On Reading Garth Nix’s Sabriel and the Value of Fantasy, Then and Now

(Hint: It’s about world-building and, when you’re younger, getting away with things.)

01 The first, second, third, and fourth gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton


It’s been really interesting doing young adult lit readings this semester, within the context of my Young Adult Materials class; thinking about my reading habits when I was younger; considering the books that have stuck with me and why they did; and the continuing awareness of alternate perspectives of materials when reading. The fact is that many of these books haven’t given me much as a reader, which I don’t mind; for me, right now, they’ve been largely fun, but ultimately not exatly satisfying. Not that they weren’t good, objectively, but they weren’t what I’m reading now, what I want or need, subjectively. That’s fine, But when I read them, I do it with my younger self in mind; and I can still feel the parts that resonate with that girl, feel the connection stretching back and I think yes, this line, this character, this book, this would have mattered. I can feel it for others too—for the nebulously existing ‘young adults’ that we talk about in class; I can think, yes, I can see where the value of this book is, in the language, in the themes, in the entertainment, but, understandably, it’s easiest to read through the eyes of younger-Julia, who I know best. I’ve felt echoes like this before when reading—as I mentioned in my post on discovering comics late—but I’ve never dwelt on them. The whole affair is a curiously pleasant experience, like reading aloud to someone else.


All this is a lead-up to a few brief thoughts on the book I read this week, Sabriel by Garth Nix, and, more importantly and generally, it’s genre: fantasy. Actually, sorry, I’m going to go ahead and summarily lump science fiction in with fantasy here; their natural tendency to bleed over their genre lines has on occasion ended up in the entire mess being covered by ‘speculative fiction’ as is. Some of our readings in future weeks are science fiction, but they fall firmly in the dystopia category, which precludes a huge swath of the work. But the main reason I’m rolling them together here is that the things that give fantasy value for me and particularly did for my younger self, correspond closely with science fiction.


Why I love fantasy then and now; world-building. Because I loved—and still love—systems of fantasy works. Social systems; magical systems; those that echo, expand, or subvert our own or those which are as whole as our reality’s systems—which feel as well-developed and integrated into the fabric of their world as religions and ideologies do in ours—but are still thrillingly alien. After I started reading Sabriel, the first thing I did when I saw my boyfriend was launch into a description of the systems that created the setting; charter magic, wild magic, necromancy by bells, and the world-building; details like the prevalence of magic interfering with technology means that the soldiers near magic-heavy areas carry swords as well as rifles. Of course, then he’s reading it Sabriel, because this infatuation with speculative world-building is one we share. Any speculative society, built on elements of unreality, as long as it’s built carefully and with consideration, is bound to catch us both.


02The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eight gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

So, world-building. That’s the primary reason I enjoy fantasy as a genre. That simple. Naturally each book has its strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t enjoy all fantasy by default, but the pleasure that an interestingly-constructed world gives me is so intrinsic to a reading experience that I find it difficult to describe. I’ve kept reading series that have developed characteristics which irritate me enough that they would cause me to ditch a stand-alone book, simply because I love the world they’ve created.


But there was another reason that these books meant so much to me as a kid; man, could you get away with stuff in speculative fiction. Seriously, guys, nobody tell the adults. This means something significant for younger readers; you get to experience new kinds of writing–you can, for example, get scared or deeply creeped out–and, more importantly, you get to engage with subjects that challenge you without the kind of scrutiny given to realism. Because those are the books I remember. Actually, I mentioned this in a post about challenged books I made around the time of Banned Books Week; because pursuing our faculty library’s shelf of banned books I recognized so many books that I had loved and could remember loving so distinctly on that shelf–works like The Golden Compass, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and The Giver. Alright, well obviously these books did get scrutiny, but that was because they had been getting away with it (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I often see The Mists of Avalon come up in discussions about illicit reading experiences).


This came to mind because Sabriel revolves around necromancy and is, of course, therefore suffused with death in a way that isn’t necessarily unusual for speculative fiction, but that you would never find in young adult realism. Of course, death in Sabriel isn’t remotely the same as death in reality, but it provides interesting viewpoints on mourning and, best of all, gets some seriously scary monsters. The first encounter with the dead comes in the form of an attack by a spirit that’s been dead for so long it isn’t recognizably human and has stuff itself into a corpse to exist in corporeal form. And the scene that introduces it is horrifying and awesome. And my younger self would definitely have been with me on this one.


Fondly-remembered stories that totally creeped me out when I was younger; The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe, and Dead Water Zone by Kenneth Oppel.


I can both understand an urge to shield young people from the ugly realities of true fear and the wish to avoid them yourself, but it has to be said that well-played, fictionalized fear is gripping—advancing the plot, raising the stakes, and dragging you into a story. Young readers haven’t had the chance to discover this yet, and people are way less likely to object to you reading a book about necromancers than about real-life fears—good old fashioned regular human murders, for example–when you’re younger. For good reason, too: they aren’t really comparable. Within speculative fiction fear is something to be built up and ripped down, not something to be dealt with or endured as in realist fiction. A murderer or serial killer is one thing—a plot device, but a real possibility—and a murderer that’s a corrupted spirit inside a moldering corpse is another thing. There’s a kind of unique worth created from its dichotomy; of being the scarier, the more frightening of the two within the world of the story, and at the same time less scary, as something that exists only within the world of the story. And this worth meant more to me as a younger reader, because it was uncharted territory.

I’m using creepiness as an example here, but that’s just pulled from the week’s reading. As I said, it isn’t just about new narrative strategies; the alternate realities of speculative fiction let you explore ideas and concepts that run parallel to real life. It’s hard to describe the nature of this kind of reading without making it sound like something suspiciously innappropriate, but the fact is that growing up means encountering new experiences, and speculative fiction gives young readers a safe space to encouter and explore them–the first time I remember encountering the idea of euthanasia, for example, was in The Giver.


The Ninth Gate, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton