Abhorsen by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Accompanied by a faithful Dog and a faithless cat, Lirael and Sameth step into their predestined roles, finally leaving behind childhood fears and doubts in the face of an overwhelming enemy.
There is less breathing room here for the characters than in Lirael, and it's a more complex and epic showdown than what we saw in Sabriel. Nix wastes little time in sending the young aunt and her newly discovered nephew racing to stop the necromancer Hedge from raising the ultimate evil. They go from danger to danger, culminating in a final showdown (in many ways, this book's action reminds me strongly of The Lord of the Rings), surrounded by life-sucking undead raised by Hedge. (Looking for a great Halloween zombie novel? Look no further!)
Lirael grows almost immediately into her role of Abhorsen-in-Waiting, shouldering the responsibility with the grim determination of someone strengthened after years of feeling like a misfit. Sameth, too, relieved to find it is not his job to face the dead, recovers his courage and is eager to prove himself. Meanwhile, the Disreputable Dog and Moggett the cat are obviously holding back information even as they help out; and in non-magical Ancelstierre, Queen Sabriel and King Touchstone are trying to protect thousands of Southerling refugees from becoming necromancer fodder.
We finally get to traverse the full geography of Death, and the inventiveness of Nix's vision is compelling. The Ninth Gate is beautiful after the terrors of dark water and monsters that make up the other eight gates. There are only a few other authors who make the afterlife so fascinating and convincing - only The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis comes to mind (though of course, the idea of nine separate zones really comes from Dante's Inferno).
A collection of short stories called Across the Wall gives a little more about Sameth's intensely unlucky friend Nick, though I recall it as mildly unsatisfying. (It's only one story!) I'm left with so many questions: for example, we barely get to see the indomitable Ellimere in action, and we only get a tiny hint of Hedge's own beginnings down the dark road of necromancy. Plus, I want to know what other cool stuff Sameth might tinker, and what Moggett will do next. So many questions!
Garth Nix has tons of other great series and stand-alones to check out. If you've already read every one of his books, try out the wonderful YA fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, starting with Howl's Moving Castle or Charmed Life (the first of the Chrestomanci stories). She's equally brilliant and gifted.