The Old Kingdom #1


  • Media: #Books #Books 2020
    • Author: Garth Nix
    • Status: #read
    • Date: October 7th, 2020
    • Tags: #fiction #ya #magic #fantasy #undead #worldbuilding
    • Rating: ★★★★☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★☆☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads


In land divided between the modern civilised towns and villages and ‘The Old Kingdom’ across the wall where magic reigns and the dead walk, the daughter of a good necromancer enters the fray.

Sabriel, the daughter of Abhorsen (a necromancer who guides the dead back into death), crosses the wall to save her father who is trapped in death. Along the way, she learns about her birthright as the next Abhorsen, gains a talking cat/fiend sidekick of questionable goodness, and obligatory love interest. Together, they race across the Old Kingdom hunted by dead to stop the Abhorsen’s ancient enemy rising and bringing death down on both sides of the wall.


"There were other things in Death than the Dead"

Now I enjoy a good book, regardless of any age labels. You are never too old for a good story. I'll shamelessly buy a 'preschool' picture book if its cute. Any aversion to 'young adult' is more to do with obsessive vampire boyfriends and dystopian remakes than the age group (not to mention non-YA fiction can be just as guilty on both those counts).

However, it doesn't take long to realise Sabriel is not your average middle grade to early young adult fantasy adventure fare. For starters, it stars a necromancer tracking her potentially dead father across a dark world where the Dead haunt her every step. And the most impressive bit is that Sabriel manages to succeed both as an original dark fantasy world and a speedy, children's to young adult adventure. All in all, an excellent reminder not to lower expectations based on age.

The Old Kingdom is the star

"The Clayr saw me, the Wallmaker made me, the King quenched me, Abhorsen wields me."

The living (and undead) characters are perfectly serviceable Sabriel is resourceful protagonist, even if she occasionally acts illogically and spends much of the time careening from one terrible injury to the next. It all makes sense in the high stakes, deadly Old Kingdom and the fresh setup (boarding school daughter tracking her necromancer father across a dying fantasy world) makes it work. The love interest, on the other hand, falls flat and could have had more depth if his 'dark secret past' turned out to actually be just that for a proper redemption arc. The villain is Big Bad Evil Guy for the sake of it. All good. Honestly, Mogget, the evil(?) cat sidekick is the best of the bunch and I'd like to know more about him.

But all that is fine because the world of the Old Kingdom, steeped in death magic and a clash of burgeoning modernity meets kingdom lost to time and the Dead, is the real star of the show. Sabriel, knowing little of this new world, lets us experience the unique magic system and politics of the world. Sure this may result in more than a few exposition dumps, but they never slow down the story too much.

The most fun you'll have in an undead apocalypse

Sabriel is an enjoyable romp through a dark world that still retains the feeling of being a fantastical adventure rather than a dreary apocalypse. There are atmospheric scenes which feel genuinely creepy but it never loses the children's fantasy sense of an adventure that will all work out in the end. The original fantasy setting is also far more intricate and interesting than I've encountered in most books for a younger audience and worth the time on its own.

Scrapbook Concepts

  • Purple ink
  • Wall crossing moved every ten years to prevent build up of magic and death because corpses won't stay buried from armies on both sides. Trench warfare effects? #locations #magic #undead
  • Binding necromancer missing (trapped in death). Have to retrieve them before death or everything they bound will break loose #adventures #undead
  • Young necromancer searching for her dead father #characters #undead
  • Gravedigging unit --> what if there was a necromantic gravediggers unit? #seed #factions #characters
  • Ring bells to control the dead #magic #fragments
  • "Ranna the sleepbringer, the sweet, low sound that brought silence in its wake. ‘Mosrael.’ The second bell, a harsh, rowdy bell. Mosrael was the waker, the bell Sabriel should never use, the bell whose sound was a seesaw, throwing the ringer further into Death, as it brought the listener into Life." #magic
  • "Astarael was the banisher, the final bell. Properly rung, it cast everyone who heard it far into Death. Everyone, including the ringer." #magic
  • the Wallmaker #characters
  • its body of bog-clay and human blood moulded and infused with Free Magic #creatures
  • A book which isn't always the same book
  • "All necromancers had to be musical, had to be able to whistle, to hum, to sing. If they were caught in Death without bells, or other magical instruments, their vocal skills were a weapon of last recourse." #fragments #characters
  • Underground 'harbour' in a sinkhole labyrinth housing funerary ships carrying the royal dead and their treasures #locations
  • Flooded village, be spelled mills broken and magical stone rift by heinous sacrifice as dead overrun. But they can't come out during the day. Villagers retreat to small island, besieged over bridge. Stalemate as dead cannot cross bridge. A dead hiding on the island. #locations #adventures #undead
  • Fighting through a series of waterfalls and different river 'gates' to get back to life from death #locations
  • "A cross between a hog and a segmented worm and it moved in a series of scuttles and sinuous wriggles." #creatures
  • ‘I can see time,’ whispered Mogget #fragments #creatures #magic
  • "Technically, he was still alive, but a Dead spirit had suppressed his will, riding on his flesh like some shadowy string-puller, using his body as a puppet. Something highly unpleasant would be half-submerged in his back, under the boat cloak. Mordaut, they were called, Sabriel remembered. A whole page was devoted to these parasitical spirits in The Book of the Dead. They liked to keep a primary host alive, slipping off at night to sate their hunger from other living prey" #creatures #undead
  • "The great boom-chain still stretched across the strait. Huge iron links, each as wide and long as the fishing boat, rose green and barnacle-befouled out of the water and up into each of the towers." #locations
  • "There were other things in Death than the Dead" #creatures #undead
  • "They were chanting and clapping, decayed hands meeting together in a steady, slow rhythm that put all the hair on the back of his head on edge." #scene #undead
  • A bloodline of seers whose gift is spread across the entire family. Can come together to narrow sight but otherwise each only get splinters #magic #characters