Sabriel by Garth Nix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
With her powerful necromancer father missing, Sabriel must take on the mantle of Abhorsen and return to her homeland to protect the living from the ravaging Dead.
Sabriel is happily planning her life after boarding school when a peculiar messenger arrives one night with her father's tools of the trade: his sword and a bandolier containing seven bells to control the Dead. Sabriel leaves her life behind without a second glance, undertaking a dangerous journey back to her homeland. She is pursued by a terrifying Dead creature sent by its even more powerful master: a necromancer who may have caused her father's disappearance. During her journey, Sabriel acquires two companions: a mysterious cat-shaped servant called Mogget, plus a young man named Touchstone who spent the past two hundred years in an enchanted sleep.
Sabriel's world is a fascinating one: she grows up in a pseudo-England called Ancelstierre, where most of the magic emanating from the northern Old Kingdom is blocked by an ancient Wall. In the magic-filled Old Kingdom, trustworthy Charter magic protects the people from untamed Free Magic or the evil Dead who attempt to escape Death. Death is depicted as a place - dark and full of rushing water - which Sabriel crosses into when she needs to banish the Dead or interrogate them.
Nix has created a page-turning dark fantasy world (I especially love the Abhorsen's house and the concept of the bells) that he revisits in sequels Lirael and then in Abhorsen. If you're a fantasy lover of any age, you should add this trilogy to your must-read list.
Nix has slowly become one of my favorite YA fantasy/science fiction authors, with fantasy series like The Keys to the Kingdom and The Seventh Tower that show a unique imagination and impressive world-building. He also has stand-alone novels like The Ragwitch. His female characters are fully formed and often casually heroic, like Sabriel (who may question her own lack of knowledge but shoulders the incredible burden of her role without complaint).
Nix never holds back from telling truly dark stories in spite of writing for a younger audience, so be prepared: his stories often veer into horror, and can be terrifying and violent. (Example: Shade's Children, a sci-fi horror novel that makes The Hunger Games look tame.) In fact, I mentally pair his seven-book Keys to the Kingdom series with Suzanne Collins' five-book Underland Chronicles because they contain a similar unflinching awareness of the consequences of war and death - all aimed at a middle grade audience.