You’d think a New York Times bestselling author whose books have sold in the millions and whose work helped usher in a golden age of female-driven and fantastical young adult fiction wouldn’t be a secret. At least not a well-kept one. And for the most part, Garth Nix—Australian author of Sabriel, Shade’s Children, and most recently To Hold the Bridge—is about as famous and successful as any writer could dream of being. But my experience as a reader of Nix differs so dramatically from what it’s like to read other rockstars of YA—your Rowling, your Collins. Which is to say, Sabriel was a book I whispered about rather than shouted. But almost anytime I did say something about this beloved author, whether online or in real life, someone would exclaim in recognition. “You too?” Me too. Welcome to the secret society of Garth Nix fans.
It’s not really fair to compare any set of books to Harry Potter when it comes to influence or popularity—they are a phenomenon with no contemporary rivals. And the many series that came after Rowling’s blockbuster books benefited from the kinds of communities, and the social acceptance of those communities, that Harry Potter had initially built. All those midnight book parties, all those fan fiction forums, all those movie openings. Sabriel, first published in 1995, earned its fans before the age of fandom. But this is changing—with the release last fall of Clariel, a prequel to the three book series that Sabriel inaugurated, and, this June, a collection of new short stories, To Hold the Bridge, that features a novella set in the same world—the whispering grows louder, and our society grows in ranks.
Now I never really got into fan fiction, though in some ways I was an ideal candidate (I loved writing on the Internet, I loved reading on the Internet, I loved the Internet), but I will confess that the only time I ever visited a fan fiction website under my own initiative was to see if Sabriel fan fiction existed. There was only one example I could find, about the main characters having sex in or near a bathtub. It wasn’t very good, and seemed to confirm what I had up till then believed—that, despite selling millions of copies, no one else had read this incredible book, that I was the only one. (I apparently didn’t count the bathtub sex fan fiction writer.) Since then I’ve watched with pleasure as the books’ Wikipedia articles have grown in length and complexity—a telling measure of fan attention. Even in the past year the amount of Sabriel fan art on Tumblr has proliferated, from a handful of illustrations of the main characters to dozens. (Yes, I check on this.) I’ve even seen Sabriel tattoos—including one memorable person who had “Does the walker chose the path, or the path the walker?,” a kind of refrain for the series, tattooed on what I think are that person’s inner thighs, one clause per leg. And while they’ve yet to overtake Supernatural fans who ship (aka contemplate a romantic relationship between) characters Sam and Gabriel and who use the same tag (Sam + Gabriel = Sabriel), these new posts have an energy behind them that feels different. This year Sabriel turns twenty, and people, finally, have started to shout about it.
So what is the book anyway, this twenty-year-old piece of YA feminist fantasy? It’s the story of an eighteen-year-old woman who leaves boarding school in search of her father. It’s the story of a journey through a magical—though utterly ravaged—land. It’s the story of an acolyte being forced into the role of expert. It’s the story of powerful bells and an ambivalent, sarcastic, and dangerous cat. It’s the story of the merits of good planning. It’s the story of the triumph of life over death and death over non-life. It’s a story about finding out who you are and how to be alive in the world. It has periods, a penis, a discussion of whether or not that penis is circumcised, some kissing, some kissing with blood (mouth blood, it’s still YA), a totally competent (if inexperienced) young woman who is accorded respect automatically and without reference to her gender. It’s a book that astonished me when I first read it around age ten, and it’s a book I continue to read almost every year.
