That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

A First Encounter with Necromancy: Garth Nix’s Sabriel

Ever since my awkward tween years, fantasy genre has been my go-to genre. Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey—each new author brought to life a world where a loser kid like me might find power. Strength. Belonging.

But one book… Oh, one book ruled them all.

It was Sabriel by Garth Nix.

Almost twenty years after discovering this book, I can still vividly recall the first time I read it. I was in the sixth grade, and the school librarian had saved this new release for me. She thought I’d like it based on the summary—“Don’t you like girls with magic?” she’d asked.

Why yes, yes I did, Dear Librarian. I also liked girls with fantasy-esque tunics and bandoliers, so the book’s glorious cover had me instantly sold. (And to this day, it remains my most favorite cover of all time.)

I peeled back said cover not two minutes later, smack-dab on the sidewalk while I waited for my mom to putter up in her Dodge Caravan. And though Mom did putter up eventually, I scarcely noticed. In fact, I scarcely noticed when my twerp of a brother stole the front seat. For the rest of that day, I stumbled around blindly, my eyes glued to the page.

I was hooked. Completely, irrevocably hooked with the story unfolding before me.

You see, we begin in a familiar world: boarding school in a land built on technology. But our heroine, young Sabriel, must go home, to a world where magic thrives.

A world where the dead can return to life.

Yet even though I knew that rising dead were a possibility—I mean, the opening scene shows Sabriel resurrecting a favorite pet—I didn’t understand what it actually meant. It’s not as if I’d never read anything with zombies or necromancy before.

But then one pivotal scene came along. A scene that will remain forever burned in my brain as the Most Frightening, Most Intense read I’ve ever encountered.

In order for Sabriel to enter death, you see, she must leave her body frozen and exposed in life. Though she can protect herself with magic, it’s a limited spell, forcing her keep her time in death as quick as possible.

In this pivotal scene, circumstances are against Sabriel, and she must enter death right beside a grim battle scene—and right after discovering that one of the “Greater Dead” has been released into the world. But after casting a shaky protection spell, off Sabriel goes into death, and the chapter closes.

Now I’m sure you can guess what happens next: while Sabriel is in death (her body vulnerable in life), a walking corpse arrives.

Yet the way Garth Nix handles it—oh, I still think it’s sheer brilliance. Rather than keep us in Sabriel’s narrative, the story suddenly jumps into the point-of-view of the walking corpse.

“Charter Magic on Cloven Crest,” the book reads. “It was like a scent on the wind to the thing that lurked in the caves below the hill, some mile or more to the west of the broken Charter Stone.”

Oh, snap. Things just got intense, right? And needless to say, the scent of Sabriel’s magic lures the walking corpse into the open—and also needless to say, you’re totally hooked. You want to know if Sabriel will escape the creature, don’t you? I know I sure did.

But, spoiler alert: while Sabriel does indeed evade that Lesser Dead, she almost immediately discovers something much, much more terrifying on her trail.

A Greater Dead. A Mordicant. “It was manlike, more than man-high, and flames ran like burning oil on water where it trod.”

Wow, my chest is clenching just typing that line, and still to this day, no other walking dead or necromantic spirits have terrified me quite like that Mordicant did. In fact, no other world or cast of characters has ever managed to capture my imagination to the degree that Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom did.

So go! Get thee to your nearest library and find out how our heroine manages (or perhaps fails!) to best the Mordicant. Just make sure that when you do, you’ve got time to spare because trust me: once you start reading Sabriel, you won’t be able to stop.

Susan Dennard has come a long way from small-town Georgia. As a marine biologist, she got to travel the world—six out of seven continents, to be exact (she’ll get to Asia one of these days!)—before she settled down as a full-time novelist and writing instructor. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and two dogs, and is extremely active in social media. You can find her on her blog, Twitter, or Misfits & Daydreamers, a weekly newsletter on all things books and writing. Her new book, Truthwitch, is available now from Tor.


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