I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Garth Nix's novel was already a wonderful read: exciting, scary, funny, moving, imaginative, and vivid, with great characters (like Sabriel, Mogget, and Touchstone), inventions (like the River of Death and its Nine Gates, the Abhorsen, the Bells, and the paperwings), descriptions (like when dead "Hands" are edging closer to Sabriel and company like starving rats approaching a passed out drunk's meal), scenes (like the reservoir climax), dialogue (like almost anything Sabriel, Touchstone, and Mogget say to one another), and themes (like the sensual joy of life and the natural inevitability of death).
But Tim Curry enhances all of the book's virtues via his powerful, witty, and emotional reading of it. Curry's enthusiasm for and understanding of the text are engaging, and he effectively changes his voice for characters ranging from an evil undead villain and a hidebound headmistress to a conflicted Touchstone and a strong but panic-prone Sabriel. And I love his Mogget! Superior, mysterious, and, well, catty, with feline sibilants purring or snarling out the sides of his mouth.
In short, Tim Curry reading Garth Nix makes for an irresistible and thoroughly enjoyable listen.
In Garth Nix' Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr (2001), the second novel in his Abhorsen trilogy, Touchstone and Sabriel are now the King and Abhorsen (anti-necromancer) of the Old Kingdom lying north of the Wall that separates their land of magic and pesky undead from the world of machines and countries in conflict (reminiscent of our early 20th century world). And things are not well in their Old Kingdom. An unknown "Enemy" is manipulating Necromancers into attacking villages with bands of undead "Hands" and "Shadowhands," while at Red Lake something ominous is happening that even the clairvoyant women of the Clayr are unable to see.
All fourteen-year-old Lirael wants is to gain the Sight like the other girls and women of the Clayr. Her black hair and brown eyes already mark her as too different the others, while her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her when she was a little girl. And each year on her birthday Lirael has grown older without gaining the Sight while increasingly younger girls have come into their own. Luckily, she is given a job as Third-Assistant Librarian in the nautilus shell-like ancient library of the Clayr, which suits the increasingly anti-social and magically curious girl. But poor Sameth, the teenage son of Touchstone and Sabriel, is pulled out of his elite boarding school south of the Wall and returned to the Palace at Bellisaere, where everyone expects him to train to succeed Sabriel as Abhorsen, when he is physically and mentally unable to even touch the Book of the Dead. Instead, he prefers fabricating magical "toys," like a nifty flying, mosquito-eating frog. Both young people are good young adult fantasy Ugly Ducklings: they believe that they are flawed and cannot fit in and yet are really gifted in ways destined to become appreciated.
Despite his young protagonists' morose moods, Nix writes his novel with humor and imagination. He has carefully constructed his magical world, in which most of the Free Magic that randomly pulses everywhere is ordered by the Charter, a seemingly infinite set of marks a bit like Chinese characters which adepts write on paper or in the air to make magic. Necromancers bypass the Charter to tap into Free Magic to do unnatural things like transform dead people into cannon fodder minions, while Charter Mages access it to protect the Kingdom, and the sole Abhorsen walks into Death (leaving his or her frosty body behind in the world) and then rings any of a set of seven bells to force the undead back down through the gates set in the river of Death till they reach their proper state.
Nix has great fun with that setting, imagining various nearly sentient magical books, constructs, sendings, spells, and artifacts. The most enjoyable such magical things in the novel are a pair of droll and mysterious talking "pets," the hungry, spunky, and loving Disreputable Dog, and the sarcastic, cynical, and sleepy white feline Mogget, both of whom are much more than they appear to be. The great thing about it all is that Nix often describes the magic with magical prose, vivid, sensual, and sublime, to evoke a sense of wonder, beauty, and terror (which are nearly absent from YA magical fantasy like the Harry Potter series).
Take, for example, the time Lirael loses control of a spell and "She tried to scream, but no sound came out, only Charter marks that leapt from her mouth towards the golden radiance. Charter marks continued to fly from her fingers, too, and swam in her eyes, spilling down inside her tears, which turned to steam as they fell." Even when nothing magical is happening, Nix may summon magic, as when Lirael is exploring the Library and finds herself in "a vast chamber, bigger even than the Great Hall. Charter marks as bright as the sun shone in the distant ceiling, hundreds of feet above. A huge oak tree filled the center of the room, in full summer leaf, its spreading branches shading a serpentine pool. And everywhere, throughout the cavern, there were flowers. Red flowers. Lirael bent down and picked one, uncertain if it was some sort of illusion. But it was real enough. She felt no magic, just the crisp stalk under her fingers. A red daisy, in full bloom."
