Sabriel by Garth Nix
The world of Sabriel, first in the Abhorsen trilogy, is strange and fascinating. The dead won’t stay dead, and magic is either Free or bound by the Charter. Sabriel is a young Charter Mage who ventures into the Old Kingdom to save her father. She uses his sword, Charter marks, and bells to command magic and fight undead creatures. The action moves quickly as Sabriel travels the Old Kingdom, running from foul creatures, encountering a prince who has been turned to wood, and taking rides on magic-wind-powered planes called Paperwings.
The language of this novel is high fantasy: evocative, moody, darkly picturesque. It’s definitely a novel that is crafted with attention to good sentences. Nix tosses us right into the world without much explanation of how magic works in it, which may be frustrating for some readers, but gives the sense of a pre-existing universe whose natural laws are just that, natural. The tech level of the world is kind of unusual–there are soldiers with machine guns who also use swords.
Sabriel is a great heroine, a brave warrior who sets out into the unknown to do her duty, but who experiences a good amount of doubt and fear along the way. I’d call it a feminist story because the fact that she’s female isn’t made a big deal. At one point she even commands men older than her in battle. There is a love interest, but the clear focus of the story is Sabriel fighting her father’s enemies and coming into her power. There are hints that she’ll have to marry and reproduce to fulfill her destiny, but it seems like this imperative would have fallen on her just the same if she’d been born male. The ending is a big cliffhanger, and I would totally have picked up the sequel anyway.