The Old Kingdom Series by Garth Nix
For my birthday this year, my girlfriend got me The Old Kingdom novels, a series of three books that would, apparently, “make me cry like a baby”. The last book she recommended was War Horse, which had much the same affect on me… As soon as I picked up the first book, I was instantly hooked, and read the trilogy back-to-back.
Sabriel tells the story of Sabriel, daughter of Abhorsen, a powerful mage who protects the real world from the world of the dead. When her father goes missing, presumed dead, Sabriel is forced to inherit his title and role and claim the real world back from the clutches of the dead.
Set in both the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre (a place similar to England in the early 20th century), the book follows Sabriel as she is forced to leave the comfort of Ancelstierre, cross the dividing Wall, and return to her homeland of the Old Kingdom. Both locations are fantastically described and brilliantly realised – Ancelstierre is familiar enough, yet subtly different, and the Old Kingdom is a fantastic creation, with a history and lore that really stretch beyond the boundaries of the book. The world Nix has created feels so real, and the book never suffers from the usual fantasy curse of explaining everything to the reader. Unlike some other authors, Nix doesn’t give you endless descriptions and explanations – you just accept what he writes. Things like the Charter or its various marks (which can be drawn, whistled, or spoken) are never really explained, but because Nix’s brief but telling explanations and his excellent control over his prose, his world feels completely real and fantastically realised.
The most surprising thing about Sabriel is that, despite being advertised as a children’s book, it is incredibly dark and frightening. The story is told a breakneck speed, as Sabriel flees from one danger to the next, always fearing for her life and the future of the Kingdom. Nix’s makes sure that you never forget that Sabriel is still a child, and makes the horrors that stalk her truly terrifying. It’s nail-biting stuff and you really do care about Sabriel’s fate, always fearing that the next peril she faces will be her last. It is not a happy book, but there are enough brief moments of levity to grantee that the novel is as enjoyable as it is unnerving.
Sabriel is also packed with great characters. Sabriel herself is a fantastic protagonist, instantly likeable and very relatable. She is plunged head-first into a very dangerous situation that she has no control over, and that sense of unknowing and insecurity makes her a very sympathetic character. Fantasy seems to breed such compelling strong female protagonists – like Philip Pullman’s Lyra – and Sabriel is no exception. Her companions, the brave but tortured Touchstone and the snide and sarcastic Mogget (my personal favourite), are just as convincing and just as engaging. Even the supporting characters, especially Colonel Horyse, are all just as compelling. And although only briefly seen, Sabriel’s relationship with her father is very tender, but sadly bitter-sweet, centrepiece to the book.
Unlike Sabriel, which focused entirely on its title character, Lirael’s narrative is split between Lirael, a young daughter of the precognitive Clayr, and Sameth, the son of Sabriel. Set almost two decades after the events of the first book, the ruined Old Kingdom has been given time to heal, and it now described in all it’s former glory, rather than as the ruined wasteland of Sabriel. It’s brilliant to see Nix expand upon his world, particularly the awe-inspiring High Bridge, and the much-teased Clayr’s Glacier, with their truly mind-blowing library.
Like Sabriel before it, Lirael is a dark book. After all, any novel that starts with its main character planning to commit suicide is not going to be much of a farcical affair. But again, Nix knows when to naturally use the right about of humour, and the book never becomes depressing. As often with the second entry of a trilogy, the stakes are higher this time round. The undead threat is much more dangerous, and the cost, despite being a global threat, is much more personal. Unfortunately, the book is mainly used as a way to set up the inevitable showdown between good and evil that takes place in the third book, so although still an excellent read and packed with thrilling action, Lirael lacks that urgency and sense of peril that made its predecessor such a stand out.
Another reason as to why Lirael isn’t quite as good as Sabriel is that, to start with at least, its central characters just aren’t as strong. Although they do mature and grow on you as the book goes on, for the first half of the novel both Lirael and Sameth are a bit too self-pitying and insecure for either of them to be as compelling a protagonist as Sabriel. Thank goodness, then, for the Disreputable Dog, who proves, like Mogget before her, that talking animal companions are not always a bad thing. Full of an easy charm and sharp wit, she is a great addition to the cast, and her tension-filled banter with the returning Mogget is a true highlight of the book.
Set immediately after the cliffhanger ending of Lirael, Abhorsen more than makes up for previous book’s lack of urgency and peril and straight away throws the main characters straight into a mad dash across the Old Kingdom to where an ancient and terrible threat is being unearthed. The breakneck pace of the first book returns and the novel progresses as an edge-of-your-seat roller-coaster ride. Garth Nix is an author who doesn’t pull any punches and isn’t afraid to take any risks – there are moments in this book that will make your jaw drop open in shock and other moments that are so horrifying that you will be left feeling numb. It is a cruelly emotional and unrelenting book, and the harsh realism only serves to elevate the quality of the story.
Both Lirael and Sameth are much more engaging protagonists this time round. Gone are their moping ways, replaced with a burning desire to save the world, and the book benefits greatly from this. Determined to do what they can to stop the threat, instead of wallowing in self-pity at their own failings, their new-found purpose gives the book a fantastic drive and structure that was lacking in Lirael. It also helps that the enemy and his servants are truly terrifying creations, once again raising the stakes and lifting Abhorsen above the other fantasies out there. There is a real sense of danger here, and with good reason, you are never sure if the heroes will survive their battle against evil. Nix’s ability to play with readers’ emotions and twist their expectations is another reason why the book is such a heart-pounding and horrifying thrill to read.
The Old Kingdom Series is an exquisitely well written trilogy, with beautiful descriptions, fantastic characters, and a real sense of danger running throughout. Nix never mollycoddles his readers, and that is incredibly satisfying and commendable – death is cruel and brutal, loss is painful and hard, and fear is very real. These are dark, well crafted books, with incredibly mature stories, that succeed in both satisfying and shocking.
The Old Kingdom is a brilliantly crafted world that feels very real, inhabited by characters that you really care about. The trilogy is a bold and brave creation and Garth Nix has created a wholly unique fantasy world that both inspires and terrifies at the same time. A rare and refreshing work of true genius. And yes, I did cry.