I’ve been taking far, far, far too long to get around to reading Clariel and Goldenhand by Garth Nix, and I decided that in order to get myself in the right place to do it, I would reread the original Old Kingdom books.
I have not been disappointed.
My initial reaction was, “These books hold up well ten years after publication.”
Then I had to remind myself that the 90s are now, you know, twenty years ago.
Then I felt old.
Note: There’s no such thing as spoilers for a book that’s more than, like, ten years old. Still, if you want to read the series for yourself untainted, here there be spoilers.
That aside, two things that struck me with Sabriel:
First, Sabriel doesn’t set out to be the Chosen One or Save the World. A spirit approaches her from Death and presents her with her father’s sword and necromancer bells, and she refuses to believe her father is dead. She leaves on her quest purely and entirely to rescue her father. There’s so much that’s personally at stake for her, and all the other stuff about Kerrigor and the deterioration of the Old Kingdom is completely second string.
You as the reader know, or at least strongly suspect, that Touchstone is the true king. You pick up on how much of a threat Kerrigor is beyond just being the thing that stands between Sabriel and her father. You know that Sabriel is stepping up into her destiny, preparing to take her father’s place, and that any moment she has with her father before the end of the book is going to be a Mufasa in the Clouds kind of moment. But all the epic saving-the-world fantasy that surrounds Sabriel doesn’t matter quite as much as her loss of her father, her desire to protect her friends, even her connection with the soldiers on the wall.
Sabriel’s destiny does not overshadow Sabriel herself as she becomes an Abhorsen in her own right. I love that, so much.
Second, in my younger years, I didn’t really believe that people could be so ignorant that they’d deny that there’s a magical wall where sometimes the undead cross over from a kingdom beyond, and technology gets funky around the wall. As an adult, I’m realizing how little people care about local problems.
If it isn’t in your neighborhood, if it doesn’t have a celebrity spokesperson, local problems don’t really register. Consider the Flint Water Crisis, which is still ongoing after four or more years. (And what other little towns and cities out there in the US struggle for access to clean water, and we don’t hear about it at the national weather?) Or, the way that a particular individual with some authority in government can blatantly deny that nearly three thousand people died in Puerto Rico after Puerto Rico was all but ignored in the aftermath of two hurricanes. These aren’t exactly tiny problems, but people who are farther distant from the tragedy seem to find it easy to dismiss.
So, now, I can most definitely believe that the government in Ancelstierre would be stupid enough to stop rotating the crossing point on the wall, allowing the dead to pile up in one location and grow worse and worse, against the advice of the military officials on the ground who know its a huge problem. There’s a truth to it that I didn’t notice or consider as a child.
One of my students is reading Sabriel right now, and I’m excited to hear what she thinks–if it’s just my nostalgia and my adult perspective finding comfort in Garth Nix’s words, or if I’m right and the story really does hold up.
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