Garth Nix Across The Wall:
a Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (2005)
There can’t be many children’s fantasy authors who have remained untouched by the Arthurian legend: John Masefield, Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin (she shows this awareness in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea), Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken and Philip Reeve are all writers who spring to mind as acknowledging the huge influence of the Matter of Britain. The Australian author Garth Nix is another who makes his debt clear but this predilection doesn’t represent the limits of his storytelling.
Nix is best known for his sequence of outstanding novels set largely in the Old Kingdom, across the Wall from Ancelstierre. This setting is deliberately reminiscent of Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall and the North of England respectively, but there any resemblance ends, for these are tales of magic: Free Magic, Charter Magic, prophetic sight and the constant war with the Dead. The novella Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case is a sequel to Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy which was originally published (simply titled The Creature in the Case) as a World Book Day and, at £1.00, excellent value at the time. The action has been moved across the Wall that divides the Old Kingdom from Ancelstierre, and threatens the heart of government in the latter country. There is menace from both Free Magic and from terrorism as we meet old friends and foes and witness burgeoning romance. The suspense is uninterrupted, a treat for fans of the trilogy; the only question in their minds must now be, will there be more to come? Will Nix revisit the characters and places that kept our hearts in our mouths and will we again experience the metallic taste of Free Magic? Maybe the anthology Legends of Australian Fantasy provides answers; certainly the prequel Clariel will answer different questions.
As well as the novella, Across the Wall includes twelve other stores that take different directions, some promising, others less so. Some are poignant, such as ‘Charlie Rabbit’ and ‘Three Roses’; others, such as ‘Down to the Scum Quarter’ and ‘My New Really Epic Fantasy Series’ conjure up smiles. There are tales that range from magic realism (‘Hope Chest’) to a horrific modern take on a Grimm fairy tale (‘Hansel’s Eyes’), from disturbing SF (‘Lightning Bringer’) to a modern morality play (‘The Hill’). They seem uneven in length, in tone and in genre, and all make strange bedfellows, but as a showcase for Nix’s storytelling the collection does its job.
Nix confesses that he “doesn’t like the Arthurian mythos”, believing that “there are already too many stories and books that have mined the canon” re-using the same stories “with little or no variation of character, plot, theme or imagery”. So when he does give in to requests to write Arthuriana we can and do expect something approaching at a tangent. ‘Under the Lake’ and ‘Heart’s Desire’ don’t disappoint, taking an obtuse look at the Lady of the lake and at Merlin’s infatuation with Nimue. Nix focuses on character motivation, so that the clichéd tales become reforged, shining with a strange unfamiliarity while retaining a semblance of their traditional shapes. Worth reading for these two tales alone, Across the Wall might well encourage you to search out his other electrifying novels if you haven’t yet come across them. Added interest in this collection comes from his personal introductions to each story.