed the Royal Family.

Yes, there is a Wall. It’s not physically like THE WALL in Game of Thrones but it has a similar purpose: keep out the Dead. Ancelstierre isn’t immune to magic, Sabriel is able to tap into it occasionally, but the further South along the continent, the less it exists, both in practice and in the minds of the people. There is much talk of the wind and elements being able to influence how magic works around and just below the wall, which gives you a sense that magic isn’t just a thing or a plot device, but a character all it own in this series.

Unlike, say, how magic isn’t explained in old My Little Pony ‘n Friends cartoons, magic in the Old Kingdom is very much fleshed out and has honest to god rules in this series. Without getting too much into it, as the creation of the Old Kingdom – of life itself and all things created – is covered in the subsequent books, I’ll try to summarize it fairy simply. There is Charter magic, which is bound by the Charter and governs how magic is used and acts, and there is Free magic, which is the opposite of Charter magic, and tends to be more of a gray-if-not-black magic type of magic. Charter mages call upon the Charter, represented in the books by symbols, to serve and protect the citizens of the Old Kingdom. Kind of like magical cops but… not.

Where does Sabriel fit into all this? As mentioned above, her father is the Abhorsen. This being the first novel (and written long before Nix filled in a lot of the gaps in the subsequent novels) we don’t get a whole lot of solid info on what the Abhorsen line does, other then traverse the Old Kingdom like a Lone Ranger, stamping out necromancers and the Dead, and stopping Free magic from being destructive. [Wing: It is right here that I added the book to my to read spreadsheet, which is looooooong, so don’t feel like I’ll read it any time soon, but it is a step toward reading it.]

How do they do this? Well, they master the use of the Bells, seven distinct bells worn on a bandolier across the chest, which they use in combination with Charter and Free magic. They also travel into Death a lot, because Death tends to be the source of where the Dead come from or at least are being puppeted from. I do it a disservice but it’s hard to explain. And yes, you can die in Death and you end up dead in reality. There are Nine Precincts divided by Nine Gates in Death, all set along the River. If you have a fear of drowning, this may not be the book for you. The descriptions are genuine, if you’ve spent any time near a river or the ocean, you know exactly what Nix is describing when it’s the power of water.

So with limited training and some knowledge, with a sword and her father’s set of Bells, Sabriel sets off to travel the Old Kingdom and figure out what’s going on. Along the way she encounters Mogget, a creature that looks like a fluffy white cat with green eyes, who wears a collar with one of the Bells on it, who is bound to aid/serve the Abhorsen.

Mogget is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. He is sassy and sarcastic, and not always exactly helpful, but through out the series (and the more that is revealed about him) he becomes one of the main characters in his own right. Mogget becomes part of the heart of the series and rightfully so.

Sabriel learns the hard way how badly the Old Kingdom has fallen into disrepair. She fights the Dead with sword and Bells, travels into Death alone when needed, and takes on the mantel of Abhorsen-in-training because there is no one else left to fight the greatest evil in the land, Kerrigor. A Free magic necromancer hell bent on not only the destruction of the Abhorsen and the Old Kingdom at large, he works from Death to puppet the Dead and other Free magic creatures to stop Sabriel.

There is a lot of travel in this book. The map helps you keep track. But also the ways in which Sabriel travels become an indelible part of the story. She learns to fly a Paperwing, a semi-sentient glider controlled by whistles and Charter magic. Dude, the way Nix describes Paperwings and how they fly, I fucking want one.

Through her travels, Sabriel discovers Holehallow, the historical burial place of the Royal Family. It is there she befriends Touchstone, a mysterious man who was once a Royal Guard. Seriously, Holehallow is one of my favorite scenes, particularly because when Sabriel finds Touchstone, he has been turned into a wooden figurehead on the mast of a ship. She unlocks him from his eternal prison, not knowing how important he is to solving the mystery of Kerrigor. And he sounds pretty damn hot from the description Nix gives. Dude running around in a kilt with two swords? Yes, please.

In typical fashion, there is a race against time climax, as Kerrigor attempts to defeat the Abhorsen and Sabriel in Death, but escapes and turns his sights on Ancelstierre, sending Sabriel, along with Touchstone and Mogget, to the Wall to stop him once and for all.

Everything wraps up rather neatly, given that we only know so much about Kerrigor and the creation of Charter magic, but that was probably due to the fact that Nix never thought he was going to write more books in the series. As a stand-alone novel, you would feel satisfied by the end of Sabriel.

THANKFULLY, in 2001, Nix dropped Lirael, the second book in the Abhorsen trilogy. Yeah, I was super shocked, no kidding, when I happened upon an ARC copy in a used book store. Same style of cover art, totally new lead character. I was in!

