Garth Nix – Across the Wall
92. Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories by Garth Nix (2005)
Abhorsen Trilogy, Book 4 (sort of)
Length: 305 pages
Genre: Short Stories; Fantasy
Started: 20 July 2008
Finished: 22 July 2008
Summary and Review: Garth Nix primarily writes young adult fantasy, but he’s one of the darker authors that I’ve encountered in that genre. He’s not afraid of death (or Death, as the Abhorsen trilogy makes quite clear), violence, sex, bloodshed, or just general darkness. While that’s evident in this collection of short stories – several of the pieces are intensely dark and even slightly disturbing – Nix also has a flair for comedic writing, particularly when he’s poking fun at the very genre in which he makes a living. I wound up loving stories of both types, and really appreciated the short introductory pieces that explored the origin of each work.
Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case – This story is going to be the main reason most people would pick up the collection – it takes place a few months after the end of Abhorsen, and takes place mostly in Ancelstierre, where Nicholas Sayre is recovering from his time in the Old Kingdom, but stumbles upon a horrible Free Magic creature where no Free Magic creature should rightfully be. It’s exciting and well told, with a satisfying conclusion, but it’s likely to be somewhat incomprehensible to people who haven’t read the Abhorsen trilogy recently (or at all) – it’s only been a year for me and I’d already forgotten several details that were critical to this story.
Under the Lake – A piece of Arthuriana that looks at the character of the Lady of the Lake and asks what she’s doing hanging out underwater with a sword (except, y’know, more seriously). This story was solid if not overwhelming, and it had some very nice poetic imagery to the Lady’s story, but I felt a little like it was trying too hard, and occasionally came across as somewhat forced.
Charlie Rabbit – Yikes – I was not expecting this. A young boy and his younger brother get trapped in their house when their town is hit by missiles. The least fantastical of all of the stories in this collection, and also the most powerful. It manages to be horrible and still inspiring at the same time. I don’t think I breathed throughout the entire story.
From the Lighthouse – A man arrives to rule the island that he thinks he’s just purchased, much to the dismay of the people who actually live there. This may have been an issue of placement, but coming off of Charlie Rabbit, this story just felt frivolous and weak, with some funny bits but a predictable and anticlimactic ending.
The Hill – A young man is dismayed by his father’s attempts to sell their family’s ancient land to the government, and turns to his great-great-grandfather for help. I liked the idea of this one, but it felt like it needed to be expanded, like it was missing a crucial element; as it was, the ending seemed a little facile and unsatisfying.
Lightning Bringer – A boy who can see auras encounters a man with Power – the power to call down lightning, and to use it to take anything he wants… including women. Wow, this one is definitely not a kids’ story. It’s fine for older YA, and it’s not particularly graphic per se, but it’s also not shy about sex, including semi-non-consensual sex. It’s intense and rather disturbing, but still a good story.
Down to the Scum Quarter – A spoof of a choose-your-own-adventure book, set in a Three Musketeers-ish Paris knockoff. I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, and this one had me laughing out loud. “You leap into the boat just like Captain Silver used to – but he only had one leg, so it was excusable. Eventually you get upright again, ship the oars, hoist the topgallants, splice the mainbrace, cast off, and purl three.” (p. 189). I read through the adventure twice (dying once and rescuing my lady love once) before cheating and reading straight through to get the bits I’d missed.
Heart’s Desire – Another piece of Arthuriana looking at the relationship between Merlin and Nimue. I liked this one well enough even though the ending was telegraphed from the beginning of the story. Also, I had a hard time figuring out how/when this was supposed to fit into the more familiar Arthur story.
Hansel’s Eyes – A retelling of Hansel and Gretel where the evil stepmother drops them off in a run-down part of the city instead of in the forest, and where the witch lures them in with Playstations rather than with candy. I’d read this story before, in the collection A Wolf at the Door. It didn’t do much for me then, and it still didn’t this time around, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think that in trying to be modern and slick it lost touch with the heart of the fairy tale.
Hope Chest – A Western-flavored story in which a baby arrives at a train station with an unopenable chest. She’s adopted by some townspeople, and grows up normal until her sixteenth birthday, when she opens the chest to find a stunning array of weaponry, which she instinctively knows how to wield – and must use to save her town and the world from the grip of a mad man. Very good, although also quite dark and brutal. I wish there had been a little more backstory/explanation, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about the ending he chose, but overall it’s one of the strongest stories in the collection
My New Really Epic Fantasy Series – A speech Nix has given several times, mocking the conventions of the epic fantasy sub-genre. I really enjoy epic fantasy series, but I will also admit that they are ripe for parody, and although it tries too hard to be constantly clever, this piece still made me laugh. “Gather round, unpleasant acquaintances, and partly listen to a tale of our knuckle-dragging forebears and the battles they ran away from. Our recorded history goes back some three weeks to the time that Sogren the Extremely Drunk burned down the museum.” (p. 291)
Three Roses – A gardener grows beautiful roses that remind him of his dead wife but also attract the attention of the king. This piece was short, sweet, subtle, and had a lyricism and charm to it that made it feel like a real fairy tale.
Endings – A vampire tells the stories of how he died. This one was short but kind of bizarre and very dense, hard to get into in the two pages it took to tell.
Recommendation: If you’ve read the Abhorsen Trilogy, then this book is worth picking up to get some more of Nicholas, and to see what else Garth Nix can do as an author. If you haven’t read the Abhorsen Trilogy, 1) go pick up Sabriel and remedy that, but 2) this book is still worth picking up. Skip the first story, but the rest give a broad sampling of a talented author across a variety of sub-genres, and there are far more hits than misses. 4 out of 5 stars.
Links: Garth Nix’s Website
- p. 7: “Corolini’s attempted putsch had failed, and there had surprisingly been no further trouble from the Our Country Party since, but the government continued to be nervous about the safety of the nation’s Chief Minister.” – a plotted revolt or attempt to overthrow a government, esp. one that depends upon suddenness and speed.
- p. 77: “He almost fell at the top step, but turned the movement into a flèche, launching himself into a sprint across the bridge.” – a method of attack with saber or épée in which the attacker leaves from the rear foot and advances rapidly toward the opponent.
- p. 135: “She had defeated him so easily, with a lie about as digestible as a logy Lisden haddock.” – lacking physical or mental energy or vitality; sluggish; dull; lethargic.
- p. 230: “Instead she put on her best linen dress, that she herself had dyed blue from isatis bark and stitched with silver thread that she had spun out of the deep earth.” – another name for woad.
- p. 265: “It came as a surprise, particularly since they’d weathered the credit famine of ’30 and the bursting of the tantalum bubble two years previously.” – a gray, hard, rare, metallic element occurring in columbite and tantalite and usually associated with niobium: used, because of its resistance to corrosion by most acids, for chemical, dental, and surgical instruments and apparatus.
- p. 267: “Even orthodox temples whose haruspices did not agree that fortuned favored the Servants were burned to the ground.” – one of a class of minor priests who practiced divination, esp. from the entrails of animals killed in sacrifice.