Summary from Goodreads:
Since childhood, Sabriel has lived outside the walls of the Old Kingdom, away from the power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who refuse to stay dead. But now her father, the Mage Abhorson, is missing, and Sabriel must cross into that world to find him. With Mogget, whose feline form hides a powerful, perhaps malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage, Sabriel travels deep into the Old Kingdom. There she confronts an evil that threatens much more than her life and comes face to face with her own hidden destiny. . .
I discovered this book my senior year of high school, when a couple of my friends in drama club were reading it. Having always been a fan of fantasy, I ran to the library and picked it up, although I remember being rather surprised that it had been published in 1995. The Harry Potter craze was in full swing in 2003 and I thought Sabriel was riding on its coattails, like so many books are still doing today. But no, not only is it incredibly original, it is also unique and scary.
Sabriel kicks some serious butt. She is already powerful when we meet her, so there’s not much in the way of starting off powerless and learning in a safe environment (like a school). Although she quickly discovers she has barely scratched the surface of the amount she has to learn, at least she’s not bumbling. She’s strong, willful, and smart; overall a great heroine. Mogget the sometimes-cat is hilarious, much more so than I remember from high school. Touchstone takes some getting used to but he gets much better as the book goes on.
The magic system is awesome. A lot of the magic is done with music, like whistling, or the seven bells that Sabriel wears, all of which serve a different purpose. The bells were rather confusing; I recommend bookmarking the page in the beginning where she lists each bell and describes its power, because from then on all she ever does is mention the bells name, not what its good for. The benign Charter magic is a vast unknown entity that I would love to know more about. The book never really touches on what it would mean to be a full fledged powerful mage, but I bet it would be awesome.
I’m just gonna say it. I’m kind of a wimp, especially when it comes to stuff that should be dead. I could never in a million years handle Sabriel’s job of casually crossing the border into death and dealing with the spirits of the angry dead. I was never scared for myself though, which is why I can still call this young adult. If I read a horror novel, I start thinking hands are going to pop out of the couch or DID I lock the front door? or don’t turn your back while you walk upstairs. Ugh. I can’t handle that stuff at all. Give me a zombie movie and I am scared for weeks, if not longer. Maybe because Sabriel never features any high pitched violins or bad guys jumping out at you from the darkness, but the zombies here are only terrifying because Sabriel has to deal with them, not because they are scary to us, the readers. So even if you’re a wimp like me, you can read this book and totally handle it.
One of the things that has really started to bug me with young adult fantasy is that authors seem to be unable to make drama based on their story alone, so they add in extremely irritating stupid people to be purposefully antagonistic. It annoys me to no end. In Sabriel, however, there are multiple times when I thought “Here is where a lesser author would make some cheap drama,” and Garth Nix never falls for the bait. The side characters are supportive and understanding, even if they want to say no to her, they let her go on her way. I really appreciate that. Readers aren’t dumb, we don’t need dumb drama.
A great quick read, even if you wouldn’t normally consider picking up a young adult novel. It transcends that label into good fantasy.