Friday, March 14, 2008

Garth Nix

The Old Kingdom Trilogy
by Garth Nix
Recommended Age: 14+


In a recent review of another author’s work, I wrote, “While I basically liked this book, I didn’t lose sleep over not having the next book in the series.” Alas, I cannot say the same about this book. As soon as I finished reading it, I was overcome with such an urge to start reading the sequel that I went out and drove all over town, looking for a bookstore that was still open. I “just missed” closing time at every single one. It was uncanny. Then I went home, frustrated, and started reading the book (by a different author) whose sequel I won’t lose sleep over not reading, and spent most of the night fretting about not being able to read the sequel to this book.

The reason is that Australian author Nix has crafted the perfect ending to a book – the type of ending that makes you feel like a fool for (A) not buying the whole trilogy at one time, and (B) timing it so that you finished reading it just when all the bookstores in town were getting ready to close. And of course, the ending wouldn’t be half so effective if the rest of the book weren’t equally good.

Sabriel is the first book of a trilogy that also includes Lirael and Abhorsen. The main character’s name is Sabriel, and by the end of the book her title is Abhorsen. Sabriel is a girl who has just finished school in a country similar to, say, post-World War I England, called Ancelstierre. Her real homeland, however, is the Old Kingdom that lies across a very strange border – the kind of border where it is always a different time of day, and even a different time of year, on the other side. There are other, more disturbing differences between the two countries, such as the fact that lately, dead people in the Old Kingdom refuse to stay dead.

This has to do with the evil arts of Necromancy and Free Magic. Necromancers specialize in going back and forth through the nine gates between life and death, and bringing dead spirits back to the land of the living. Their enemies are the Charter Mages, whose magical powers are woven into the ethical charter that forms the backbone of the Old Kingdom. But the Free Mages and Necromancers are bent on corrupting the Charter, and breaking the talismans that protect the Kingdom from unrestrained evil. Their primary targets – and their strongest adversaries – include the royal family, the Clayr seers, and the Abhorsen.

The Abhorsen, as this story begins, is Sabriel’s father. He is basically a Charter Mage with the powers of a Necromancer. Another way to look at it is that he is a Necromancer who is loyal to the Charter and the Kingdom. So instead of raising the dead, he puts them to rest again – by force if necessary. He does most of his work with a silver sword and a set of bells that resonate in the spirit world. But now the old Abhorsen has become lost in the land of the dead, and young Sabriel – who has not been in the Old Kingdom since she was a small child – has to go back and do something about it. Suddenly she is the Abhorsen, and she doesn’t know what she’s doing!

In her quest, Sabriel is aided by a mysterious talking cat who is not really a cat, a delicate flying machine called a paperwing, and a young man who has been frozen in time for 200 years, and who is so ashamed of his past that he gives himself a fool’s name. As romance begins to stir between these two young people (brace yourself for some mildly adult content), a powerful evil from beyond death prepares to return, terrorize, and rule. The only way to stop the Old Kingdom from being destroyed is to take the battle against this undead villain back across the border, to the very steps of the girl’s finishing school where Sabriel came of age.

I have not seen such a convincing and thoroughly worked-out fantasy world since I read The Blue Sword. Teen and older Harry Potter fans should cotton right on to this tale in which the ultimate evil is to want to live forever – where courage means facing incredible loss and even death for what is right – and where a young person with loads of magical talent is forced to carry the burden of a highly skilled and experienced magician, when the fate of reality itself is at stake.

I can sleep better now. I have Lirael and Abhorsen.


Welcome back to the scintillatingly original fantasy world that Garth Nix introduced in Sabriel. Twenty years have passed since a young woman, educated in the neighboring, technological world of Ancelstierre, crossed the wall into the Old Kingdom and claimed her birthright as the Abhorsen. That means she is the heir of a bloodline, woven into the magical Charter that holds the Old Kingdom together, tasked with guarding the gates between Life and Death.

Now Sabriel is married to King Touchstone, and mother to a princess named Ellimere and a prince named Sameth, or Sam for short. She doesn’t get to spend much time with her family, though. Her duties require her to spend more and more time traveling around the Kingdom, battling the dead who try to return to Life, and the Necromancers who serve them. She hopes that her son Sam will follow in her footsteps, but she doesn’t realize how frightened he is of death – especially after a nearly fatal confrontation with a Necromancer at the end of his last school term.

Sam is clearly not a coward, but whether he is really cut out to be the Abhorsen-in-waiting is not so clear. He dreads to touch the bandolier of bells that are the Abhorsen’s instruments for sending the dead back to Death. And he does not even dare to open the Book of the Dead, which he is supposed to have memorized by now. He would rather stay in his workshop and make tennis racquets and toys with a bit of magic woven into them.

