The book is set in the fantasy world of the Old Kingdom and its more modern neighbour Ancelstierre. The heroine of the title is the daughter of a Mage or Abhorsen as wizards from this family are known. The job of the Abhorsen is to ensure that once people die, they stay dead and are not caught between life and death or do not return to cause havoc amongst living people.
As a child, Sabriel is left by her father at a boarding school in Ancelstierre which is deemed to be safer that the Old Kingdom. She is close to completing her schooling when she learns that her father may have been killed. She crosses the Great Wall between the two lands in search of her father and finds the Old Kingdom in disarray with the dead causing havoc and finds herself being stalked by a malevolent and powerful creature.
At first glance, with its maps, hero(ine) on a quest and fantastical, magical worlds, this book might remind you of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Triology or Ursula Le Guin’s Wizards of Earthsea books. But Sabriel does not have the sweeping fantastical feel of these books, rather the worlds and people described feel closer to reality. Ancelstierre has cars and machine guns indicating that it is a fairly modern world, albeit not as technologically advanced as the modern day (it felt like 1930’s England to me with its black-and-white movies and biplanes). The Old Kingdom in contrast has a fairly medieval feel with it’s descriptions of fishing villages, and imperial cities.
The heroine also feels flawed – lacking knowledge and magic, seemingly scraping through by luck each time and very aware of her weaknesses in contrast to the wizard in Le Guin’s book or the powerful Gandalf in the LOTR books.
Perhaps a better comparison would be with Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials triology. Like Pullman’s books, this book is aimed at young adults but has sufficient quality and depth to be read by adults. In fact I found some themes and passages of the book quite grown up.
Overall, I found this book easy to read, action-packed if slightly predictable at times and with characters that are easy to sympathise with.
Part 2 - Lirael
Part 3 - Abhorsen