Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Abhorsen Trilogy

Sabriel, by Garth Nix, Read by Tim Curry, Listening Library, 2006

Lirael, by Garth Nix, Read by Tim Curry, Listening Library, 2006

Abhorsen, by Garth Nix, Read by Tim Curry, Listening Library, 2006

One of the pleasant side effects of the Harry Potter franchise is the increasing size of the younger reader’s market. Step into any mega-chain Borders or Barnes & Noble and you will find novels for teenagers loading shelves in an ever-larger space in the store. J.K. Rowling, whatever criticisms one may make against her books, has managed to inspire kids to read in a way few writers these days have. She’s made reading cool again in an era of electronic competition.

If there’s a dark cloud to go with this silver lining, it’s how much of the new younger readers’ fiction is fantasy dreck of the worst kind. Potter knock-offs, sword & sorcery of the most driveling variety, clearly rushed out hashed over themes and imagery as publishers try to crank out as many magic books as they can before the franchise runs its course. Publishers like a series, say a trilogy or a quintet, because initial success breeds future sales, the longer the better.

There are, however, some gems in all the mire. While Lemony Snickett and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl weren’t particularly compelling or memorable for me, Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy of books Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, provided a complex alternative world, rather difficult moral choices for the characters, and poetic themes and imagery. And while the first book in the trilogy introduces us to an underaged magician, the titular Sabriel, her particular skills and learning curve are miles away from what Rowling writes.

And perhaps that’s one of the greater charms of this fantasy series. With the cloud of Potter-dom hanging over younger readers’ books of magic, authors are bound to run up against the comparison game. While I generally abhor making one book defend itself against another, as though comparison were everything, such mental measuring is inevitable and natural for we poor readers.

The magical powers used by the Abhorsen (a class of magicians) in Nix’s world has a very particular purpose and function, which is to prevent the undead and the recently dead from journeying back to play havoc with the inhabitants of Ancelstierre. They are magicians with a specific trade, a specific duty, and they fight a specific, untiring, multiform enemy.

The first book begins slightly earlier than many a fairy tale as Sabriel is born, her mother dying in childbirth, and the infant daughter dying with her. Sabriel is brought back to life by her father, the Abhorsen, who then takes her away with him. As is usual, we will have the absent mother by death and the absent father by occupation. That is our prologue.

The next chapter finds Sabriel at school and within minutes a messenger from the land of the dead appears to hand her a sack filled with her father’s tools of necromancy (sword and bell and such). He is either dead himself or trapped inside the world of the dead. From here we are launched upon a rescue quest as well as a coming of age story replete with rather creepy episodes of fighting and learning.

Things unfold nicely throughout. It is a curious world, as they always are in fantasy novels, and Nix uncovers just enough as we move along (and does so without being overt and clumsy with it) that we understand as much as necessary up to that point. Sometimes we get less than we need and it’s the ignorance of us as readers that can add to suspense at times.

A good instance of Sabriel’s ignorance is the outcome of her removing the binding collar from around the neck of Mogget, a talking cat servant to the Abhorsen. Mogget has been accompanying Sabriel, playing with her lack of knowledge while assisting her in and out of scrapes. When we pick up the third member of our party, it is an amnesiac named Touchstone, servant to the long-dead queen of Ancelstierre who has been under a spell as a ship decoration for the last two hundred years. These two, we know from the start, are destined for love and adventure, and the book follows them along as Touchstone slowly regains memory, the major villain and his evil scheme is identified, and, of course, a struggle to the death is fought.

Which is why book two surprised me so much in that it hardly touches on Sabriel and Touchstone, but shifts the action fourteen years into the future. Our new heroine for the second and longest book of the trilogy is Lirael, daughter of the Clayr, of parentage unknown. A sort of misfit, Lirael is so far one of the last and oldest students upon whom “the Sight” has not yet descended. This power is a precognition that allows the Clayr to see into the relatively near future (or futures) and to give advice to the king and queen of Ancelstierre or those who need it.

Lirael herself is thrust by her inability to develop her power into an adventure of her own which throws her together with Sameth, prince of the realm and the son of Sabriel and Touchstone. Prince Sameth, it seems, will be the new Abhorsen when his mother retires, only he doesn’t quite have the stomach for the job. This misfit pairing is surprising light in a novel as dark as this, as dark as the whole trilogy really, what with the books so fixated on the undead and their attempts to return to earth.

If book two suffers anywhere it’s in being so clearly just the set up for book three. The closing chapters shut things down pretty damn abruptly, almost bereft of a proper climax as we prepare ourselves for the finale coming in book three. It’s my lightly held opinion that second books in trilogies need to be the best and are positioned most favorable to be so. The introductory elements have already been established in book one, and book three needs to work double-time in position things for the climax. Middle books have room to stretch out, develop the story, and really put a hurting on the good guys so readers are anxious for book three’s (hopefully) happy conclusions.

The third book in the series, Abhorsen, follows right on the heels of the second and finishes out both the quest Lirael and Prince Sameth have been engaged upon to find Sameth’s friend Nick. There are recurrent and almost constant battles with the legions of the dead and undead, we learn more of Lirael’s mysterious past, the complete outline of the mysterious dark forces of which Sabriel’s monster was only the first become clear, and the destinies of all parties move toward their inevitability.

Book three fails to disappoint as there are three separate threads of action which frequently splinter apart for sub-threads, making the book a complicated race against time for all parties, villains included. Nix manages to tie things together expertly without his resolutions feeling pat or forced or overly choreographed, a pleasant synching of all his pieces providing a nailbiter of a conclusion.

A series such as this, with its fairly original mythology and how little the author gives away about even the most basic elements, is hard to write about without providing ample spoilers. Each new development of knowledge not only sufficient advances the plot but also reveals so much more than we’ve come to assume. The new revelations tend to cause you to reformulate your basic understanding, deepening it without merely adding layers of accretion.

One of my constant sensations with Rowling’s universe is how ad-hoc the introduction of new magical elements tend to feel, as though substantial plot points were dreamed up during the writing. Nix’s world feels better fleshed out ahead of time and the new wrinkles don’t sit awkwardly among the old, but give you that pleasant mental sensation of seeing how their existence is naturally predicated upon the old, of feeling their organic consistency.

There are number of elements that are interesting to the story that are pretty strictly specific to it. Some of the creepier examples are sendings, magical ghosts that acts as a servant for the necromancers. Gore crows (crows filled with the soul of a man), as well as mordicants, glimms, and haunts slither, slime, crawl, and flap through the novels, a palpable dread in their wake. Then there is an older magic, less shaped and controlled (free magic,) and a society-magic used by various upper crusts (charter magic). Nix’s universe feels both natural and supernatural, and he plays among these elements demonstrating a keen thoughtfulness on how non-magical technologies might develop in a world where magic exists.

Nix’s series moves with rapidity and action and his prose tends toward the lean at times and the poetic at others. The books are just the right mixture of darkness and light to make them appealing to the current popular demographic, though they are relatively somber in tone. As the magic mostly dealt with and among pertains to the dead, it’s hardly surprising if Nix favored the elegiac tone. It suits his story well.

Reader Tim Curry is quite the surprise here, his pleasant soft English accent and warm middle ranged voice cradling the words neatly and spooning them into your ears. In his film career, Mr. Curry has too often played the kiss of death in any capacity, though why there should be a shortage of smarmy smiling British characters I can’t imagine. Here his unctuousness stays in his pocket and the easy timbre is a pleasure.


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