Opens with a prologue wherein a man has to save his newborn daughter from death -- and a necromancer. And then to the girl herself, about to graduate from school on the other side of the Wall, out of the Old Kingdom and where the magic is weaker (though strong enough . She is considering what to do after when a dark shadow appears -- carrying a sack. It came from her father. It brings the sword and the bells, all magical, he uses in his role as the Abhorsen, to combat necromancers and the Dead. He must have been in great danger.
She sets out to cross the Wall, and rescue him. Nothing more. Getting across the wall, she summons a guide with a paper boat and sets out to find the Abhorsen's House, where she learns much more.
It involves wind pipes that only the Dead can hear, an urgent need for Charter mages, a white cat with a red collar, the use of grave dirt against running water, the old royal city and its reservoir, funerary boats with figureheads, a man who foresees his death, a far-off government making foolish decisions, and much more.