Garth Nix

Allen and Unwin (2006)

ISBN: 978-1-74237-096-5

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, August 2010

The Old Kingdom Chronicles is an omnibus edition, containing the three novels Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, and the novella “Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case”.

Each of these stories is set, as the omnibus title suggests, in the Old Kingdom.  The Old Kingdom is a place where magic not only exists, and works, but where it often is of primary importance in people’s day to day lives. Ordinary people know magic works and respect it. Others devote their lives to channelling and using their magic, with entire communities building a lifestyle around their particular form of magic.  But the Old  Kingdom borders on Ancelstierre, a land which has technology very similar to ours – and no magic.  Most people in Ancelstierre don’t believe in magic, or the stories they hear of the Old Kingdom.  Between the two lands is the Wall, which protects both from the encroachment of the other.  And those who defend the Wall know that the stories they hear of the Old Kingdom aren’t fanciful, but all too true. Those who don’t believe that, quickly die when their faith in technology blinds them to magic that can’t be defeated with technology.

In Sabriel the titular character finds she must step up and take her place as the Abhorsen – a necromancer who uses their skills to prevent the dead encroaching on the world of the living (such encroachments are usually evil). Sabriel’s feelings are extremely mixed – if she has indeed become the Abhorsen, it means her much loved father is dead, as the Abhorsen is a title passed from parent to child.  Sabriel has grown up largely in boarding school in Ancelstierre, as a place largely devoid of magic helped shield her from her father’s enemies. But now those enemies are reaching out to her, and it seems her safe refuge may be breached. This is far sooner than either she or her father had expected; she isn’t yet fully trained.  Sabriel embarks on a journey back to the  Old Kingdom. She must find out what has really happened to her father; bring her skills to their full power; and perhaps assume the mantle of the Abhorsen. Oh yes, and maybe save the world while she’s at it….

Lirael shifts to a very different place, to the halls of the Clayr’s Glacier, where Lirael has just awoken to her fourteenth birthday. The Clayr have the sight, and for most it develops well before their fourteenth birthday. Lirael still doesn’t have it, and can find no clue that she ever will. She is treated like a child where everyone else her age is adult, and is lonely and isolated because of her “disability”.  But her despair on this day draws her to the attention of some of the older Clayr, and they offer her a chance to become a Librarian.  Lirael is entranced by the opportunity to build a real role for herself, and even more so by the knowledge she finds herself able to access in the library.  Including some forbidden knowledge, which will eventually force her to leave the Glacier where she has lived all her life in order to help fight off an ancient evil which threatens to consume the Old Kingdom and perhaps Ancelstierre as well.

Abhorsen continues Lirael’s story, while drawing more strongly on the events of Sabriel than the middle volume did.  With the Abhorsen and the King missing, Lirael finds herself squarely responsible for finding a way to defeat the Destroyer which threatens the existence of the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre.

And finally, “Nicolas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” casts the spotlight on a minor but interesting character from Abhorsen, and tells us a little of what he did next.

Each of these three novels are fairly self contained. You could easily read any one of them and follow it and enjoy it.  However, as you would expect, you’ll get more out of the novels if you do read all three, and read them in order. Lirael and Abhorsen are particularly strongly linked, with the events of Lirael leading straight into Abhorsen. I enjoyed each of these novels, and found it easy to read all three and the novella without a break in between. The world building drew me in, the characters kept me interested, and the plot wasn’t so overwhelming as to require a break to absorb it.

The world building was a particularly strong aspect of these novels. Nix has the ability to create strong, engaging characters that readers care about.  You want to know what happens to these people, and you hope desperately that the ones you come to care about will triumph – or at least survive.  This ability is certainly on show in these novels. However, in the Old  Kingdom and Ancelstierre Nix has created an intriguing world where the border between magic and mundanity is relatively easy to find (if not manage). There’s a logic to how things work and how the two lands affect each other, but more importantly, it’s just plain intriguing to see events in this region and to think about how people in each society manage to be blind to the realities so near to them.

I was slightly surprised by the decision to place an introduction from Nix before “Nicolas Sayre and the Creature in the Case”. Nix’s introduction is interesting, and not overly long, but by placing it between the novels and the novella, the reader is thrown out of the world Nix has created.  The introduction would have sat just as well as an afterword or commentary after the novella, and would not have distracted from the world building.

Another minor negative is the sheer physical size of this volume.  It is a thick trade paper back with close to 1400 pages.  I had trouble holding it at times; given that the novels are well suited to a young adult audience, other readers may also have difficulty with this. Despite the convenience of having the whole trilogy in one volume, and the value for money, it may be worth considering buying the three novels separately if this is going to be an issue.

These are not outstandingly memorable novels, in the sense that they may not live on in your memory in a decade’s time. However, they’re well written and entertaining, with some thoughtful messages subtly woven into the plot and action.  Many readers will empathise strongly with the main characters, and the writing flows well.  These are excellent novels for young adult readers, likely to be accessible to at least some younger readers, and will also engage many older readers.