Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy

Ever since a boy named Harry Potter blasted onto the scene the Young Adult publishing world has been on fire. Mainstream literature bores me. Romance, Crime, Mystery, Western & Horror are all genres that rarely catch my interest. I normally gravitate to Sci-Fi/Fantasy, but while there are some real stars out there (Neil Gaiman, China Mieville), there are many more producing slush (David Eddings, Terry Brooks).

Meanwhile the Young Adult category has come to be a place where any genre from romance to mystery to fantasy can go to be quietly reinvented in exciting ways. Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy is an example.

The Abhorsen Trilogy is the story of young girls and boys thrust into the role of protecting the world from dangers from beyond the grave. Nix writes with urgency and style. His characters, particularly the young female protagonists, are strong and compelling. The world the characters inhabit is mysterious and dark. He pulls you in with morbid curiosity. You desperately want to know what lies in the shadowy corners of this magical world and you know that it is going to be bad.

As is often the case in recent years, you need to ignore the "Young Adult" label here. These books are mature. They deal frankly and in depth with death, suffering, loss, and mortality. A frequent fantasy trope is the protagonist with a world-shaping destiny. Usually in such cases you are meant to feel pity for the protagonist, but it is difficult, because they get awesome powers, attention, fame and many other desirable things to compensate for the burden. In this series when one of the characters is forced to take on a task because of prophecy you genuinely weep for her. Nix makes all of his hero's pay to accomplish amazing things, and the price is never trivial.

One frequent complaint I have about fantasy novels is shallow magic. Too many authors treat magic as a story shortcut. It ends up feeling contrived and not at all magical. Not Nix. The magic in this story is wed to an entire metaphysical worldview which is consistent and more importantly beautiful. You never feel like magic is being used as a way of getting around story obstacles, nor is it mere flash and sizzle. Nix doesn't use magic as special effects. The magic is actually the basis of the story, and the more you begin to understand the magic, the more you realize how well it is all woven together.

This series is very good and I highly recommend it, but it isn't perfect. Nix sometimes rushes through things that need more space to breathe. He introduces a great many mysteries and story hooks which are insufficiently resolved in his hasty climax. I felt like he could easily have added 100 pages across the series in developing a few of the relationships and tying up loose ends. Perhaps he was writing to restrictions from the publisher, or perhaps he was so excited about his plot that he couldn't restrain himself. Either way it unfortunately diminishes the powerful impact his stories otherwise have.

No comments: