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Old Kingdom Trilogy by Garth Nix

Old Kingdom Trilogy by Garth Nix
Book Name: Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen
Author: Garth Nix
Publisher(s): HarperCollins
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: 1995, 2001, and 2003

Many of you may not have heard of this series. I picked it up by complete chance about five or six years ago when visiting a relative. I forgot the book I was currently reading (Magicians’ Guild) and was kinda bored over the weekend there. Still having five days left on my trip, I walked past a charity shop and in the window was a book called Sabriel. Now, to me it looked fantasy-ish so I picked it up.

The book was so amazing that by the end of the holiday I was almost finished on the third in the series (after two emergency trips to Waterstones Book Store!). It in fact went on to go to my sister who to this day swears the second in the series, Lirael, being the best book she ever read and myself having very fond memories of it and wishing, begging, pleading Garth Nix to do a follow up.

The series I am talking about here is The Old Kingdom Trilogy by Garth Nix. Also known as The Abhorson Series in North America. It consists of three books: Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. The challenge here is doing a review on three books without giving any spoilers. I’m gonna give it a shot!

The first book, Sabriel, follows a young girl who is in a seemingly normal-ish school. We quickly find out that this school is ‘behind the wall’ and therefore safe from what has happened in the ‘old kingdom’. We find that the old kingdom is full of danger. Sabriel gets a message from her farther who is the Abhorsen – the man charged with following spirits into death and ensuring they get through it. This is a world where evil spirits don’t like to die. And when they do die, they fight death.

In the Old Kingdom, when a creature dies it enters into the River of Death. Once there, these once living spirits who have both the inclination and the ability to resist the pull of the River of Death may rise again. Though very few are powerful enough to fight the currents, if summoned by a necromancer it is a relatively quick process for them unless stopped by the Abhorsen.

The fact that the Abhorsen is now missing means that anyone wanting to summon the dead can do so fairly easily. Sabriel knows why her father has given her the message – she needs to return to the Old Kingdom and rescue him even if he is already dead himself. Quickly she finds that to find the Abhorsen, she is going to have to fight the dead in both the Old Kingdom and the River of Death…Something she does not have nearly enough power for.

Her journey is one of magic, betrayal, love, growth, and even possessed, talking cats.

– – –

Book two, Lirael, links in with book one but we are no longer following Sabriel (for reasons you will see after book one). We are now following Lirael, living at a school for those who have ‘the sight’. She is an outcast on the verge of suicide. The Sight is the ability to see into the future or at least see the possibilities that the future brings and the fact she has not yet developed it is of great shame. Whereas most girls develop the ability around 11, Lirael is 14 now and still without it. In addition to her lack of the gift, she also differs physically from all the other girls at her school. Whereas they are beautiful with blonde hair and striking blue or green eyes, she has a pale complexion, black hair and brown eyes.

Upon her 14th birthday, the Clayr (the name of the race that Lirael is a part of) appoint her to work at the library. Although still distressed over the lack of sight, it gives her focus and a role in the school. Through her work in the library, Lirael is able to access books that are usually out of bounds and casts a spell, which inadvertently goes wrong and results in the summoning of the Disreputable Dog. Through the usage of the library and help of the Disreputable Dog (who can talk!), Lirael begins to unlock the keys to embarking upon an adventure of utmost importance.

At the same time, we meet a prince based in Ancelstierre (the good side of the wall) who is left injured by a fight with an evil necromancer (one that helps the dead rise through the River of the Dead). When Sameth is revealed to be in-line to become an Abhorsen one day, he rejects the idea due to his fear of necromancy.

Their stories are interwoven, whilst Sameth must return to the Old Kingdom and learn to help counter the enormous threats that are coming, Lirael must too do her part with help from the Disreputable Dog. Both extremely young and barely able to cast their first, most basic spells, just how is it that they will steer the world away from the coming darkness and mystery that is approaching?

– – –

Book three in the trilogy is Abhorsen. It is the linking of the previous two books and of course the conclusion. The evil powers in The Old Kingdom have been growing in strength and number and it is the job of the remaining characters to work together and overcome the threat they possess to the thriving Kingdom of Ancelstierre. I can’t say much else without spoiling the previous two books, but it is certainly a good bringing together of all the characters and storylines up until this point.

– – –

Onto my thoughts on the series. This is a very different series. It is not a huge or epic fantasy. It has been marketed for those aged around 15-17, although it is very, very universal. I’d say the reading age would be higher than that of Harry Potter for example, so don’t think anyone should label this book as a kids’ book and write it off. The Old Kingdom is one of the most realistic worlds I have ever read about in a geographic sense. The contrast of a modern, technologically advanced Ancelstierre living in relative harmony, with The Old Kingdom being a complete wasteland full of demonic creatures, magic, death and evil is told in a way that is so far unmatched.

What really makes the books is the system of death. The fact that when an evil creature dies it is not dead, and are instead living in the River of Death, is terrifying and a unique way to do things. There are nine gates of death, each with stronger and stronger currents. Therefore, to ensure that something is really dead you need to push them through all nine. Even the Abhorsen can only go a certain distance into death, relying on the currents to push them the through the remaining gates. By going too far the Abhorsen risks an ambush from any number of dead fighting against the currents, getting trapped against the current or even dragged through the 9th gate themselves.

When we are not in death, we are primarily in either the Old Kingdom or the Clayr’s school. Both are fascinating places that are brought to life through Garth Nix’s writing style. There are various styles of magic: Charter Magic, Necromancy and Free Magic that are all used to keep battles and obstacles enjoyable. Perhaps the interaction between Sabriel and Mogget the talking cat, as well as Lirael and the Disreputable Dog are the very best parts in the book. There is always the question there as to whether Mogget is trying to help or to kill Sabriel as he openly tells us when we first meet him/her that her father trapped his evil spirit into the cat’s form. The book moves at such a breathtaking pace that by the time you have finished you cannot believe how much has really happened. Everything is interesting in this series – there is not a dull moment and there is very little world building or background that doesn’t involve some kind of action.

Perhaps my one problem with this series is that it was a trilogy. That might sound as if I am saying ‘I want more books’, but actually it is more: ‘I want more answers’. There are a few loose ends to say the least and even a few characters who we are lead to believe will be re-introduced that are not. I personally think (could be wrong) that Garth Nix intended to write more of The Old Kingdom books soon after the original trilogies release, but simply didn’t have time. He has gone on to write some very popular series since, which maybe he wasn’t expecting to do and I can only guess this got put on the back burner. Perhaps supporting this assumption is the fact that Garth Nix has written a number of short stories, showing he does want to re-enter this world but just doesn’t have time or inclination to commit to a full novel.

According to Wikipedia (not the most reliable of sources): Garth Nix has announced two additions to the series: a prequel and a “sequel of sorts to Abhorsen”. While the sequel is unnamed, the prequel has the working title Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen. The books are stated to appear in 2011…” However, I looked a few years ago and it said the same thing but with 2009 on the end so I am waiting to see.

Fantastic series that, if you have not done already, you need to check out! Just be aware that it is a book that will draw you so deep into its world and characters that leaving them will be hard, and leaving them without a complete resolution is even tougher. I guess the question to ask: “Is leaving a reader begging for more always a good thing?”



  1. Thanks! Death is an obsession of mine, so I might have to pick these up. ;D

  2. i have had the series for ages but have not sat and read them yet but after reading this i think ill make time to read them rather then keep skipping the series.


  3. Avatar brandon S. says:

    That’s wierd. now the two new old kingdom books are listed for 2012. Either this is an error made by amazon/wikipedi ETC, or that could be garth nix having caught martin-itis.

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