Sabriel is a teenage witch, in a very proper, very British sort of way. At eighteen, after years of girls convent-like boarding school, she thinks herself very ready to face the perils of rescuing her father. After all, he has sent her his sword and his bells, so she gathers her magical armor and spell books, and marches off into the Old Kingdom, which seems the source of both good and bad magic.
The good magic is called Charter Magic; along with Sabriel, we discover that the Charter Magic is embodied in three bloodlines (hers, the royal family, and a half-explained odd group) and two physical objects: the Wall (that separates the Old Kingdom from the New), and the Charter Stones. The bad magic is called Free Magic, and seems to embody a Chaos principle. It is clearly a Dark Force, oozing evil and blackness at every chance.
The New Kingdom, called Ancelstierre, seems to be England in about the 1920s; they have electricity, steam power, guns, and telephones. The Old Kingdom is a distinctly medieval place, retaining the quaintly British names (Holehallow, Nestowe, Cloven Cleft), with villagers bobbing servilely, lots of big stone castles and mazes, clearly stuck in an earlier pre-industrial age. The beginning sections of the book, as Sabriel starts her search for her father, sounded very Lord of the Rings-like to me: Sabriel is pursued by a Mordicant, a dark menace that foreshadows the eventual rise of a Greater Evil, and she must pursue a quest to restore the land from outside threat, complete with magic silver ring, through a path that leads underground, across narrow fragile stone bridges over chasms and rushing water.
What makes the book different ultimately are two innovations: 1) Death is a land, with Seven Gates, and Sabriel can walk there at will and return; and 2) her familiar is a talkative cat with a sharp and twisted sense of humor. The swordplay is kept to a minimum; a complex set of bells are used as the real magic weapons, spicing the fairly standard coming-of-age and romance plot. There is a real surprise at the climax of the book, logical but jolting for the reader.
Obviously this is the first book in yet another trilogy, but it is a very quick read. It is targeted, I'm told, for the young adult audience (i.e., teenagers), and comes from an Australian author I've not read before. I'm not sure how I would have liked it when I was a teen; the LOTR parallels would not have occurred to me, and the scenery would have intrigued. The palace reservoir is an extremely cool and unusual place, with the weird skylights adding an otherworldly touch. Ultimately, the success of the book depends on how much you are cheering for the heroine, and eager to read her further adventures. I had a bit of trouble with her level of sophistication in areas like sex, given the background setup, but her growing awareness of how little she really knows, as she tries to apply her training to the real world, is all too recognizable. For me, Sabriel was interesting if not compelling.
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