Meanwhile, in the glacier that is home to the future-seeing Daughters of the Clayr, a young woman named Lirael grapples with her own, unclear destiny. She is well past the age when the Sight should have come to her, but it has not. She never shows up in the visions of the other Clayr, which is strange enough. She doesn’t even look like a Clayr, and at times her need to belong is so powerful that she considers suicide. What comfort Lirael finds comes from exploring the endless Library of the Clayr, with the aid of her unusually strong Charter magic and her secret companion, the Disreputable Dog.

Eventually, these lead Lirael to discover that she has a long lost gift. She is a Remembrancer, seeing the past as the Clayr see the future. Then, just when the Clayr finally see her in a vision of the future, Lirael is thrust out of the world she has known, into a perilous adventure that involves a school friend of Sam’s, a powerful Necromancer, and an army of the dead. All she knows is that, if she does not reach Nicholas Sayre in time, all life will be destroyed.

Not surprisingly, Lirael encounters Sam first. Together with the Disreputable Dog and the even more disreputable cat named Mogget, the two young people stand alone in the middle of a crisis for the Old Kingdom as well as Ancelstierre. But their adventure has scarcely begun when this novel ends, just when Lirael makes an amazing discovery about her true calling in life – and Sam’s.

This sequel to Sabriel is either the middle and longest book of a trilogy, or the first part of a single story that was too long to fit in one book. It is continued in Abhorsen.


In this third book in the series that also includes Sabriel and Lirael, a new “Abhorsen-in-waiting” has been revealed: Lirael, a Daughter of the Clayr and Remembrancer, who turns out to be half-sister to the Abhorsen Sabriel. This means that Lirael is next in line for the job of clearing up the undead riff-raff that increasingly plague the Old Kingdom, due to the conniving of Necromancers and evil spirits from beyond the grave.

We’re not talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though. This is a seriously original fantasy world, in which all life is held together by a magical Charter, while Free Magic and Necromancers threaten to end it all. A particularly powerful Necromancer named Hedge is trying to dig up a long-buried evil. Hedge will then plug it into his plans to conquer not only the Old Kingdom, but even the non-magical world across the wall that separates the Old Kingdom from Ancelstierre.

Lirael is not sure how she can stop all this from happening. But it has something to do with a young man from Ancelstierre named Nicholas Sayre, whose body and mind are sometimes controlled by the evil thing Hedge is trying to raise up. With little time and no reinforcements in sight, Lirael must rely on her own growing powers and those of her friend, nephew, prince, and Wallmaker, Sameth. Sam himself has great power, but there hasn’t been a Wallmaker in living memory, so it’s hard to say what use he will be; and after the terror of being mistaken for the Abhorsen-in-waiting, Sam has lingering doubts about his own courage.

Besides Sam, Lirael can also count on her friend, the Disreputable Dog. As for Mogget, the bound Free Magic creature who usually takes the form of a white cat, one is never sure that he is to be trusted. Meanwhile, the king and the Abhorsen have been targeted by an assassination plot in Ancelstierre, where the enemy has set plans in motion that could destroy both countries, if not the whole world.

It is hard to express how convincing, how richly detailed, how attractive, and how ultimately satisfying this fantasy trilogy is. But most impressive of all is the suspense that builds throughout this book to the very end. At times, reading Abhorsen was so overwhelming that I almost couldn’t continue... but I absolutely couldn’t stop. And after reading only three books by Garth Nix, I can already say that he is a master of writing Perfect Endings – just satisfying enough, without any danger of becoming tedious, and leaving you wishing for more.

Luckily, there is another book relating to the Old Kingdom: a volume of short stories titled Across the Wall.

The Keys to the Kingdom Series
by Garth Nix
Recommended Age: 12+

Mister Monday

In this first book of his ongoing series titled The Keys to the Kingdom, author Garth Nix introduces us to a young hero-to-be named Arthur Penhaligon. He doesn’t seem like much of a hero, at first; but, in what may be the one flaw in Nix’s writing, we get a thorough introduction to the boy’s complicated background along with a lot of fussy, unnecessary details about his family life. It boils down to this: Arthur is the youngest, adopted child of a rock star and an infectious-disease expert; he has bad asthma; and on his first Monday at a new school, he finds out that everyone in his class has to do a cross-country run unless they have a letter of excuse. He doesn’t have such a letter, and so he is forced to run in spite of his asthma – and almost dies as a result.

His adventure begins as he hovers on the edge of oblivion: an adventure in a world so weird and original that we only figure out what is going on at about the rate at which Arthur does. It has to do with a House built by the Architect of the Universe at the center of her (yes, that’s right, her) work. A House with, to coin a phrase, many mansions. Only the Architect has gone away, leaving the House in the care of seven Trustees named after the days of the week; each of whom can only take action in the “Secondary Realms” (such as Earth) on his or her respective day of the week.

