It is the first half of the 20th century and the world is changing. The peaceful existence of the country south of The Wall is threatened by the possibility of a war and to the north dark powers are getting stronger as well and death itself is finding its way into the living world from the other side. The Abhorsen is the only one who can control the dead and send them back where they came from, beyond the last gate on the cold and tumultuous river. When the Abhorsen’s daughter, Sabriel, receives a distress signal from him she must leave the comfort of her boarding school just South of the Wall and cross into the magical land to rescue him and accept her heritage. In the meantime high up in the mountains Lirael is growing up in a community of Seers. She is one of them but does not have the gift of foretelling the future. What she does have is a grand and grave destiny that none of them can predict and when the time comes to make a stand against the ultimate evil it is her gift that can save them all. But are Sabriel, Lirael and those who stand with them strong enough to defeat the evil that existed before anything else or will the universe's hope for salvation perish with them?
The last time I read epic fantasy was in college when I stumbled upon a copy of the Lord of the Rings and figured that I might as well give it a try because the calculus textbook wasn’t ever going to become even remotely interesting. Tolkien’s heavyweight was definitely better than calculus and helped pass the time but it didn’t thrill me (yes, I know, blasphemy) so when I realized that the Abhorsen Chronicles is also considered epic fantasy I proceeded with caution. The box set was already there though and there were girls on the covers so seduced by the promise of girl power I read on.
This was a rather dark series set mainly in the first half of the 20th century on a continent reminiscent of Great Britain, which is split in two by a great ancient wall. On one side the world is modern with technology thriving and phenomena explained by science. On the other side the world is archaic because none of the new inventions will work there, magic is everywhere and even the calendar is different. I really enjoyed the parallels between the worlds in these books and the Europe of that time - it was an interesting take on the reasons behind the World Wars and the part the people who were at the helm played in the events. These parallels weren't immediately obvious but as the story progressed I felt they were undeniable.
The first book, Sabriel, sets the stage for the events that take place in the second and third volumes and prepares the reader for all the magic, action and a bit of drama that unfolds as the great battle that holds life and death in the balance approaches. The pacing lagged a bit in some instances when some of the main characters had to grow up a bit before they could continue on their quest but the general feel of the series is not slow by any means. There are several plot lines and mysteries that arise and develop throughout the books and Nix skillfully drives them either to a logical conclusion or untangles the secrets in a very satisfying way that isn't forced or contrived. When I turned the last page of the last book I felt that everything was as it should be, which can be challenging with as many character and story arcs as we have here.
Garth Nix does a great job of developing the characters in the trilogy. These books are as much about a quest and a battle as they are about growing up, learning about oneself, accepting who one is, owning it and becoming stronger for it. All the main characters start out in the story when they are teenagers and they all have challenges they must deal with, be that their past that haunts them, their perceived shortcomings or a destiny that feels completely wrong. I was very impressed with how their personal growth was woven into this mainly plot-driven story and how in the end every oddity became a perfect puzzle piece.
This series was on the Goodreads Best Fantasy list and I thank those who included it and voted for it to push it up higher in the rankings. These books are some of the best I've read this year and if you enjoy fantasy I recommend that you check them out.