Reading by Ear: Sabriel

Sabriel by Garth Nix
read by Tim Curry

I read the entire Abhorsen trilogy in high school; I even derailed a book club discussion of it by complaining about the costume design on the cover not matching up to the description in the book. (…I deeply apologize to everyone involved.) But ultimately, I never retained much beyond a very vague memory of Sabriel’s first fight against one of the undead on a snowy night. Casting around for an audiobook (perhaps I should start keeping a list of audiobooks I want to listen to!), I discovered that Tim Curry, the former patron saint of my film depreciation society, narrated the entire trilogy in audiobook format. Not quite as exciting as Jeremy Irons, but still, exciting.

Sabriel is the story of the titular Sabriel, a young woman studying in Ancielstierre, a place not unlike 1920s Britain. But beyond the Wall, where she was born, is the Old Kingdom, where magic is real—and often deadly. Her father is the necromancer known as the Abhorsen, the lone necromancer sworn to bind the living dead and return them to their proper path. Sabriel is slowly training to follow in his footsteps, but when she receives her father’s sword and bells, she knows that her father is in trouble and travels across the Wall to rescue him, not knowing of the supreme evil that seeks to destroy them both.

Reading by Ear is a separate feature from my regular reviews because I’m a visual learner, not an aural one. I’ve had stupendous luck with my audiobooks so far; they’ve either been things I loved or things I loved to hate—things I’ve had strong reactions to. Sabriel is the first audiobook I’ve listened to where I simply tuned out every once in a while. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s just not gripping in the way that other ones have; I simply wasn’t invested in the characters enough to force myself to pay careful attention to what I was listening to. Had I actually read Sabriel, I may have had a different reaction, but ultimately, I think, I would have come to the same conclusion—it’s a nostalgic piece I should have left well enough alone.

Part of this stems from something I had a hard time buying even six years ago—the worldbuilding. Everything in the Old Kingdom is standard fantasy spiced up with a few unique features; a dedicated magic system, the frankly awesome (if mildly impractical) necromantic bells, and a desecrated, almost zombie apocalypse-like setting. But once we get to Ancielstierre, my suspension of disbelief shrivels up. Why, I can’t help but wonder, is there such an enormous discrepancy between Ancielstierre and the Old Kingdom, even calibrating for magic canceling out technology (and who determines what’s tech and what’s not? Why do crossbows work but not guns?) Why did Terciel (Sabriel’s father, who is never named in this book) never prepare her properly for what was after them or even tell her about the basics of the office she will have to hold next? Ancielstierre feels less like a setting in its own right—especially considering how Lirael and Abhorsen are set mainly in the Old Kingdom, from what I recall—and more of a gimmick to spice things up. It’s just too thin for me to sink into the story.

Compounding this is Sabriel herself. Go ahead, ask me what Sabriel is like. I don’t remember. She seems more like a place marker than a proper character, going through the motions—cross Wall, fight the dead, gear up, rescue love interest, so on and so forth—instead of being motivated herself. I say “seems” because Sabriel does have reasons for what she does; she’s looking for her father and, upon discovering that she’s the new Abhorsen, tries to carry out her duties. But it still feels like she’s moving under the plot’s steam instead of her own. The rest of the characters are similar; while I did like her gruff father, they were otherwise forgettable and transient, especially the villain, Kerrigor. His vague motivation made him fall flat to me; sure, he wanted power and to escape death, but there was no depth to him at all. To be wholly fair, the pacing is decent and the action scenes are tense; I actually jumped during my workout during the climactic battle. But ultimately, it just never really took off for me.

Tim Curry’s narration is excellent, with distinctive (although not too distinctive) voices for the cast and playing Mogget, the mysterious cat, to the hilt. His diction is calm, clear, and steady; perfect for an audiobook. I was, however, thrown by the use of music to begin and end the book. It reminded me a bit too much of Eragon, to be totally honest. While it fits the source material at the beginning, it’s a little too dark and otherworldly for the cheerful finale, where it was completely out of place. Still, it’s a solid audiobook production.

Bottom line: Despite its nostalgic value, Sabriel is ultimately forgettable, with worldbuilding that stretches the imagination too far and flat characters going through the motions. Still, Tim Curry’s narration is solid, although the instrumental accompaniment at the beginning and end of the piece is pushing it.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

9 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Sabriel

  1. Aw man, I remember totally loving this book when I was younger. I think the main bit of awesome (since obviously characters fell a little flat) was the magic system. The bells and the descriptions of the levels are such a cool bit of imagination.

    I do find that returning to books you loved as a younger reader can be problematic. For example, I reread Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Promise series and came away just incredibly annoyed by the main character. I think he–and I–were far more whiny than I realized back in the day. 🙂

    There are of course books that hold up across all age levels. HP and His Dark Materials come to mind.

  2. I liked Sabriel but found it slow. Then I read Lirael and stopped with the trilogy right there. I’m all for complex, unlikeable female characters but Lirael whined too damn much for me, and she didn’t get to something useful until much later in the book.

    All in all, I have mixed feelings about Garth Nix. Great ideas, occasionally so-so application.

  3. You know, I could never figure out why I disliked this book when I first read it in middle school. I didn’t really have the vocabulary I guess to explain it, but from what I remember, this post explains it really well! I had a little group of friends (read: there were 2 of us) who always read fantasy books together and I was the lone voice against this one. I just couldn’t finish it.

  4. I had a copy of Sabriel for ages before I read it, and, IIRC, it was years before Lirael and Abhorsen were published. I wondered whether Nix had originally intended it as a one-off. I liked it when I read it, and am sure I read the sequels (though can’t remember anything about them), though I don’t recall ever re-reading it. I guess if I picked it up today I’d have a different reaction.

  5. Pingback: Booking Through Thursday: Cover Story Part 2 « The Literary Omnivore

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