Hiya again, another post a bit out of the blue…. I’m going to chat about one of my favourite book series and favourite books ever. The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix consisting of Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, and some side stories Across The Wall, Clariel, and Goldenhand.
I’m going to focus on the core trilogy starting with Sabriel, I’ll talk a little bit about the books and then talk about what I like about them so much.
The series is set in a divided continent. To the north is the Old Kingdom; a place of magic where the dead can be called to unlife, where there are evil creatures of Free Magic fought back by Charter Mages. To the south is Ancelstierre, a country of roughly industrial era technology where the idea of magic is laughable. Dividing them is The Wall; a magical construct that prevents evil creatures from the Old Kingdom crossing south, and is manned by soldiers of Ancelstierre who prevent any crossing either way. The Wall also acts as a rough barrier for magic where the further south one goes the less potent the power becomes, quickly tailing off. Similarly the further north any Ancelstierrian technology is taken the more likely it is to malfunction, break, and eventually crumble. The more complicated the magic or technology the quicker this breakdown happens.
The story of Sabriel focuses on our heroine of the same name, daughter of someone called the Abhorsen, a kind of “good necromancer” who uses necromantic powers to return the dead to death She has been raised mainly on the southern side of the wall and doesn’t know much about the state of her home country which has fallen to hordes of dead and destabilisation with her father unable to keep up with the new creatures being summoned. Through the book she discovers more about her home country, meets a mysterious beserker, and begins to learn her role in the Old Kingdom that her bloodline dictates.
This is a running theme through the books, as the quote above says, “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”, and it’s echoed throughout the books for different characters.
The second book breaks sharply away from the first; it’s decades later, Sabriel is now a fully fledged Abhorsen, she has a family and the kingdom is beginning to recover from the events of the first book. This book is split between three characters; Lirael, Sameth, and Nicholas.
- Sameth is Sabriel’s son and as the son of the Abhorsen it is assumed and known that he is the Abhorsen in waiting, something that terrifies him as he has trouble even entering Death.
- Nicholas, the son of an Ancelstierrian minister and firm believer in the “silly superstitions” of the north who is turned into an unwilling vessel for a great evil.
- Lirael, ❤, who is a Clayr; a young girl living in a glacier, part of a huge extended family who can see the future in the ice.
I’m going to focus on Lirael who is one of my favourite characters and the reason Lirael is possibly my favourite book of all time.
Lirael is born in the glacier never really knowing her parents. For the Clayr it is typical for a male to be taken briefly for pleasure or for children, but they are not allowed in the Glacier proper. The daughters of the Clayr are all dark-skinned, blond, blue eyed, and in their early years they awaken to the Sight and are able to look into the future. This power is harnessed in groups for the benefit of the kingdom.
In stark contrast to this Lirael is pale, dark haired, brown eyed, and the oldest child to have not awoken to the Sight by some years. She stands out and nobody quite knows what to do with her.
One evening Lirael decides that she can’t cope anymore, that she has no place in the family, and plans to throw herself onto the ice in a romanticised view of a death that would mean something, possibly shock the Clayr into realising how distraught she feels. It’s a very silly view of suicide and very moody-teenager, but it did speak to a part of me that didn’t have the same large friend groups of other people in my school, who didn’t like football or gossip magazines, and did feel out of place.
As she leaves the glacier onto a platform at the very top to throw herself off a pair of dignitaries arrive. She hides and burrows into a snowdrift but is spotted by one of them and the Clayr’s strongest seers haul her out. They ask her what she’s doing there, fearing she was spying on this visit, and when she reveals everything they promise her that they will find something to keep her occupied whilst she waits for her Sight, revealing they too had a very late awakening, later even than Lirael’s, and they were all the more powerful for it.
Cheered by this revelation and the promise of something in the glacier she can help with Lirael begins working in the Library of the Clayr. A twisting corridor of immense proportions with dark secrets and things best left unfound below. She explores, breaks some rules, learns some harsh lessons, and in the meantime she discovers a loyal companion; a Charter Magic dog that is more than it seems.
I could recount the entire book by memory even though it’s been years since I’ve read it, but I’ll skip that, encourage you to read it, and summarise the rest of the books, as spoiler free as possible.
Lirael eventually has to leave the glacier with a mission, she meets up with Sameth and the two of them are thrown by circumstances against a powerful evil fro the dawn of time. They draw in others, face challenges, and learn that the paths they thought were laid before them are not the ones they ultimately must walk. They also learn that what they wanted all along might not be what they needed.
Lirael as a character resonated with me in a lot of ways. She was isolated, felt different to everyone around her, and was surrounded by people who all just seemed to get it, and fit in. Some of this is typical teenager feelings, but part of it is also growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome in a neurotypical world.
Lirael found a light though, a purpose in her job which helped her overcome her troubles, and a close loyal friend who looked after her and in turn she could look after. As a dog person this also really made sense.
Lirael also embodied a lot of characteristics that I wanted to have myself. She was shy and awkward, especially when meeting new people, but when it came to it she was brave, fearless in the face of danger, she was confident and powerful. I do wonder now, knowing what I know, if it was also escapism to put myself in her place. A young nerdy girl, outcast and almost living in a library with her pet dog? That would have been a dream for me.
I did always used to make up further stories in my imagination (something that continues to this day) about new adventures for Lirael as she became a strong Abhorsen in her own right, a powerful slayer of the dead and master of her art. In these stories I always told them from my point of view, putting myself in her shoes.
It helped that the world was fascinating to me. A magic system that was carefully thought out but vague enough it ever felt constraining or overly explained. The magic of the Abhorsen focused on the ability to walk into death and use 7 bells to bind the dead to a purpose. In the Abhorsen’s case the purpose was to walk deeper into death and possibly be ushered on to the true death, but in the case of necromancers it was to walk to life and obey.
Death itself was a really interesting concept for me; death flows like a river of 7 precincts each ending in one of 7 gates. The precincts had the cold river of death flowing through them but were all treacherous in their own way, seeking to trip an unwary traveller and pull them downstream deeper into death. The gates as well were barriers between each precinct but also an obstacle on their own, some were great waterfalls, others whirlpools, and the final gate a single peaceful starry sky.
As I said I highly recommend reading the books, but also please check out this artist by the name of Laura Tolton who has drawn each of the gates; they are simply put beautiful.
That’s all I’ve really got this time. I just wanted to share my passion for a series that captured my heart as a teenager and stays with me to this day.