Garth Nix changed the face of dark fantasy (usually just horror with a prettier cover) with his instant hit "Sabriel." It provided fans with a unique type of magic, a well-crafted alternate world, and talking animals that were anything but cute. Without missing a step, "Lirael" follows in "Sabriel"'s footsteps, with the same dark blend of humor and horror.
Lirael is a daughter of the Clayr, but she won't be a full Clayr until she gains the Sight. On her fourteenth birthday, she is the oldest girl to not yet have gained the Sight. After contemplating suicide, Lirael is assigned to work in the library, and inadvertantly sets loose a hideous Free Magic creature: a Stilken that will call other Free Magic creatures and destroy the Clayr. Desperate to deal with her mistake, Lirael calls up the Disreputable Dog (somehow made both of Free and Charter Magic) and soon ends up finding out more about her past -- and her future.
Elsewhere, Sabriel's son Sameth is pursued by the Dead, and is almost killed in the process; the only thing he gets for his trouble is a threat from a mysterious necromancer. Sam is supposed to be the future Abhorsen, but the problem is that he's petrified by the things his mother handles easily. And he's helped loose Free Magic on a world increasingly torn by a mysterious masked necromancer...
Nix takes the rich world he created in "Sabriel" and makes it even richer. It's a bit like a melding of typical high fantasy with an early twentieth-century setting (phones, buses, cricket matches, electricity, guns). Old faves like Sabriel, Touchstone, and Mogget appear here (although Mogget's appearance is a bit brief), along with new and equally likable characters.
Some readers may not like Lirael as well as they liked the more self-assured, kick-butt Sabriel, but Sabriel knew who she was, where she was coming from, and knew what she needed to know. Lirael is only learning those things, which makes her a more vulnerable, confused heroine. She becomes stronger and more self-assured as she learns more about Charter magery and her background.
"Lirael" has the same balance of humor and horror as the first book. We have things like the bodies of refugees being turned into decayed Dead Hands, the clawed insecto-human Stilken, or just the aura of darkness around the Book of the Dead. But we also have funny things like Nick or the running joke about the Dog and food.
The Disreputable Dog is a lot like Mogget, in that she's more than she seems and a handy source of info, but not as quietly menacing as Mogget was. And Sam is endearingly unsure of himself, and is one of the few fantasy characters to be genuinely terrified of his "duties," not just apprehensive. His sister was the one character who fell flat; she seemed a little too "bossy princess."
The biggest problem with "Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr" is that it ends on a "to be continued" note. So be sure to have the concluding novel, "Abhorsen," ready while you read this book. Dark, funny, creepy, and immensely well-written.