Lirael by Garth Nix
Lirael by Garth Nix

Lirael is set… well, there are three parts, each set in a different time period after the events of Sabriel. The first part, taking place roughly fourteen years later, focuses on Lirael and where we find her at the beginning of her journey. Born to a Clayr and living in the Clayr’s Glacier near the northern most part of the Old Kingdom, Lirael has never felt like she belongs. Unlike her olive-skinned and blonde-haired cousins, she’s dark-haired and fair-skinned. Plus, she has never received the Sight, the Charter magic power bestowed on female members that make up the Clayr.

Basically, Lirael is so miserable and disheartened, that by the time her 14th birthday rolls around (when the Sight usually shows up to a Clayr) she decides to throw herself off the highest point of Starmount. Yeah, it’s a downer beginning, but has a purpose.

While out in the snow and ice, Lirael witnesses a secret visit by Sabriel and Touchstone, now formally Queen and King of the Old Kingdom. Sabriel is the Abhorsen as well and is still traveling the Old Kingdom restoring Charter stones and tamping out the Dead and Free magic. (Paperwings are back! Love the Paperwings!) After their departure, the head of the Nine Day Watch — where the Clayr gather to “see” fragments of the future in groups — discover Lirael and realize she has never been “Seen”. It is decided that until something changes, Lirael should take up responsibilities in the Glacier.

Lirael chooses to work in the Library!

That alone was enough to hook me. Because it’s not just a repository for books. It is a living, breathing entity in the Glacier, where there are levels so old, no Clayr alive remembers their purpose or what they hold. Lirael goes through a training sequence and as time passes, she discovers older books and how to sneak them out and read them. Because reading is fundamental.

On one occasion, Lirael explores a room in the Library like none other. It is here she finds two things that change the course of her future: a small statue of a dog and a Stilken, a Free magic creature. After narrowly escaping the Stilken, Lirael realizes she must find a way to destroy it and protect the Library and the Clayr. This means learning about Charter and Free magic.

In this book, Nix delves pretty solidly into how both types of magic work. The Free magic, at the beginning of time, was old and natural. Charter magic, created by Seven of the Nine Bright Shiners (which, in the course of the story, are explained) imposed order on chaos and codified magic. Charter magic requires drawing upon the Charter, a series of symbols, in order to activate the magic through spells. Free magic is explain to be corrosive to living beings, with the exception of the Abhorsen, who uses both Charter and Free magic to navigate Death and stop Free magic users/beings.

Seriously, the book explains it better. I’m just trying to keep it simple without giving away huge plot elements.

In order to defeat the Stilken, Lirael attempts a Sending, a being made of Charter magic. Enter: the Disreputable Dog. A black dog type creature made of Free and Charter magic, Dog becomes Lirael’s best friend and companion. Dog is like Mogget: you are all the better for being introduced to such a wonderful character.

Another time jump and we meet Prince Sameth, son of Sabriel and Touchstone, who attends boarding school in Ancelstierre. His elder sister, princess Ellimere, is heir to the throne and remains in the Old Kingdom, tending to duties while their parents travel the country. While on a school outing, a necromancer attacks the students and there is a near miss. This sets up the second part of the book.

Sameth is summoned home and expected to begin his training as Abhorsen-in-waiting, a prospect which terrifies him. He is much more content and interested in building, particularly Charter-infused gadgets. Sameth does not want to be the next Abhorsen but is unable to tell Sabriel. Not that Sabriel and Touchstone are around much.

Nicholas Sayre, Sameth’s friend from school, decides to visit him in the Old Kingdom. Nick also happens to be the nephew of the Chief Minister of Ancelstierre and has never been to the Old Kingdom and has no history of magic use. Through an unfortunate turn of events, Nick becomes a tool of Hedge, a dangerous and mysterious Free magic necromancer, who seeks to rejoin the separated halves of Orannis, aka the Destroyer.

Orannis is the Ninth and Brightest of the Shiners and tried to destroy everything before being defeated by the Seven. Oh dear.

Where is Lirael in all this? Still in the Glacier, having worked her way through the ranks to Second Assistant Librarian. She and Dog have had several adventures and learned a lot of interesting things, but none so much as when they discover a hidden and forgotten chamber deep in the Glacier. A room specifically built for her, by Clayr from centuries before, who Saw her in the Ice. Here she discovers her true Path in life and sets about to save the Old Kingdom from destruction once more.

After leaving the Glacier for the first time in her life, Lirael ends up running into Sameth (who has been joined by Mogget because Mogget shows up when the Abhorsen are in need of aid… oh dear yet again) and together they have to fight off the Dead that are following them. Dead that are being controlled by a super mysterious necromancer known only as Chlorr of the Mask.