The Trustees have broken their trust, however. Tearing the will into seven fragments, the Trustees have hidden those fragments away and continued to lord it over their respective areas of the House. But now, the first part of the Will has escaped and found its way to Arthur, along with part of the key to Mister Monday’s realm. Somehow, Arthur has been pegged as the Rightful Heir, who must take on each of the Trustees in turn, release their portions of the will, and claim their keys and the powers they wield. That’s asking a lot of a boy who sometimes has a hard time getting air into his lungs! Yet as Arthur proves to be smart, courageous, and honorable, it begins to appear that the Will has chosen rightly.

Taking on Mister Monday won’t be easy, though. Arthur will have to deal with powers he has never imagined before, in a House whose bizarre rules and history he has not begun to learn – to say nothing of its dangers! Before he gets anywhere, he must face rampaging dinosaurs, clockwork nightmares, solid-metal policemen, a friend’s betrayal, a trip up a really twisted stairway, an encounter with the devil, and a pit full of venomous snakes, and that’s all besides the powerful and dangerous servants of Mister Monday. A lot rides on Arthur beating all these odds: for one thing, his family and friends are threatened by a plague that he can only stop if he gains control of Monday’s key.

Religious Christians and Jews may be either intrigued or disturbed by the fantasy world Nix has dreamed up. It resonates with, and differs from, the Judaeo-Christian structure of the world just enough to seem, at times, to be taking clever pokes at such beliefs. Questions about creation and evolution, the existence of God, the nature of angels, and whether there is an afterlife will be addressed in ways that establish this fantasy world as a truly creative achievement – and that may give religious and non-religious parents something to discuss with their children.

It seems there is at least one other remnant of Christian philosophy in this series: the Seven Deadly Sins. I spotted that this would be a theme in The Keys to the Kingdom (a title which, itself, is a reference to the Bible) already in this first book, where Mister Monday represents the vice of Sloth. Having read the next two books in the series, I can confirm my own suspicions that each of the “Morrow Days” will embody one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This adds not only a level of ethical and philosophical significance to the books, but it also ensures that Arthur will face a huge variety of enemies and challenges – just as each fragment of the Will, and each domain within the House, has its own character and shape.

Book 2, Grim Tuesday, and Book 3, Drowned Wednesday, are already available in paperback as I write this. Plus, Sir Thursday is out in hardcover, and Lady Friday is set to be released in 2007. [UPDATE: That already happened, of course.]

Grim Tuesday

For Arthur Penhaligon, no time at all has passed since he returned home from his adventure in Mister Monday, but back in the House (which the Architect placed at the center of all creation) months have gone by, and trouble has been brewing. Now that Arthur has vanquished the Trustee of the Lower House, the “Morrow Days” (Tuesday onward) are concerned. They want to crush this young mortal before he can threaten the domains they rule. So Grim Tuesday, personifying the deadly sin of Greed, sends his servants to Earth to stir up financial trouble for Arthur’s family and community – while also filing a claim to the inheritance Arthur claimed when he bested Mister Monday.

Dogged by money trouble, Arthur plunges back into the House and all its weird, magical, dangerous goings-on. This time he finds himself in Tuesday’s domain – the Far Reaches, which Grim Tuesday has carved into an enormous pit to mine the Nothing that can be fashioned into marketable items such as art works, weapons, and machines. Tuesday’s greed has burrowed so deeply that it threatens the very foundations of the house; and it has enslaved everyone in his realm, and many Denizens of the House from other realms, to do nothing but mine the dangerous Nothing out of his Pit. And it is up to Arthur, aided by a few friends, to put a stop to all this and to take the key, and the second portion of the Architect’s Will, out of Grim Tuesday’s greedy hands.

To do this, he must descend into a place of darkness and deadly pollution; ascend through incredible danger to the roof of Tuesday’s treasure-trove; sail to the heart of a blazing sun and out again; and finally, meet the universe’s most powerful craftsman in a contest of creativity. What can an asthmatic, adopted orphan from Earth do in the face of Grim Tuesday and his powerful servants? Yet, as Arthur sees all the misery and exploitation Grim Tuesday has caused, he knows he cannot turn back. And as his courage grows, so does his power...

Welcome again to the new, thought-provoking and mind-blowingly creative fantasy world by the author of the Old Kingdom (or Abhorsen) series. This series continues in Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, and three other books still to be released. The world of the House continues to surprise and delight with each new book, and Arthur is truly a hero to follow.