There are four total novels in the Old Kingdom series, named after their primary setting. Like a kind of magical Scotland, the Old Kingdom is a northern peninsula hemmed at its southern reach by a wall, a la Hadrian’s. (Get in line, Game of Thrones.) The Wall divides magical from non-, and south of it lies Ancelstierre, a country that resembles early twentieth century England in both technology and culture. Sabriel, the first book in the series, follows the title character as she assumes the hereditary position of Abhorsen, that is, a necromancer for good, and who puts the dead to rest rather than raise them. The subsequent two books, Lirael and Abhorsen, published in 2001 and 2003 respectively, concern a young librarian who is, like Sabriel, born into a family dedicated to their inherited roles. Clariel, the series’ first novel in eleven years, concerns a young woman born centuries before the events of the first three books, but whose outline appears in them. The latest novella, “To Hold the Bridge,” joins a 2005 short story, “The Creature in the Case,” and also takes place well before the events of Sabriel—in an Old Kingdom that still works reasonably as it should, rather than being the near post-apocalyptic state Sabriel encounters. It’s a pleasing departure from the series’ usual (and incredibly successful) formula, that of a young woman born into a station of great power and responsibility grappling with her fate and the fate of the land. Instead, “To Hold the Bridge” follows a young man born into grueling poverty and to abusive parents who tries very hard to do well at a job he chose for himself, as cadet in a bridge building company. It’s a position that, while respectable, doesn’t have the glamor of Abhorsen or King or Wallmaker—all hereditary roles that the heroes of the previous novels are more-or-less born into because they share a specific bloodline as descendants of the Great Charters, founders of the benevolent magical order that shapes the Old Kingdom. As much as I love books where a person is born special, they carry with them unavoidable connotations of aristocracy: of some people being more special than others. I was able to talk to Garth Nix a little about this last November while he was on tour in the US for Clariel.
“The things with the bloodlines,” he said, “is that they’re actually much more prevalent.” It’s not so much that Sabriel, for instance, is the only person who could be Abhorsen, she’s just the one who was born into a family who trained her to do the job. “There’d have to be many, many people who carry that potential,” Nix went on, “but because they aren’t baptized with the Charter mark, they’re not part of the families that think it’s important or that don’t have time,” it doesn’t happen.
The Charter is a system of magic and a kind of moral worldview. It’s a construction or a story or a fabric, made by beings of immense power (the Great Charters) at the beginning of the known world: an “endless flow” of marks that describe the universe and so shape it. It’s like a contract: you enter into it with baptism and/or you live in territories governed by the Great Charter’s descendants and amongst their powerful magical objects. If you aren’t interested, you get out—sometimes by physically leaving the boundaries of the Old Kingdom, other times by corrupting or negating your Charter mark, a magical remnant from baptism. You can choose a life without magic (south, to Ancelstierre) or a life of magic without rules (north, to free magic). The latter provides avenues to immense, and perhaps limitless, power, but it will also eat you alive—corroding your flesh, degrading your mind. Its very nature, tuned to chaos, is inimical to life; the Charter, a created order, fosters it.
I love this idea of the Charter as a choice, as a creation, rather than as a natural feature of the landscape. The Charter, as readers of the Old Kingdom series know well, can be unmade. It can also, presumably, be remade. Though I don’t anticipate that plot point appearing in any future books (why fix what ain’t broken), this malleability, though difficult to achieve, is a profound feature of the Charter itself. Nix’s latest Old Kingdom novella—centered as it is around a destitute young man with an entry-level job—echoes the openness and accessibility of the Charter. It’s a compact you can chose to enter or leave and it’s one that ultimately rewards effort above ancestry, since everyone is basically related to everyone else. (It’s like how all people related to Europeans are related to Charlemagne.)
“Just having the [Great Charter] bloodline doesn’t mean anything if you don’t do the work,” Nix told me. “The Charter’s very hard.”
We talked a little bit more about gender in the books and in Sabriel in particular. How did he come up with, and write so successfully, this 18-year-old woman?
“I was planning to write about her father, the Abhorsen,” he said. That’s how the book’s prologue came about, a scene in which Sabriel’s father, the then Abhorsen, facilitates his daughter’s baptism into the Charter. “I remember thinking, she would actually be more interesting to write about than him.” All his characters “turned about to be who they were, and I didn’t really think about their gender,” he said. Sabriel was “a lucky accident.”
