I brought home Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy (which has expanded to include five novels and two novellas) from my classroom library with competing, vague senses that I had read the first book before and also that I “should” read it. I thought I had read Sabriel, the first novel, in middle school, which, given the publication date, is impossible. I think, at some point in the past, I must have picked it up and read part of it. Reading it yesterday, I certainly didn’t have the sense I’d read it before. Mostly, I wanted something to hold my attention away from the news and social media. Happily, I found a good book.
Sabriel is the titular character of the first novel in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. At 18, she is just about ready to graduate from boarding school when her family history catches up with her. That family history comes from the other side of the Wall, a magical construct that (mostly) divides the kingdom of Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom. Ancelstierre has early 20th century technology (cars, machine guns, and electric lights). The Old Kingdom instead has magic of a sort that keeps technology from functioning. Some magic bleeds across the Wall, particularly when the wind comes out of the Old Kingdom. Sabriel’s boarding school is close enough to draw on that magic, but the farther south one travels, the more magic ebbs.
After the prologue, we first see Sabriel resurrecting a fellow student’s pet bunny. Shortly thereafter, she receives a sending from her father, Abhorsen, delivering her his sword and bells. (The bells are used by necromancers to bind and manipulate the dead.) Intent on finding her father, Sabriel leaves school, crosses the wall, and discovers that “Abhorsen” is a title, not a name, and that with her father dead (it’s complicated), she must become the Abhorsen. She struggles to rescue her father with the help of Mogget, who is not actually a cat, and, eventually, Touchstone, a young man displaced in time. They battle the restless dead, and eventually confront the Big Bad.
It’s a brisk adventure story that touches on enough of personal and setting history to make the relatively small cast shine.
The Cool Thing to Consider
I said “brisk.” I meant it. This novel flies, particularly in the first half.
Pacing is a tricky beast, one I wrangled with a lot as I hashed out the beta draft to Ghosts of the Old City (which I finally finished on Monday, incidentally). Too fast, and you end up with an action movie: trying to solve plot holes by jumping over them fast enough that the audience doesn’t notice. Taken to extremes, you end up losing the meaningful connections between events that make “plot” more than “sequence.” Too slow, and you lose the reader in a morass of…whatever your slowdown is (exposition, tangents, sidequests, S. Morgenstern’s loving descriptions of trees…).
Sabriel is brilliantly paced. The prologue sets a tone and suggests the mysteries that will come in the novel proper. We get fifteen pages to establish Sabriel-the-student and receive the mysterious package, both, followed by just enough time at the Wall to give us a hint of the Abhorsen’s responsibilities and the dangers that creep the Old Kingdom. All together (prologue included), that takes us to page 62.
The next 130 pages are, effectively, an extended chase scene. Sabriel is pursued by her enemies, finding respite briefly enough that she can do little but refresh her resources. It is not until her headlong flight results in a literal crash that Nix allows the reader to pause for breath. This is a risk for a number of reasons. First, Sabriel doesn’t have much to interact with. It is hard to reveal new aspects of a character when you keep her in the same situation. Second, it’s difficult to get the right balance of power for the opposition. Nix needs it to be overwhelming enough to chase Sabriel from even her best refuge, but not so overwhelming that the reader doubts the plausibility of her continued escape.
Nix manages this by altering the terms of the chase, gradually amplifying the magical interventions as Sabriel gets further and further away from the Wall. (This, in itself, is a neatly done bit of macro-scale writing.) Sabriel begins her journey on skis. After a fight with a frightening (but somewhat easily beaten) monster, she soon has to abandon her skis as a more powerful enemy appears behind her. This enemy could clearly overpower her…until she reaches a sanctuary that seems to offer protection. Then the fresh enemy proves to have resources capable of breaching that sanctuary, forcing Sabriel to flee once more via more powerful magic…
Framed this way, it sounds like simple escalation. It does not read like simple escalation, though, because Sabriel’s emotional state provides continuity. As readers, we see her fear, her frustration, her bewilderment. By keeping us grounded in the single character’s perspective, Nix is able to use what goes on around Sabriel to pretty incredible effect. That’s how he manages to zip along to the soft reset that occurs about 200 pages in without losing the reader or the thread of his narrative.
(After Sabriel’s crash, the story pivots from her flight to her assumption of the quest “proper,” and the pacing, while still great, works in the more usual way.)
What We Nick from this Novel
There are many ways to counterbalance pace. For Nix in the first part of Sabriel, that counterbalance is characterization. To a lesser extent, it’s also worldbuilding. Nix can whisk us along through quite a lot of material because he balances the frenetic pace of the action with what we’ll need to understand later in the novel. The reverse can apply, too, balancing slow parts of the action with dynamic changes to character.
Alternative lesson: take your chases to interesting places. Give your characters some interesting places to and modes of travel as they run for their lives or chase down their nemeses.
The Abhorsen Trilogy is available as a boxed set (ISBN: 978-0-06-073419-0). Sabriel, as a single volume, can be found with ISBN 978-0-06-447183-1.