Drowned Wednesday

The beginning of Arthur Penhaligon’s third adventure in the House begins while he is still recovering in the hospital from the depradations of Grim Tuesday. Yet, in contrast to Mister Monday and Grim Tuesday, who both did everything in their power to keep Arthur from coming after their respective Keys to the Kingdom (while at the same time forcing him to deal with them), Arthur’s third quest begins with an actual invitation from Lady Wednesday herself.

After being swept away with his hospital bed on the waves of a strange sea, Arthur finds out that Lady Wednesday is not truly in control of her part of the House, the Border Sea. In fact, she is not really in control of herself. Possessed by the “deadly sin” of Gluttony, she has become what one character describes as follows:
“A monstrous white whale. A stupendous whale! One-hundred twenty-six miles from tail to head, and thirty-two miles in width, with a mouth when open that is two miles high and ten miles wide.”
Gulp. This ravening creature, who can only assume human form for a short time and at great effort through the power of her Key, and who cannot stop eating for an instant even then, wants Arthur to take over and set her free from the curse that torments her. Lady Wednesday does not want to stand in Arthur’s way, but in order to release the third portion of the Architect’s Will, he must enter the belly of the whale and confront an enemy who is half pirate, half sorcerer, and nasty through-and-through. The eyes of thousands of enslaved Denizens look to him for deliverance – as well as his two best friends, one from the House and one from Earth, who are caught up in the adventure with him.

Meanwhile, Arthur also encounters the oversized, upright-walking and talking “Raised Rats”; he bravely ventures into realms that would make the breath catch in one’s lungs even if one weren’t asthmatic like Arthur; and he finds himself more and more taking control of the situation, and growing accustomed to command. But will his growing power take away the one thing that, above all, he does not want to lose — his humanity?

For more answers on that, see the further books in The Keys to the Kingdom series, including Sir Thursday (available in hardcover as I write this) [EDIT: It's in paperback now] and, I presume, three more books yet to be released. Like Harry Potter, this is a series of seven adventures that runs a vast gamut of enemies, friends, settings, and matters of concern – only in the world Arthur calls home, they take place in seven days rather than seven years. Nonetheless, I think Harry’s fans will enjoy following Arthur on his adventures – and may even want to read them all again!

Sir Thursday

In this fourth book of the seven-book series titled The Keys to the Kingdom, Arthur Penhaligon reaches the midpoint of his campaign to claim his rightful inheritance to the extra-dimensional “House,” where the seven stewards of the Architect’s Will have not been doing their job faithfully. Already Arthur has liberated three parts of the Will and appropriated three of the keys, making him ruler over the lower three demesnes of the house: the “Lower House” (formerly ruled by Mister Monday), the “Outer Reaches” (Grim Tuesday), and the “Border Sea” (Drowned Wednesday).

But Arthur is worried. He has lots of reasons to be worried. He cannot go back to Earth to check up on his family, because an evil copy of himself has gotten there ahead of him, and if the two of them meet it would destroy the world. This so-called Skinless Boy is busy spreading a kind of bio-weapon that enables him to control other people’s minds, and that also freaks out the fascist government that is itself increasingly dangerous, as it grows more freaked out. The Skinless Boy’s mission is to destroy Arthur’s family if he doesn’t give in to the Morrow Days. And Arthur is all but helpless to stop him because, for one thing, he has been drafted into the Glorious Army of the Architect, under the command of Sir Thursday...the very person whose key and portion of the will Arthur needs to get next.

This puts Arthur in a very difficult position. He has to hide his identity while undergoing a rigorous training that a true mortal like himself can scarcely survive. He has to help the denizens of the Great Maze fight off an attack by a force of nithlings (creatures of the Nothing) more numerous and better-organized than any that have been seen before. He has to face his most violent and dangerous adversary yet — Sir Thursday, personifying the deadly sin of Wrath — and somehow take his power away without violating the military chain of command. He has to avoid using his power because, each time he does so, he becomes less mortal, and once he reaches 60% Denizen he will never be able to go home again. Plus, he has to do much of this after having his memory wiped! Ouch!

But it turns out that Arthur and Sir Thursday have a bigger foe in common: one who holds knowledge and power that can destroy the Glorious Army of the Architect, who makes a shocking demand, and who threatens to destroy the entire House to get what he wants.

Prepare to follow Arthur on his most difficult task yet, in this series based on an entirely new and engaging fantasy universe. Brace yourself as the boy who, not long ago, could barely draw air into his lungs, battles his way through scenes of horrific carnage and survives the weirdest dangers yet. And look sharp as the book delivers the series’ most chilling cliff-hanger ending so far.

UPDATE: I am still waiting to see Lady Friday in paperback. Superior Saturday is due to be released in August. Other books by Nix include The Ragwitch, Shade's Children, and the six-book Seventh Tower series.

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