by Kristen B.
One of my favorite series debuted a long time ago with the publication of Sabriel in 1995, which introduced us to the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre – a magical world and a vaguely Victorian British country joined by mysterious means across a Wall. Author Garth Nix has written in this world off and on for almost 30 years. It’s not a huge series with a new book available annually, but it includes the first trilogy, a variety of short stories, a sequel, a side story about a secondary character, and now the newest installment of Terciel and Elinor.
Title character Sabriel is a young woman finishing her rather unusual education at Wyverly College, a boarding school in Ancelstierre close to the Wall. Her father is a powerful mage from the Old Kingdom, the Abhorsen – an inherited position responsible for making sure the dead remain dead. Death is presented as a river with many precincts that sweeps souls along to their final rest beyond the Ninth Gate. Unfortunately, in the Old Kingdom, the dead don’t always stay that way and necromancers try to increase their power by manipulating Death. It’s all wonderfully gothic and atmospheric (but not particularly scary) with appeal for teens and adults alike. Abhorsens battle the necromancers and Greater Dead with their magical bells and sword, with each bell sounding a specific command – like walking or sleeping.
Back in Ancelstierre, Sabriel receives a bandolier of bells and a sword and realizes that something has gone very wrong with her father. She travels into the Old Kingdom to discover that Bad Things are afoot. With the help of a lost prince and a talking cat who is much more than he seems, Sabriel must conquer an old nemesis and restore the Kingdom. The next two books move forward a generation, but they continue with fraught necessity the quest to defeat the ultimate evil and save the world. Honestly, what more could you ask for?!
Nix published Terciel and Elinor in 2021, and it tells the story of Sabriel’s parents, of how they met and fell in love. It explains so much of the background for the original series, while still giving us new characters to root for. Elinor is a delight as a neglected but independent daughter with a passion for stagecraft and a willingness to meet whatever comes her way with knives drawn. Terciel matches the orphan vibe with a sketchy background of his own, as he reluctantly accepts his future role as the Abhorsen. A competent ranger and taciturn current Abhorsen provide good counterpoints to the young (rather callow) and energetic main characters. I think this sort of immediate prequel is immensely difficult to do well precisely because we know the ending of the story, nonetheless this was an enjoyable read with high enough stakes to keep me turning pages well into the night.
You can start reading either with the newest book, or read in original publication order beginning with Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. For a real treat, listen to the audiobooks narrated by actor Tim Curry, whose dark voice perfectly suits a series that features the river of Death.
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).