"Touchstone had never seen or heard a shipwreck--now he knew the sound of a thousand sailors drowning, all at once, in a quiet sea."
-Sabriel, Garth Nix
Twist my arm, Mr. Nix.
For the most part, the trilogy is set in a place called The Old Kingdom, where magic lives strong and human machinery dies a miserable, useless death. On the other side of The Old Kingdom, south of the wall, is Ancelstierre, a country reminiscent of a 1940s-ish England, where the heroine of the first novel in the trilogy, Sabriel, has been attending boarding school for most of her childhood. She's not a normal child, though--she was raised by the Abhorsen, a man charged with the thankless, crucial task of making sure the dead stay dead. The Abhorsen uses a set of seven bells (each with their own particular power and purpose) to control the dead that he encounters along his journey, battling evil necromancers along the way. The first book begins with Sabriel venturing back into The Old Kingdom on a quest to rescue her father from the clutches of this evil. The second book focuses instead on a young woman named Lirael, who has been raised amongst the psychic Clayr despite an apparent lack of psychic tendencies. The third book picks up Lirael's story again with occasional appearances by Sabriel.
This series is rated as young-adult fantasy (classified as "Seventh Grade and up" and published by Harper Teen) but I can honestly say that it holds its appeal no matter how old you are. I think the main reason why this series is directed towards young adults is that the main characters are all going through that "Oh, crap, I'm done with school and now i have to have an actual life? " thing that many young readers can relate to. Sabriel's encounter with Touchstone midway through the first book is her first real brush with the possibility of sex, and most of the adult fantasy I've read features a lot more than the possibility. Other than that, though, I rate this series as being perfectly acceptable fantasy to all age groups above, let's say, thirteen. They're quick reads, despite being quite lengthy (my Lirael paperback is 705 pages!) but it never feels like Nix is toning down his diction to be appropriate to a younger audience and the gore is certainly uncensored.
"It was human, or had once been human, but now its arms were hanging threads of flesh, and its head was mostly bare skull, all deep eye hollows and shining teeth. It was unquestionably dead, and the reek of decomposition rolled off it, over the soft smell of the rain."
-Lirael, Garth Nix
Don't get me wrong, it's not like he's dropping people left and right, but there are a certain number of deaths that can be expected when one is battling great evil, and he seems to be fully aware of this. He's not cruel about it, but the Abhorsen series is one in which you can't assume that a character will make it to the end just because he or she is sympathetic.
The Bottom Line:
If you haven't read this series: What the heck are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?!