And I’m back for another book recommendations post! As with last month, I’m going to be talking about a specific book or series that I love and respect and then I’ll be giving recommendations using that book/series as a starting point. In the other half of my life I’m a bookseller at an amazing little independent bookshop that has been around since 1968 and I’m our resident go-to member of staff for science fiction and fantasy recommendations. What I’m writing in these posts are recommendations I actively make (or dream of making) while on the job.
Last month I talked about Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Both were new reads for me (and both were also fantastic discoveries)! This month, however, to kick of February, I’m going to talk about one of my old favorites which is the Old Kingdom (or, alternatively, the Abhorsen) series by Garth Nix, comprising original of the trilogy of Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, and recently expanded with the prequel Clariel and the sequel Goldenhand.
I’m primarily going to talk about the original trilogy today. Clariel and Goldenhand are both excellent books and I thoroughly enjoyed further adventures in Nix’s excellently built and populated world but it is the first three books that hold a very special place in my heart as I count them among those handful of books that jump-started my love for science fiction and fantasy and my journey into those genres.
The world of the Old Kingdom is divided, quite literally by a wall. North of the wall is the eponymous Old Kingdom, where magic exists. South is the land of Ancelstierre where magic fades and cars and other such earlier 1900s technology exists. Death is an important part of the world, being its own realm with nine precincts and a lineage of magic users, the Abhorsens whose task is to keep the dead down and safeguard Death from necromancers and spirits who wish to escape back into the living world.
At the center of this trilogy are two women: Sabriel and Lirael. Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, who must take up the mantle and instruments of her father’s role when he goes missing. Lirael is a daughter of the Clayr, who has not inherited the Sight, the birthright of her people that allows them to see the future, but discovers her powers and capabilities to be connected to Death itself and her fate intertwined with events far beyond the Clayr’s northern home.
The Old Kingdom trilogy is, without a doubt, fantasy on a epic scale. The events throughout the three books are world ending. Death is a tangible, seductive and dangerous realm. Necromancers wield terrifying powers and gods, or the Nine Bright Shiners, sit at the edges of the story in wisdom passed down through the ages and secrets that may very well spell the end of the world.
Nix, however, manages to pack all of this narrative breadth and breathtaking world building into surprisingly focused books. These tales do not meander. They are not padded with filler. Nix shows his skills as a writer with this trilogy. It is epic in scale, detailed in character, focused in narrative and utterly engrossing as a story. Combine that with interesting, powerful and layered female characters at the center? It’s pretty damn near close to perfect.
Can you tell I love these books? I hope so!
But the other question remains: If you love the Old Kingdom trilogy what are some other books that will give you something in a similar vein?
I’ve got a few ideas for you.
First: Make sure you go and read some of Nix’s other material! Clariel and Goldenhand (I mentioned them at the beginning of this post) are definite if you love the world of Sabriel and Lirael. Also check out Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories for the novella Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case. Then go read some of his other work including The Seventh Tower series (consisting of six books) and The Keys to the Kingdom series (seven books) as well as the standalone The Ragwitch, Shade’s Children and A Confusion of Princes (these last three are aimed at children and young adults but are still well worth reading even if you don’t fall into the technical age range for those demographics).
Beyond Nix’s own work? Take a look at Uprooted by Naomi Novik which features gorgeous world building, a female lead with an unprecedented talent, a world altering conflict and breathtaking pace. Seriously. This book packs more into one volume than most trilogies achieve! Also give The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner a try. It’s the story of irreverent thief Gen who finds himself at the mercy of a King and a cantankerous Magus; forced to go on an adventure that may cost him his life in search of ancient treasure (keep an eye out: I love this book and may be doing an entire post later in the year spinning recommendations off of it and its amazing sequels).
Looking for other tales centered around female protagonists? Go pick up A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. Styled as the memoirs of one Lady Trent, the book is written as a first hand account of how Trent first started on her journey to become the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Set in a world where dragons are a known and standard fauna but there is no magic, its a tale of adventure and determination, of challenging societal norms and pursuing your passions and dreams. Lady Trent (though she is not yet known by this name in the book) is a fantastic character whose layers are only just being revealed. A Natural History of Dragons is the first in a series, its immediate sequel being The Tropic of Serpents.
And lastly, because she is one of my all-time favorite authors, full stop, read Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Sophie Hatter is an amazing protagonist dealing with exceptionally unusual circumstances including a curse, a witch, a wizard and a fire demon. And Jones? Well, she’s perfection on the page and that’s all there is to it.