In Sabriel, Garth Nix presents a world very like ours, but problematized by the battle between Free Magic and the Charter system created to utilize/control it. Enter the Abhorsen, who uses the Charter marks emblazoned in a set of bells to keep the dead down – a serious problem in the Old Kingdom. After the death of her father, Sabriel becomes the new Abhorsen, and struggles with a surly cat, a man who was a prince and then a wooden figurehead and is now a man again, and a seriously evil mummy.
Sabriel herself is a rational, intelligent girl who finds herself not only abruptly orphaned, but thrust into a position of power she was unprepared for, in the middle of a maelstrom. But she not only rises to the challenge, but faces each of them down with composure and courage. Much of Sabriel’s fighting is done with her mind – not only matching wits with an ancient evil overlord-type, but the Abhorsen can leave their body and journey into death, and so much of Sabriel’s quest is fulfilled by her spirit-self. She isn’t particularly martially gifted, nor extraordinarily beautiful, but her mind is like a steel trap. Here’s a heroine for the geeky girl – Sabriel outwits, outlasts, and outstubborns just about anything she comes across.
This is a classic book for the reader’s reader, and I would recommend it to middle grade and up. The series continues with Lirael and Abhorsen, both good books with a compelling storyline that builds on Sabriel’s. While Lirael is a character who favors book-learning as well, she lacks Sabriel’s chutzpah, at least initially, and can’t quite measure up to her predecessor. Nix has complied a book of short stories from this world, Tales from Beyond the Wall, with “The Creature in the Case” being the best of those.