Upon reaching the Abhorsen’s house — which is described in detail in Sabriel as well as being expanded upon in Lirael — Sameth and Lirael discover their future Paths are not exactly what they were imagined to be. Oo, plot twist!

The book ends with a pretty awful public relations disaster in Ancelstierre, while Nick is busy helping Hedge by excavating the Lightning Trap, which will unlock the Destroyer, who intends to use Nick as his avatar to bring about the destruction of the Old Kingdom and the Charter itself.

There was a two year wait for the next book in the series, which drove me stir crazy, wanting more adventures of Dog and Mogget. Oh, and yeah, Lirael and Sabriel and company. (Seriously, Nix could write a whole book about Mogget and Dog and I would be stupidly happy about it.)

Abhorsen by Garth Nix
Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Abhorsen, which is formally the final book in the trilogy, dropped in 2003. This book has a lot to cover, having to wrap up several story lines as well as multiple subplots. I think it gets bogged down in places, because there’s just so much, but it is a satisfying ending to the trilogy.

But before I get ahead of myself.

Picking up near directly after the events of Lirael, we make a short detour into Ancelstierre where King Touchstone and Queen/Abhorsen Sabriel are in town to make a good will demonstration and raise support against Southern refugees being maliciously sent to live across the border in the Old Kingdom, where they have no idea how to use any type of magic and would be prey for a Free magic necromancer. Things end very poorly, the King and Queen are ambushed and assassinated.

Does this mean Sameth is now the Abhorsen? I’m not telling. Still, this leaves Sameth and Lirael trapped at the Abhorsen house, surrounded by Dead Hands and not many options of escape. They manage, however.

Heading south, unaware that Sameth’s friend Nick is at the center of trouble, they encounter Free magic creatures long thought extinct. The activity involving the Destroyer is causing a terrible imbalance in the Charter and Free magic is growing stronger. Lirael attempts to put some stop gaps into place. This succeeds in leading her and Dog to Nick, who is growing more and more controlled by the Destroyer.

Rescuing Nick from Hedge has consequences, of course. Although she learns of his plans, and of Hedge’s plans, Nick returns to the scene of the impending doom. It’s at this point that Dog realizes hat the true nature of herself and (oh surprise) Mogget, as well as the power of the Charter and its purpose, must be revealed to Lirael and Sameth.

As I said, this book is really bogged down in tying up a lot of loose ends. I don’t know that it’s all successful in places. Yes, by the time I read Abhorsen for the first time, I was seriously very emotionally invested in these characters (I’d reread Sabriel probably five times and Lirael at least twice) so I think all the revelations had a bigger impact on me then it would on others.

Before the major final battle (literally) Lirael must use her powers (not the ones you think she has, the ones I won’t tell you about because you need to read the series!) and travels back through Death and Time to discover the answer to that nagging problem with the Destroyer. Characters die. Sacrifices are made.

And when all seems lost, Seven step in to represent the original Seven (with a surprise Eighth plot twist) against the Ninth Bright Shiner and save both the Old Kingdom, Ancelstierre, and life itself from total destruction.

No lie, the very end of the book, an epilogue, made me cry. Partly because I was so mad that was the end of the story and a particular character I’d grown very attached to. I mean I’m tearing up now, I’m still mad.

In the end, The Abhorsen Trilogy is one of my favorite series of all time, which I reread every so many years. The second and third books are so dense, it’s more when I feel like I have time to read and enjoy the reread that I do so. Nix writes wonderful descriptions of characters and country, details just enough, and expounding on Charter and Free magic. If anything, some might find it too much in places. Some of the characters, even though they are essential to the plot, don’t always get as fleshed out as they should. But… that’s because…

Across the Wall by Garth Nix
Across the Wall by Garth Nix

Garth Nix went back and not only wrote some short stories to fill in gaps and give readers “updates” of sorts, but he subsequently went on to write two more books in The Old Kingdom series.

Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case, which was originally published in 2005 before being released in a collection of short stories entitled Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories, gives an update to what happened when Nick attempted to visit the Old Kingdom post-events of Abhorsen. Honestly, I’ve read it twice, and never remember it. I had to go pull up the wiki article to tell me he runs into Lirael and they have to deal with a Free magic being. Not exactly memorable and, honestly, not required reading.

The rest of the book contains other short stories, some original, some based on myths and legends, and there’s a take on Choose Your Own Adventure books. I own it, I just don’t really ever reread it.

