Sabriel was pubished to great acclaim in Australia in 1995: despite that acclaim, and the awards it won, it didn't make it to UK publication for another five years. And I've owned a copy for several years, and only just got around to reading it.
The novel (marketed now as YA, but apparently aimed at a general adult market) opens with a glimpse of life in the Old Kingdom, a land of magic and walking Dead: the necromancer Abhorsen and his baby daughter join a caravan of travellers. Then the action cuts to Wyverly College, where Sabriel -- now an assured sixth-former -- is studying. This land, Ancelstierre, is far closer to our own world, though somewhat less advanced: the college is lit by electricity, private cars are just becoming a reality, and the troops stationed along the Wall, guarding against incursions from the Old Kingdom, have machine guns and tanks. Those don't always work, along the Wall, though: they wear mail and carry swords in case of magical attack.
Sabriel enters the Old Kingdom on a mission to find her father: instead, she finds his house, and a white cat named Moggett which is actually a fearsome creature, magically bound to serve. Sabriel skis, flies, sails and sprints from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, learning more about the nine gates of death, and the Dead who cross back over into life, and an ancient, evil enemy of royal blood.
Nix's writing is plain and occasionally plodding -- I wasn't really carried away by his descriptions -- but I found Sabriel a surprisingly enjoyable read. It's well-paced (though the regularity of the cliffhangers begins to pall) and the people that Sabriel encounters are interesting individuals rather than stereotypes (though occasionally theey're archetypes). Sabriel herself does her growing-up very quietly, and her transition from proper schoolgirl (albeit one given to resurrecting roadkill) to sword-wielding necromancer seemed unnaturally smooth and painless. Perhaps because the novel's told from her point of view, she's not an especially engaging character, though her ability to get on with the task at hand (and occasionally to succumb to impetuousity) is a nice change from dithery Romantic heroines.
As soon as I'd finished the book, I ordered the two sequels, Lirael and Abhorsen: as good a gauge as any of my opinion of this volume!