Necromancers are usually the bad guys in fantasy. When you can control dead bodies, it’s a given that people might not like you.
But Garth Nix turned that little trope on its head with “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, three interconnected fantasies about a family of necromancers who lay the dead — and forces of evil — to rest. His richly-realized world, elaborate magicks and brilliantly detailed writing give this wry, horrific high-fantasy a special quality that few other fantasy books have. Each of the three books about the Abhorsens is definitely a deserving classic.
“Sabriel” is the story of a teenage girl living happily at a girl’s school, while her necromancer father (the Abhorsen) roams around putting the dead to rest. All that changes when a sending brings her father’s sword and bells, meaning that he is dead or incapacitated. So Sabriel takes on her father’s duties, accompanied by a Free Magic cat and a mysterious young prince, and battles the specter of a horrible evil creature that is reaching out from death to snare her.
“Lirael” takes us to the cold citadel of the Clayr, a race of seers to whom the Sight is everything. Young Lirael is depressed because she doesn’t have the gift of Sight yet, even though everybody else her age does. But things take a sinister turn when she sets a horrifying, bloodthirsty creature loose, and must work — with the help of the mysterious Disreputable Dog — to get rid of it. But what Lirael doesn’t know is that the outside world is in danger too, from a sinister new enemy — and her destiny may take her out of the Clayr glacier, to where Sabriel’s family is struggling to keep their kingdom safe.
“Abhorsen” brings the series to an explosive conclusion. Lirael and her nephew Sameth — along with “cat” Mogget and the Disreputable Dog — are in danger from the invading Dead, and the Destroyer Orannis has escaped from his prison and is being assisted by an evil necromancer and the Dead called Chlorr — and an unfortunate pal of Sameth’s, who was mistaken for the young prince and his now be bespelled. Now Lirael must face her true destiny — not as a Clayr, but as the future Abhorsen.
Garth Nix had only written a couple of books, one of which was an “X-Files” novelization, when the first Old Kingdom book burst onto the fantasy scene. Now he’s one of the most respected, prolific and well-liked fantasy writers in years — and his tales of the Old Kingdom are undoubtedly his best work. They are a perfect example of dark fantasy, with its grotesque dead zombies that occasionally lurch out to attack the heroes, magical bells, and shadowy beasties that can (sometimes) be restrained.
Nix’s invented world is a seamless blend of the modern and the medieval, each ruling one side of the Wall — and he handles this complex world and its magical Charter with the deftness of a master storyteller. He draws everything in exquisite detail, whether it’s the labyrinthine Clayr glacier or the slightly eerie house of the Abhorsen, a bombed-out bunker or a sunny boarding school. And his command of atmosphere is great enough that his depiction of Death’s grey river is enough to chill.
And he comes up with the brilliant concept of the Abhorsen necromancers — who have power over dead and/or magical creatures, manipulate magic with little effort, and bind malignant creatures with Charter marks and a series of magical bells. Got it — binding, not raising.
Virtually all of Nix’s characters are likable, especially the gutsy Sabriel, the strong-willed Touchstone and their nervous teenage son Sameth. Even the annoying Ellimere elicits some smiles. It takes a bit longer to warm up to Lirael, since she spends several chapters in the same-named book moping about her differentness, but once she gets moving she’s unstoppable — and quite likable, once she figures out who she is. And the animal characters are the most brilliant — Mogget and the Disreputable Dog steal the show with their sharp wit and humorous quirks, although we’re constantly reminded that these are magical beings.
Dark fantasy was redefined and reimagined in “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, and these first three books of Garth Nix’s series are a clever, action-packed, magical journey through the Old Kingdom. Definitely a must-read.