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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732

Sabriel opens with a prologue detailing the title character's birth and first encounter with Kerrigor. Almost before she takes her first breath, Sabriel slips past the First Gate of Death to be snatched up by Kerrigor from the stream flowing through the Second Gate. The Abhorsen, her father, follows close on her heels, managing to rescue her and banish Kerrigor for a short period of time. The prologue gives the book a definite fantasy flavor with a magical battle that sets the stage for later events and provides a glimpse into the enmity between man and demon.

The switch from fantasy prologue to a seemingly modern setting jars the senses momentarily until Sabriel secretly resurrects a younger classmate's pet rabbit that was hit by a car. This day, eighteen years later in Ancelstierre at the Wyverly College for Young Ladies of Quality, a messenger from beyond the Gates gives Sabriel her father's sword and bandolier which is holstered with seven bells of increasing size. Abhorsen would only pass on the tools of his trade if he were unable to help himself, or if he were dead. Sabriel immediately makes plans to find him or his body, leaving behind the genteel, almost cloistered air of her school. Even though magic is on the curriculum at Wyverly because the school is so close to the border of the Old Kingdom, young ladies must receive special permission from their parents to take the class. Sabriel's ease with magic sets her on a level with the teacher of the class.

The country of Ancelstierre is reminiscent of the English countryside before World War II. Towns have electricity and motor vehicles, but Ancelstierre is still mainly an agrarian society with most people living in small villages and farming the land around them. The countryside close to the border between Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, however, is affected by the magic leaking through the protective barriers, and monsters occasionally roam in the night. Charter Mages help guard the border and protect the citizens. If Ancelstierre possessed a higher level of technology, computers, and biological and chemical warfare, it would change the entire flavor of the book by taking the focus off the people.

The Perimeter Command guards the border at a fortified barrier resembling Hadrian's Wall. The soldiers possess an odd mix of technological and medieval weaponry as they parade around in battle fatigues toting guns, with swords strapped to their waists or backs. When technology fails without warning at the border, the swords are their backup weapons. They also rely on the Charter Mages' magic and the binding power of Charter symbols to defeat the Dead that do not stay dead. The wall also symbolizes the gradual change from magic and superstition to technology by providing a physical point of change from which the characters move further into magic or technology. Because technology is pure science and reason, and magic relies heavily on belief, magic refuses to work around technology. Reason can defeat belief, and vice versa, which is why Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom are polar opposites.

Time moves differently in Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, emphasizing the technology versus magic debate. A patrol can spend two weeks in the Old Kingdom and return to find their comrades think they have been gone only eight days: the soldiers left back at base rely on their clocks to keep track of time, while the soldiers on patrol in the Old Kingdom have to rely upon the physical changes in their environment from night to day.

Sabriel's encounter with Kerrigor takes place in a waterway beneath the ruins of the castle in the crumbling capitol city of the Old Kingdom. There has not been a ruler for four hundred years, nor a regent for the past twenty. The water is a pale imitation of the various streams, rivers, and oceans flowing through the Nine Gates of Death, but Sabriel carefully treads them using secrets learned by Abhorsens in the past to find her father and free him.

Large stretches of unpopulated, desolate land might have been inspired by Nix's travels through the Middle East while writing Sabriel. The description of Sabriel's robe like armor and helmet also has a Middle Eastern flair. Nix also wrote parts of this novel at the beach, and Sabriel's journey takes her to the ocean as she nears the end of her quest.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298

Nix tells the story almost solely through the point of view of Sabriel. Her thoughts, her fears, her triumphs are foremost. The only change in point of view occurs near the end when Touchstone begins to awaken from his melancholy state and begins to let go of his guilt and self-recrimination.

Water appears as a recurring motif. It is a source of life when it falls as rain, and it stands as a barrier to the undead preventing their passage. The undead cannot cross the rivers or ocean waters without a bridge. At the same time, each Gate of Death is represented by some form of water, whether the seductively, gentle danger hidden in the fast-flowing stream of the First Gate or the crashing waves, hidden eddies, and rampaging rivers of the later gates.

Keys also appear as a motif. The Abhorsen's surcoat is woven in a pattern of keys reflecting the fact that Sabriel, as the latest one to bear the title, is a key to banishing the undead, a key to the Gates of Death, and a key to the survival of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom. She is a key in that only her touch can release Mogget's collar, and only her skills can release Touchstone from his wooden tomb.

Nix takes imagery to new heights as he deftly captures the essence of a character or the look of a background with vivid descriptions that are deceptively simple:

The final confirmation of strangeness lay beyond the Wall. It was clear and cool on the Ancelstierre side, and the sun was shining—but Sabriel could see snow falling steadily behind the Wall, and snowheavy clouds clustered right up to the Wall, where they suddenly stopped, as if some mighty weather-knife had simply sheared through the sky.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 285

At eighteen, Sabriel is a confused mixture of woman and child, learning to be confident of her own abilities yet still wanting and needing her father's guidance and advice. In this way, she typifies older teens who want to be treated as adults but have second thoughts and doubts when the time comes.

Sabriel's reaction when she first sees Touchstone as a nude wooden figurehead is perfectly normal. She experiences an embarrassed fascination with his complete nudity, having only seen pictures in textbooks. His exposed body conversely makes her aware of her own, covered by clothes and armor in the beginning of a sexual awakening only hinted at in this book.

Sabriel's fight against death for the life of her father is also a normal reaction. Death is something that happens to other people, other families. Teens especially blind themselves to the possibility of death as a consequence of their actions as they experiment with greater freedom and new experiences. Sabriel shows an obsession with how death ends life and action, but when Colonel Horyse steps into battle after experiencing a vision foretelling his death, he emphasizes the point that everyone has a time and place to die. Worry will not change the future, but action will.

Another sensitive topic for teens is the separation Sabriel experiences from her father. With high divorce rates today, many teens are separated from one parent or the other. Sabriel's longing to be with her father is offset by her understanding that he left her at Wyverly for her safety and benefit. Many teens do not have her reassurance and lose touch completely with a parent after divorce due to distance or lack of concern on the parent's part.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 124

A. A. F. Review of Sabriel. Horn Book 73 (January /February 1997): 64. Positive review of "a compelling fantasy."

Cushman, Carolyn. Review of Sabriel. LOCUS (July 1995). Positive review.

Decker, Charlotte. Review of Sabriel. Book Report 15 (March/April 1997): 39. Refers to Nix as "an exciting new voice in the fantasy field."

Estes, Sally. Review of Sabriel. Booklist 93 (October 1, 1996): 350. Starred review.

"Nix, Garth (Garth Nix)." In Contemporary Authors, Vol. 164. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Brief biographical information with comments focusing mainly on Sabriel and Shade's Children.

"Nix, Garth (Garth Nix)." In Something about the Author, Vol. 97. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Same essay as in Contemporary Authors.

White, Kerry. "Know the Author." Magpies 12 (September 1997): 10-12. Profiles Nix, mainly with reference to Shade's Children.

Nix, Garth, nix/). June 16, 2001. Author's website.

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