“There’s no character in any of my stories that based on one particular person in real life,” Nix went on. So much of his understanding of who these characters are came through writing them. “Of course I do take a lot of things from real people. I steal them, take an aspect of their character, and condense it.”
We talked too about how these characters—most of them women—navigate their love lives. Though there is a romantic subplot in Sabriel, “they don’t really have time for it,” Nix said. This was apparent to me from the moment I first read the novel, that Sabriel was a woman who was attracted to men and interested in them but also a woman who had other, more important things on her mind, like rescuing her father or an entire country. It was part of her life but never the point of it. The rest of the series reflects this prioritizing: adventure first, romance second if at all.
“Of course adolescents are always interested in relationships and sex and love,” Nix reflected. “Well, everyone is, but in that time of your life when you’re thrown in the company of other potential partners, it’s a big thing.” He talked a little bit about Clariel, a character who many readers have identified as asexual. Her sexuality, like in Sabriel, isn’t the point of the book, but it’s there: she makes clear that she’s neither interested in men nor women and would prefer most of all to be on her own.
“You know there are whole ranges of people in the world and of how they react to different situations and relationships,” Nix said. “I think it’s good to write about different kinds of people. It’s good to have different characters and different kinds of stories.”
“The Old Kingdom and Alcestierre, the whole universe, is actually so big,” he said. “I’m not like Tolkien. I don’t work out all the history and the languages and so on. Many fantasy writers do. I come from the other direction where I work things out as I go along.” But with four novels and several long stories set in the Old Kingdom, Nix has built up quite a lot of that world. “There’s tons of room,” he said, “to tell many different kinds of stories but also to tie them back in to the history and cosmology that I’ve developed, even though I don’t have all the details. I can stitch them into the fabric of something more complicated. It helps make them more meaningful.”
So many of his books focus on characters at the beginning of their adult lives figuring out what they should and can do or not do. “What will I become?” is one of the go-to questions that narrative answers, Nix said. “I love stories about finding about who you are, about becoming part of a bigger story.”
Perhaps the series’ most quoted (and tattooed) lines, “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?,” comes from the final page in The Book of the Dead, a manual for the Abhorsen. I asked Nix where that question—a pressing one for a bildungsroman—came from. “To be honest, when I wrote it in Sabriel I hardly thought twice about it,” he said, “but over the years it’s clearly resonated very strongly with readers. It’s not one thing or the other; it’s just a good question to ask.”
The stories themselves, and the way Nix talks about them, echo this ambivalence. In a world full of raw potential, the most powerful players still come from families where they are groomed for the roles they later take on. But the books insist on the weight of that power: bound by the Charter, it is a heavy responsibility; unbound in Free Magic, its lightness will eventually scorch.
“All good books have layers,” he said, referring to the perennial debate about who should be reading what books and when (and why all of literature will or won’t be destroyed based on those choices). “You can read the top layer of the narrative when you are first able to.” Whether you’re going back to or discovering for the first time a book marketed for young adults as an old adult, “You’ll get more. You’ll get a different experience.”
Nix was dismissive of any critic who judged wholesale a category that contained tens of thousands of books. “It’s like judging all romance by Mills & Boon,” he said, referring to the United Kingdom romance publisher. “You won’t read Jane Austen.”
He is at work at another Old Kingdom novel, Nix told me, something maybe to do with Lirael and Nicolas Sayre, characters who last appeared together in “The Creature in the Case.” But he wouldn’t go into detail. Whatever it will be (and whenever it arrives), my not-so-secret-anymore society will be ready. Until then, we have To Hold the Bridge and everything that came before it. We also have the Charter (or the idea of it), the warp and weft of a universe described and so made livable.
“I can write an adventure story,” Nix said, “all my books are adventure stories of one kind or another. But hopefully they are something more.”