CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 18. . . . May 9, 2003
"You really are the Abhorsen-in-Waiting now," said Sam, admiration showing in his voice.
"I guess I am," replied Lirael slowly. She felt as if she's claimed something when she'd announced herself as such in Death. And lost something too. It was one thing to take up the bells at the House. It was another to actually use the bells in Death. Her old life seemed so far away now. Gone forever, and she did not yet know what her life would be, or even what she was. She felt uncomfortable in her own skin, and it had nothing to do with the melting ice, or the rain and mud."
Abhorsen is the third book in the high fantasy saga by Australian writer, Garth Nix. The earlier novels, Sabriel (1995) and Lirael (2001), establish the worlds of the Old Kingdom ruled by magic and the supernatural, and of Ancelstierre, recognizable to readers as somewhat similar to an earlier era of our own world. The first novel introduces the forces of Good and Evil in this saga, lays down the rules of magic, and provides the necessary details of setting and character that make such worlds possible and credible. Readers also learn in the first book that it is the responsibility of the Abhorsen to protect the border between Life and Death, keeping the forces of evil at bay. The second novel carries on where the last one left off as Nix weaves together an inter-generational coming-of-age tale of intrigue, romance, duty and above all, magic and fantasy. Readers will be satisfied with the development of compelling characters introduced in the first novel. The trajectories of these characters inevitably come together in the apocalyptic conclusion of the third novel. All characters must draw on their unique powers in order to defeat the awakening ancient force of Evil that threatens to destroy both the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre.
Abhorsen features the adventures of 19-year-old Lirael whose new destiny is to be the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, rather than one of the powerful seers of the Clayr clan. This is a great relief to the Prince Sameth, the17-year-old son of the Abhorsen, who has believed that he is the apprentice Abhorsen. Going into the realm of Death to fight evil creatures terrifies him. He much prefers creating strange and beautiful objects using his extraordinary facility with the Charter, a kind of magic, creative force that constitutes the world of the Old Kingdom. Accompanying this young pair is the Disreputable Dog, an ancient creature of the Old Kingdom who gives protection to Lirael. And Moggett, a cat shaped slave to the Abhorsen clan is compelled to accompany Prince Sameth.
The archetypal cycle of the fantasy quest is basically intact: the young heroine and hero set off on a journey to bind the evil spirit of Orannis the Destroyer before it wipes out the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre. They are separated from one another and from their protectors at different times in the narrative when they must rely on their inner reserves of strength and imperfect knowledge of their special talents and powers. They learn about these powers (and themselves) through several passages of initiation. Ultimately, they are reunited, they vanquish Evil, and the universe returns to a state of equilibrium and balance. This rather pat summary is not to suggest that this book is run of-the-mill fantasy. It stands out as an instant classic, and Nix is and will continue to be favourably compared to other great fantasists such as Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander and Philip Pullman.
The fierce and disciplined nature of the female characters is one of the chief strengths of this fantasy cycle. The girls hold the swords in these stories (and the bells too, but you will need to read the books to find out what this means). Nix does not present gratuitous violence, and the ruin of war is never celebrated. His chilling and beautiful vision of the afterworld stayed with me for a long time.
Abhorsen is highly recommended, as are Sabriel and Lirael. This is an excellent fantasy series for young adults (and old adults too). The books can be read individually, and, of the three, Abhorsen will likely hold the most appeal for young male readers given the centrality of Prince Sameth's story. The main themes of yearning to belong, discovering one's true nature and finding your own path will resonate with all young readers.
The beautifully rendered cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon and striking jacket design by Lizzy Bromley deserve mention here as well. The portrayal of Lirael, Abhorsen-in Waiting, perfectly captures her strength and vulnerability. The design of the book gives the book a special and satisfying feel -- it looks like the sophisticated high fantasy story that it is.
Paulette Rothbauer is a working on her Ph.D. in Library and Information Science at the University of Western Ontario in London, ON.
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