And at his best, Nix writes suspenseful scenes that develop his world and characters and excite the reader, as when Lirael meets a stilken (a woman-shaped Free Magic entity with silver eyes and arms as long as her legs ending in the claws of a mantis), or when his heroes sail beneath a mile-wide bridge-city and are targeted by a crossbow bolt shooting assassin and a fiery Free Magic and swine-flesh construct masquerading as human.
When I read Lirael several years ago, I found it overlong and burdened by mopey characters, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the audiobook version, largely thanks to the virtuoso reading of Tim Curry. He deftly balances on the Edge of Too Much, reading with infectious relish lines by foul necromancers gloating over how they're about to kill you or Disreputable mongrels getting ready to sink their teeth into your calf to snap you out of your funk or snarky magical cats asking for fish after just failing to help save your skin. And isn't there a hint of Dr. Frank N. Furter in his Mogget?
Sabriel is a fresher and more self-contained book, whereas Lirael really makes part one of a duology completed by the third volume in the "trilogy," Abhorsen. But fans of imaginative and dark young adult magical fantasy and of Tim Curry should enjoy this book.
Magyk (2005) by Angie Sage has many typical children's magical fantasy genre elements: the lost seventh son of a seventh son possessed of extraordinary magic power, a princesses in hiding, an evil necromancer, good wizards, witches, and ghosts, supernatural creatures (like boggarts, brownies, and dragons), legendary magical artifacts (even a lost ring found underground in the dark!), and spells and magical rules for every occasion her page-turning plot requires.
Sage's novel adds to the genre a usurping dystopian governing body (the Custodians) with a penchant for rationalizing people, excluding women, and banning magic. Sage's good characters, a balanced mix of adults and kids, are very appealing and great fun to spend time with: Marcia Overstrand (the purple pointy python-skin shoe wearing ExtraOrdinary Wizard), Arthel Melle (the avuncular ghost of the former ExtraOrdinary Wizard), Silas (the unambitious and good-natured Ordinary Wizard who is a seventh son), Nicko (one of his sons who likes boats), Jenna (the princess on the run), Boy 412 (a member of the Young Army, "the Pride of today, the Warriors of Tomorrow"), and even Stanley the message rat (Sage does for message rats what J K Rowling never does for message owls: gives them their own point of view). And best of all Sage writes with enjoyable and engaging wit and style. I often laughed out loud at the lines her characters speak and the situations in which they find themselves. Magyk feels lighter and wittier than the Harry Potter books. Her slimy and poisonous Magog creatures are nightmarish, but also prone to greedy foibles, and her Dark Lord DomDaniel (back from the Badlands with a vengeance) snores and drools while he sleeps.
The fertility of imagination and richness of style in Magyk don't approach that in, say, Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but Angie Sage does write more magical magic than J. K. Rowling. Although Sage, like Rowling, does a fair amount of mundaning of the fantastic (as in having Marcia cast clothes cleaning spells), she is also capable of writing scenes that make the world come alive with a fresh perspective, as when the last Shield Bug goes into earnest and confused action, when the Dragon Boat appears in an underground temple, when the ghost of Arthel hugs Jenna and makes her "feel as though a warm summer breeze had wafted through her," when Boy 412 stares awe-struck at the "haze of [purple] Magyk energy" on Marcia as she casts a spell and sees her "brilliant green eyes glitter[ing] as she gaze[s] into infinity, observing a silent film that only she could see," and when Jenna goes outside Aunt Zelda's cottage to watch the marsh wake up in cold dawn beauty and thinks about her identity and family and childhood dreams and sees "a fishing boat crewed by chickens."
One thing lost in the audiobook version is Sage's portentous capitalizations and faux-archaic spellings of words like Magyk and Darke and use of bold font for the names of spells, because when the reader Allan Corduner says them they of course sound as if they were spelled and printed normally. But you gain so much by listening to the audiobook, because Corduner relishes reading the novel and keeps just the right 75-25 balance between tongue in cheek and heart in mouth, making everything more funny and magical and moving than it would be if one were only reading the physical book.
Will I go on to read/listen to the following six novels about Septimus Heap? Hmmm. If I find them on sale and myself with plenty of time I might, but I am in no hurry right now, because this first novel is a little longer than necessary and ends with satisfying closure.