Warning there may be a few spoilers ahead but I'm not botherign to hide them. Just be careful with those eyes of yours.
I'm going to be honest and say that as an overall novel there were parts where this felt like a three star book and parts that felt four star. For instance upon reading the author's name this felt like a four star book (Garth Nix - good writer and a fellow Australian). But after delving fifty pages into the world of Sabriel I was less than impressed. However upon completion my initial expectations had come full circle and I realised that this, while not the greatest fantasy ever, was still impressive and a solid novel.
The story focuses on the adventures of an eighteen year old girl with limited knowledge of Charter Magic and the use of Abhorsen bells. Despite these limited 'good' necromancer abilities she has to contend with the most fearsome dead in the Old Kingdom and find a way to properly send them back where they belong.
So I shall now proceed to do an examination of fantasy novels and why I enjoyed Sabriel compared to the many other's I've read. The three topics I'd like to examine are: 1. magic system 2. Characters and creatures and 3. Location and world-building. 1. Magic System
While refreshingly different from the run-of-the-mill fantasy pulp available the magic system did not grab me. Compared to Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn (which I rate as one of the more interesting systems of magic use) the system seemed average. Let'explain it shall I? Basically it runs like this:
Various types of people called Charter Mages can use the bound magic. But only in the Old Kingdom or near to the wall because the wall weakens magic as a defence mechanism for those who live behind it. To control charter magic charter marks (another word for runes basically) are signed (and then they gain power through the mage). Scattered throughout the Old Kingdom are Charter Stones with those runes flowing all over them which strengthens the binding of magic as far as I understood it. And then on top of that some magic remains Free Magic and unpredictable but that wasn't really defined by the author. 2. Characters and creatures
Of course we have the: main female character, her wizardly father (who's often absent), the prince who's honour bound to protect the princess - I mean main female character - and a strange creature which acts as a guide. Perhaps not so unique a mix of stock characters...
Sabriel was an interesting protagonist. I always enjoy reading novels from the point of view of a female protagonist and in this case I enjoyed what she stood for. I did find the author's attempt to create her emotional feminine side rather weak. Particularly whenever he attempted to form any kind of romantic lead for her. Yet on the whole she remained a complex character, essentially a schoolgirl thrust into a world where she finds out that she's now the Abhorsen because her father's dead. Something about the whole dynamic of her character was fascinating.
Plus there was her 'guide' so to speak. Basically a cat (which reminded me of the boggart in Revenge of the Witch) which is actually a mystical creature. If you want to know what that really is I'll leave you to read the book and find out. But as far as guides go he was interesting.
And then again there's the swordsman bound by honour. And with hidden mysteries in his past. Although he was rather wooden as a character and I guess his circumstances explained that. After all he was frozen in place as a wooden statue kind of like: . Only he was a naked wooden statue being used as a figure-head for a ship.
Now onto the creatures. They were great because unlike say Robert Jordan or Terry Brooks they weren't taking The Lord of the Rings' Nazgul and Orcs and re-naming them. Instead what Garth Nix does is make creatures based on the whole idea of his main character being a 'good' necromancer. That is someone who sends the dead back to the realm of death. So all the creatures were beings with bodies of ooze and slime, or corpses with different human souls implanted in them. Which all was rather macabre but made for interesting reading. Apparently Death has a river with multiple gates throughout. Various creatures attempt to avoid total Death beyond the ninth gate by holding onto earlier gates. Over time in Death these creatures mutate and once they break free of Death they must feast on the living to survive falling back into Death. 3. Worldbuilding
While not to the level of J.R.R Tolkien, Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson the world of Sabriel was solidly fleshed out. There were set laws for magic, technology, language and the various cities that existed. There was information about how good and bad necromancers existed and in particular the various gates of Death were explained very well. So...in conclusion:
At times the plotting dragged. Particularly nearer to the start. And the characters and settings were not so detailed as some of the truly great fantasy novels I've read. However ultimately Sabriel was enjoyable with its twists and turns. Even if some explanation was overly complicated or even lacking at times. To add to that there were also several occasions where I felt that elements of the novel simply existed to try and provide a sound reason for elements of the plot. Which of course made the book that little more convoluted. Perhaps a little more freedom with expression and allowing this book to air out and it could have really grabbed me. As it was I still thoroughly enjoyed it and read it in one sitting.