A deeply immersive world

gargoyle

Garth Nix Abhorsen
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2005 (2003)

This, the third of the Old Kingdom series, follows immediately on from Lirael, set about a score of years after the events in Sabriel. Young Lirael, who was still hoping to gain the gift of clear foresight that her kin the Clayr claimed as their birthright, has accepted instead that she is Abhorsen-in-waiting. Prince Sameth, relieved that he is no longer Abhorsen-in-waiting, finds that he is destined to be a Wallmaker — appropriately as he has the gift of making. These are complicated roles to understand without knowledge of the previous two volumes in the series but, bearing in mind the title of this book, an explanation is probably called for — for at least one of the roles.

The Abhorsen in a hereditary necromancer, one who is able to control and banish reanimated dead things back to Death using a set of magical bells. Nix has borrowed the name from the executioner in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s play composed around 1604. Abhorson, as the character is called there, defines himself as a tradesman whose job is a mystery: “Do you call, sir, your occupation a mystery?” he is directly asked in Act IV Scene 2. ‘Mystery’ here is from the Old French mestier (métier in Modern French) meaning a trade or profession: Abhorson is proud of his calling, even though his name is compounded of ‘abhor’ and ‘whorson’, that is ‘whore’s son’. Nix would have re-spelled Abhorson’s name for his young adult audience, but there’s no denying the suitability of all the Shakespearean elements for Nix’s fantasy: the executioner is the gatekeeper between Life and Death, as the Abhorsen is; those about to be cast from life into death by the Abhorsen’s bells literally hate or abhor him or her; and, interestingly, both Sabriel and Lirael (unbeknown to either) are half-sisters, natural daughters of different unwed mothers and whose father, Terciel, was the previous Abhorsen.

Old Kingdom: family tree
Old Kingdom: family tree

At the start of Abhorsen things could scarcely seem bleaker. Sabriel and Touchstone, on a mission to neighbouring country Ancelstierre, are the targets of an apparently successful bomb plot; Lirael and Sameth are besieged in the Abhorsen’s House by Chlorr and an army of the dead; and the evil necromancer Hedge has taken control of Nicholas Sayre to facilitate the building of the Lightning Farm in Ancelstierre — where Orannis, bound at the beginning of time, can at last be freed to wreak destruction on the world. Can the process be stopped before the Destroyer can achieve his long-awaited revenge?

Abhorsen is a satisfying conclusion to the two-parter that began with Lirael. Lirael has to mature from quiet, self-contained adolescent to a mature and decisive young woman — there is no doubting her courage but time is short and we fear that she may fail. The action barely lets up and is well-paced, moving from brief moments of reflection to nail-biting sequences. By the end there are answers to most of the questions that have been previously raised, though the old adage — leave the audience wanting more — certainly applies here as we want to know yet more about the surviving characters and the world they find themselves in.

In a setting where danger lurks around every corner it’s not surprising that the human personages remain grim-faced throughout, so it falls to two characters to leaven the mood: Mogget and the Disreputable Dog. It says something about Nix’s writing that he is able to make a couple of talking animals believable and individuals in their own right. Mogget — sardonic, sly and as inscrutable as a cat can be — shows that his surprising origins are no bar to the human frailty of gratitude. The Disreputable Dog — loveable, loyal and very lively — also belies her origins; and doubtless due to her being modelled on Nix’s own beloved bitch Bytenix there is a real sense of the Dog being as individual and as sympathetic a character as any of the humans.

In the Old Kingdom Nix has created a credible environment for his people to inhabit and to interact with. While our attention is focused on the southern part of the Old Kingdom and the adjacent region of Ancelstierre across the Wall, we’re also aware of further areas north and south, giving the Old Kingdom a geographical context. The magic system particularly has been thoroughly thought through, from the polarities of Free Magic and Charter Magic to spoken spells (no words given here, to be on the safe side!) and the naming of the necromantic bells, and from the distinctive attributes of each of the bells to the different watery precincts of Death, each guarded by a gate the terrifying like of which is exceeded only by the succeeding one.

The satisfying narrative arc of the trilogy for now is over, but Nix hasn’t finished yet. The unfortunate Nicholas has a story of his own, The Creature in the Case, there is a prequel Clariel to look forward to, and we mustn’t forget there’s the promise of another sequel. Nix’s writing is deceptive, flowing with ease but with hidden undercurrents — like the river of Death, tugging at the feet, sweeping the reader away; this is a deeply immersive world.

I just want to finish with a mention of how one character loses their hand in combat, to have it replaced with an artificial one. This is an old motif, famously associated with the mythological Irish figure Nuada Airgetlám, Nuada of the Silver Hand. For us moderns it’s the Star Wars character Luke Skywalker who suffers this loss, but others do too: Ada, in Jane Campion’s film The Piano, loses a finger while Will Parry — Lyra Silvertongue’s friend in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — loses two digits to the Subtle Knife. One always risks physical injury in violent conflict, but the sacrifice of digit, hand or arm, to be sometimes replaced by a prosthetic, seems to have symbolic significance — hope for the future perhaps?

Death
Magical correspondences in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series

 

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7 thoughts on “A deeply immersive world

  1. One has to admire writers who invent credible and complex fantasy worlds, characters and customs, embodying some of the old themes and myths. Doing so enters into a quagmire, where it is too easy to flounder and sink. I think few readers who haven’t been through a similar inventive exercise will appreciate how much work goes into it.
    From what you report, Garth Nix has managed to find a way through on firm ground.

  2. His worldbuilding is superb– he’s taken a few familiar reference points (names, geography, the early 20C) added a credible magic system and inhabited the world with characters who are sufficiently individual but like us (and can also be liked by us) and who also are faced with impossible tasks we’d quail at. We therefore whileheartedly root for them, willing them to succeed.

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