Was there ever a more Australian name than Garth Nix? Can you say it out loud without an Aussie accent? I can't.
When my friend Melissa moved away a few years ago, she was cleaning out her bookshelves and brought a big pile of books in to work. "Here," she said, shoving them at me. "These are wonderful. You'll love them."
It seemed pretty obvious to me that she was just trying to cut down on the packing she had to do, so I thanked her and put them on a shelf. I didn't even open one for years (how long ago? Well, I haven't had that job in three years, and she moved well before I left, so let's say five). Then, maybe a year ago, I leafed through the first one.
And, lordamercy, the first chapter of Sabriel takes place at a boarding school. I fell right into it. Nix tells a story that is tightly focused on the characters, to the point where the fact that it's truly High Fantasy just sneaks up on you.
I plunged right into Lirael when I had finished. Classic second book problem: while the storytelling, writing, and plot were all excellent, I missed the characters from the first one. I wanted to know what was Big Things were happening, but instead, I was focused tightly on these characters I barely knew (and, let's face it, who start out kind of whiny). I meandered through it--until the last third. Then, oh, then, dear reader, the action picks up and you're swept back into the epic battle of Life and Death. And (another classic second book problem), it ends on a major cliffhanger. Almost literally--there are definitely cliffs involved. Or at least nearby.
But somehow, I managed to wait a while before I picked up Abhorsen. I think it was because I knew the series would end, and I didn't want it to. (Never mind that I have Across the Wall, Nix's collection of short stories in the same world.) But finally, last week, I started it.
It takes a special book to haul me back from the library to my own bookshelves, and I'm happy to say that I started my Personal Library Renaissance in the right place. I could read another dozen of these. I have a deep-seated belief that nothing I own is as good as what I don't, but this was epic, thrilling, and satisfying on a deep level.
The really special part of this book is in the details. A lot of books, especially fantasy, treat "power" like some abstract, meaningless concept. It's like watching action heroes fight in the movies--they keep slugging each other, but neither one seems to feel the blows. Any normal person would be unconscious--physiologically, these people should be unconscious--but that doesn't mean anything, so the fight doesn't mean anything. Magic battles can be the same, authorial protestations of protagonists' exhaustion aside. The enemy usually feels invulnerable until he is destroyed. In this book, though, the bad guy is powerful, but so are the good guys. However ragtag, they are the ones who hold the power, and there is a real sense that it's a battle of equals, and that it's anybody's game.
Also, I love that a lot of things go wrong. Generally, your ragtag band of misfit heroes will get lucky a few times in order to win the day. These folks just seem to hit snag after snag. They get lost on the way to the rendezvous, slip up and say the wrong thing, take the advice of the wise old ancient, who is totally wrong. I hope I'm being vague enough not to call these spoilers, but I love the fact that our heroes screw up--a lot.
Because God knows if the fate of the world was in my hands--well, we'd all be toast.
So thank you, Melissa Montgomery, wherever you are.