I recently had the opportunity to reread one of my favorite series. I often do this alongside one of my two daughters, when it’s been long enough that I can no longer remember the intricacies of the plot details to discuss with them. Of course, my oldest usually passes me straight away and then badgers me to catch up, but there could be worse things in life…
In the Old Kingdom the dead don’t stay dead and there are all sorts of free magic creatures. It is the job of the Abhorsen to use necromantic bells infused with tamed charter magic to send them back where the belong. This could imply that this story is a dark one, but exactly the opposite is true. All of the books contain much hope and friendship even as they do not shy from sadness and loss.
Sabriel features a girl just on the verge of womanhood who has spent most of her life in a boarding school just on the other side of the walls of the Old Kingdom in a land that only barely believes in magic. When a dead messenger arrives bearing her fathers bells she must take on the mantel of Abhorsen and cross the wall to save her father. It doesn’t matter that the Old Kingdom has been overcome with dead and free magic creatures, she perseveres with the right help coming along at the right time. Don’t worry, though, she runs into enough trouble that this is no fairy tale. Sabriel presents as an amazingly strong woman without screaming, “We need a female heroine!”
Lirael takes us to a different part of the Old Kingdom about 20 years after Sabriel. In this book we learn of the Clayr an extended family of women who live in a glacier and use the Sight to see images together in frozen water. Only Lirael does not have the Sight, nor does she have a mother, nor does she look like the others. Raised amongst a group of women that are similar in so many ways she struggles to find her way. She finds a friend, though, and ends up playing a huge part in the saving of the kingdom as she learns to be herself instead of wishing she was someone else.
Clariel takes us back in time when the land was safe from the dead and the Abhorsens had grown lazy and were even a bit afraid of the dead (and not in a healthy respect sort of way). Clariel is the daughter of a Master Goldsmith who has been uprooted from her safe place in the forest and thrust into all of the politics of the big city. She knows what she wants and where she belongs and will do just about anything to accomplish it. She struggles with some really big choices and is treated like a child instead of given the information to make good decisions. With the fore knowledge of what is to come, we as the reader do a fair bit of yelling at the adults in the book.
* Sabriel closely examines a naked carving of a man that turns out to be an actual man. This is pretty academic. Sabriel also hears the sounds of sex next door in an inn. Again, academic.
* Lirael contemplates suicide multiple times, but never in a romanticized way. A woman tells a man she must have his child in order to save the world. After his initial shock he tells her they should enjoy it.
* Clariel talks of experimenting with boys and considering with girls but mostly concludes she is a singleton (asexual).
* In Goldenhand there is some aggressive kissing and a clear desire for more. Not crazy descriptive, but enough to make the difference between handing the book off to my 8yo vs. 10yo. That was more about a willingness to slog through it than concern about content.
* In general, I’d put this at about 6th grade and up, but clearly that is dependent on the child
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