Garth Nix is criminally underrated. In a world currently dominated by jeans-wearing bespectacled boy wizards (yes, you know who you are, Potty), a lot of so-called children's fantasy written decades before J.K Rowling (bless her golden stinking rich little heart) even thought about thinking about Harry Potter. Authors like Ursula Le Guin and (my hero) Diana Wynne Jones have had their works reprinted and re marketed to a whole new generation of readers who have a new found appreciation for this once-reviled genre. But in my not-so-humble opinion, a certain Aussie still isn't as appreciated as he deserves to be.
The man is responsible for writing quite possible the single best fantasy/sci-fi/adventure trilogy in the history of mankind. I leave the Lord of the Rings out of this; because it is virtually untouchable and also because technically LOTR isn't a trilogy at all- it's one very long story published in three parts. Ditto the movies.
Behold the Old Kingdom trilogy.
Go ahead. Feel free to take a minute and absorb the awesomeness of it all.
The Old Kingdom trilogy is a unique work of the imagination. I consider myself a pretty well-read young grasshopper, with some respectable knowledge of various genres, and I think Nix has borrowed and assimilated many elements from other fantasy novels and produced something totally original in context and execution.
To cut the blab ; the Old Kingdom is a fictional land, or country of sorts, where magic is not just part of everyday life, but the essence of Creation itself. This law, or Force (Star Wars anybody?) is referred to as the Charter, and this power is tapped into by residents of the Old Kingdom, to perform "magic" of their own. Charter Mages are those wise and powerful and talented and knowledgeable enough to have direct access to the power of the Charter. Necromancers are the bad dudes who want to manipulate all the power to achieve their own dodgy gains. The lesser people merely use it a sort of guideline to life and existence.
To the south of the Old Kingdom lies Ancelstierre, which is similar to our own world ;electricity, vehicles, buildings, etc. This is where the story picks up with the character of Sabriel. After fearing for her father's safety in the Old Kingdom, she decides to travel there herself to find him, and from there there's no turning away from the awesomeness that awaits you.
Themes of love, death, morals, ethics, betrayal, secrets, corruption, greed, the search for one's identity, the forces of good and evil, friendship etc all twist and mould and tie each other up in a great big knot that slowly unravels and then ravels itself back. But what makes these books so unusual and ingenious is Nix's portrayal of Death. Not death, but Death. Death is not merely a concept or theory or state of being, it's an actual, physical place, a trans-dimensional plane of sorts. The only human allowed to pass between the border of Life and Death at will is the Abhorsen, who acts as a guardian to the souls passing from Life to Death, and an exorcist whose job it is to "make sure the Dead stay dead". And you know how I love all that philosophical crap.
Oh and no prizes for guessing that Sabriel eventually takes over from the current Abhorsen, her father. The Abhorsen (there is only one at a time) are sort of the middle point between the "good" Charter Mages and the "evil" Necromancers. They work alone, using the power of the Charter Mages but the weapons and methods of a necromancer. Their job, their passing from Life to Death at will, is an oddity; they go against nature to preserve nature. A contradiction to their own existence.
Nix's characters take on a life of their own. Sabriel and Lirael are both completely and utterly not annoying, thank goodness. They manage to be strong female characters without ever grating on my nerves, losing thier humanity or their relatability. My favourite character happens to be a cat. A little white one named Mogget, reluctant assistant to the Abhorsen. Even Mogget isn't who he appears to be though. There's a lot that little kitty cat knows that the readers don't. He is incredibly ancient, despite his helpfulness, will not hesitate to kill his master to gain his freedom at the slightest opportunity. (Although I'm rather proud to say that I correctly guessed the true identity of Mogget halfway through the third and last book).
Despite its huge setting and wide scope, the Old Kingom trilogy never gets to heavy or difficult to keep up with. It isn't bogged down with too much historical information or extra detail. The dialogue is suitably not-verbose. Garth Nix does not bother explaining why certain things happen, or how something works, preferring to keep an air of mystique and vagueness about it, so that by the end of the three books you get the sense that this story has not even told you a fraction of the whole of the Old Kingdom saga. But to quote the god old Tenth Doctor "Once you know everything, you might as well just stop".
The trilogy is the closest thing to perfection I could possibly ask from a fantasy novel. Despite the fact that the second book, Lirael, takes place 19 years after the events of Sabriel, the story never lags or loses focus, and continues to build and grow, until Lirael ends in an infuriatingly suspenseful cliffhanger, and you're walking around the house at one in the morning, bleary-eyed, with the images of Charter spells and icy glaciers and Greater Dead demons still burned in your brain, pulling your hair and kicking yourself for not asking Michelle's sister if you could borrow all three books at the same time. And when you get your hands on Abhorsen, the final chapter, it wastes absolutely no time with introductions or story set-ups, but plunges right into the heart of the action, until it all rolls up into one last, screaming, rolling, fiery, hallelujah kick-ass final battle that makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows blush in embarrassment for its lack of awesomeness, against a villain that makes Lord Voldemort look like peanuts.
If you haven't already guessed, I really really quite like these books, and I hope they never ever make it into movies. Oh Charter forbid they ever do that.
p.s I still adore J.K Rowling and the seven Potter books.