Book Notes: “Sabriel” Resurrects the Hero’s Journey for a Story About Life and Death

It seems that so many fantasy stories center on the relationship between death and life – and the various ways in which it can go wrong. From Tolkien’s Numenoreans to Rowling’s Deatheaters, the villains in many stories become villains because they refuse to acknowledge death as a part of life.

In fantasy and in reality, we can see how our refusal to pass into death warps good things into monstrosities. Whether we are simply refusing to let something die (like a soulsucking job or a bad relationship) or longing to bring back something that is dead (an idealized past, etc), we can find plenty of ways to get in the way of the circle of life. Of course, trying to give something life that is dead is a great way to create the undead zombies we all fear.

In Sabriel, our young hero must embrace her new job as the Abhorsen, a necromancer who (ironically) keeps the Dead from coming back to life. Sewn throughout the book are Sabriel’s various temptations to abandon that job.

Sabriel has some of the feel of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, in that it starts off in a time and place not too different from England in the early 20th century. Sabriel has been sent by her father Abhorsen to a preparatory school for girls in the non-magical country of Ancelstierre, south of the Wall which keeps magic (and the threat of the Dead) in the Old Kingdom.

Sabriel’s life is more magical than most, but she has not seen her birthplace of the Old Kingdom for years when her story begins. It starts abrubtly one day when a dead thing arrives carrying a message and the tools of her father Abhorsen – his magical sword and the bells that he uses to control the Dead who threaten the Old Kingdom. Sabriel’s adventure starts, and while she quickly discovers an Old Kingdom that is fallen into evil and chaos, she also discovers plenty of guides and magical assistance along the way.

Sabriel follows the beats of the heroes journey as most fantasy stories do, but it fills in the template with interesting guide characters like Colonel Horyse (a magic-conscious Ancelstierran soldier) and Mogget (the sardonic magical cat), a powerful spiritual struggle (between Charter Magic and Free Magic), and a final battle between good and evil that feels much like the Battle of Hogwarts (without being derivative).

This is a wonderful fantasy story that feels fresh despite its deep ties into the monomyth. If you are looking for a good fantasy read, check it out!

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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