Clariel by Garth Nix
Clariel by Garth Nix

Then, in 2014, we got the first “prequel” story in The Old Kingdom series. Clariel is set some 600 years prior to the events of Sabriel, back when the Old Kingdom was the OLD Kingdom and things were a lot different. The titular Clariel is the estranged granddaughter of the current Abhorsen. She is unique because she is known as a “berserk”: descended from two of the ancient bloodlines, Clariel’s strong willed nature can grow into rage and gives her an uncommon attraction to Free magic. [Wing: And it is here that I decided if I have to read the first trilogy so that I can read about Clariel, fine, I’m in, I love berserkers and rage tied to magic and fighters, and I want to read about her immediately.]

Fighting the constraints of what is expected of her, Clariel bucks the system and things go very poorly. When a disturbing discovery is made about the King’s son, a lot of people end up dead and Clariel ends up not only the Abhorsen-in-waiting but locked up in the Abhorsen’s house, against her will. Enter Mogget, who is much more dastardly and cunning then he is in the original novels. If you read the books, you’ll understand why. I’m not telling!

Entering into an agreement with Mogget, Clariel does something very very bad but which also gives her access to Free magic usage that is intoxicating and damaging. More things go very poorly, to the point that Clariel is forced to flee into the wild northern most part of the Old Kingdom, to bide her time… and become a legend…

Goldenhand by Garth Nix
Goldenhand by Garth Nix

That is immediately revisited in 2016’s Goldenhand, which is kind of a huge spoiler of a title but because I have NOT given away huge plot points for the other novels, you’ll have to read them to find out WHY it is a spoiler. Goldenhand is unique in that it is a direct sequel to Abhorsen as well as picking up directly after the events of Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case (well, shit, I guess you sort of have to read it, just once) BUT ALSO joins the events of Clariel to the present day. I’m not saying we haven’t seen Clariel since the events of the book about her but I’m also not saying we have.

It’s rather sad to say but I’ve read Goldenhand and I don’t remember much of it. It didn’t quite grip me the way the original trilogy did. Yes, there’s great bits where we get more info on the Clayr’s glacier and a person from Lirael’s past gets some screen time, but there’s a giant battle involving the return of a minor (or major?) character and I’m pretty sure all the old favorites turn up along side some new characters created for the big end battle. Again, you’d think I’d remember more, but I don’t. This is not a good recommendation. This is me being honest.

To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix
To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix

Weirdly, somewhere in 2015, Nix released a short story collection entitled To Hold the Bridge with a story about the big gigantic end battle in Goldenhand written from the POV of another character. I can find fuck all about it online, which is another strike against it. I know I read it but because Goldenhand hadn’t been released and it was a story about a battle with almost no context, it didn’t work like it should have. Maybe when I reread the series, this time in order of Old Kingdom history and not by release order, it’ll make more sense.

Did I mention they changed the cover art? That EVERYTHING got new cover art and it involves big fat fiery Charter marks front and center and I hate it? And instead of the original cover art being an option for Clariel and Goldenhand, I got this crap? I’M REALLY MAD ABOUT IT.

Why You Should Read This

If you like fantasy based around magic (specifically magic with enough rules to feel like you understand it and it’s not like PLOT SAYS SO all the time) coupled with strong heroine leads, who have faults and make mistakes but learn from the consequences, supported by a network of family and friends and creatures, you’re really going to enjoy The Abhorsen Trilogy. You don’t see Hermione Granger, the best witch of her generation, walking into Death and putting down the Dead at great personal peril. There is enough action, adventure, and excitement in those three books to immerse you in the world of the Old Kingdom.

When it comes to subsequent novels in The Old Kingdom series, specifically Clariel and Goldenhand, those are hit or miss. If you really want to find out whom Clariel becomes (and how she factors into the events of Lirael and Abhorsen, or not) and how everything that happens ends in Goldenhand, then go for it. I don’t think you’re missing much with the short story collections. Those I would consider extra curricular but not vital to the plot.

While writing this, I discovered that Nix has been writing another (possible?) prequel in the series, set around the characters of Terciel and Elinor, Sabriel’s parents. Due for release in 2021, I’m kind on the fence about this development. Very little is mentioned or known of Elinor and while Terciel is a character in Sabriel, we don’t really know him outside his occupation. I’m not even sure I knew his name until now. Either way, I will certainly read the book, as I’m always up for more adventures in the Old Kingdom. (And I will update this post after said book is released and I have devoured it, because I am nothing if not a completest.)

I think that wraps up this first entry into the BATliotheca! Thanks for joining me and I hope you enjoy The Abhorsen Trilogy if you decide to give it a try.

[Wing: End result: On the To Read spreadsheet. Checked with library, but only available as an audiobook, so I’ll keep an eye out for finding the trilogy and at least Clariel on sale somewhere.]