Fantasy is in season. Successful fantasists gain top literary awards and vie with Becks and Posh in fame and fortune. So why don’t more authors explore the genre? Many try, many fail (like me). It takes an exceptional (and quirky) mind to conjure up fantasy that reads like realism. Like that of Australian Garth Nix, whose first novel this is.
In Sabriel he weaves a tale so inventively, in and out of reality, that boundaries become blurred and characters metamorphosise at will. Sabriel attends a girls’ boarding school (if that sounds like Harry, it is worth knowing that Nix’s book appeared in Australia in 1995). She goes on a journey of amazing adventures in search of her father, accompanied by a talking cat and a young man called Touchstone.
In richness of prose and allegory, Nix is closer to Pullman and Tolkien than JKR. He talks up to readers, challenges the mind by word and image, never avoiding the complex (‘Please, Miss/Sir, what’s a mordicant / necromancer / ensorcelled sword?’) or sensitive (a potential minefield for a man writing about his heroine’s growing sexual maturation). Nor is he averse to slaying stereotypes along with demons. All in all, a rich, challenging and liberating book.
Sabriel by Garth Nix was published by Collins in September 2002 (0 00 713730 3, £12.99 hbk). James Riordan’s latest book is Match of Death, published by OUP (0 19 271879 7, £6.99 pbk).