Page count: 453 pages
Rating: 5 stars
CBR Passport Challenge: New to Me author
In a world very unlike our own, most people live on islands and when people die, they are not buried in coffins, but rather placed in boats and sent out to sea (like when we bury someone in the ground) or the boats are cremated. So undertakers don't just need to know the rituals of cleaning and treating a body, there are rituals to follow and sacred words to be spoken - but they need to be able to work wood and construct a variety of different boats for the deceased. Additionally, most people have a key around their necks from birth until death, and once they die - the keys of their departed loved ones are placed on a family altar and revered or at least kept safe in the keeping of their families.
There is also an enclosed wilderness called Tanria, where once the Old Gods were imprisoned and now contain enough precious resources that people still risk their lives to go there. Marshalls have to patrol the area because drudges, zombie-like creatures inhabited by the souls of those who have previously died in Tanria attack new people when the corpse-shell they're inhabiting is too rotted to be of use are a danger to anyone foolish enough to venture into the area. Being a Marshall is a demanding and dangerous job, but Hart Ralston has been doing it alone for a long time and fools himself that he's happy in his solitude. He's very annoyed when his supervisor forces him to take on an apprentice, but the enthusiastic young man soon grows on him, despite Hart's attempts to stay impersonal and distant.
There are very few people of note in Hart's life. He's a demi-god, his father was one of the many New Gods who once roamed the world, although Hart has never discovered exactly what god fathered him (his Mum claimed he was called Jeff). One of the gifts he was granted is the ability to actually see the souls of the departed. Very useful when killing drudges, as he can ensure the soul has definitely left the body. Now, with both his mother and his de-facto father figure, the Marshall who trained Hart from he was sixteen, dead, Hart pretty much only has his former partner, now his supervisor and her wife as friends and due to a heated disagreement some years before, he doesn't really feel like he can rely on his supervisor either.
Hart also has a nemesis, a person who riles him up like no other. Mercy Birdsall, the woman who seems to be single-handedly running the struggling undertaking business of "Birdsall and Sons" after her father had a heart attack the year before (the son in question seems a lot more interested in cooking and baking than taking care of dead bodies) for some reason brings out the worst in him, every time. Every time Hart has to deliver a body to her business (an occurrence happening a lot more often since the drudge problem in Tanria seems to be worsening), they snipe at each other and trade vicious insults.
One evening, after a particularly bad argument with Mercy, Hart starts writing a letter, pouring out some of his sadness and loneliness to an anonymous "friend". He feels better after confessing some of his emotions and posts the letter, but never expects a reply, as it's not actually addressed to anyone in particular. So imagine his surprise when about a week later, he receives a reply from "a friend", who also seems to be lonely and all too happy to share their similar feelings of loneliness. Now it doesn't take a genius to realise who the mystery correspondent is, but it takes months of exchanging letters and becoming closer and fond of one another before Hart discovers that his anonymous pen pal is none other than Mercy Birdsall, and of course, he's been in love with her for years already (his partner finds the whole situation both hilarious and tragic). Of course, Hart refuses to tell Mercy that he is her "friend" in return, which only gets more complicated once they leave their animosity behind and start falling for each other for real.
This was such a strange book. The world-building is very unusual, the characters are all rich and interesting, even fairly minor supporting ones who you don't really need to suspect have complex inner lives. In parts, it's sweet and romantic, in other parts it's gory and rather terrifying. Anyone who feels squeamish about corpses should probably give this book a miss. It has the You've Got Mail thing of two feuding enemies falling for one another over time in anonymous correspondence, and unfortunately that section of the plot where one of them has discovered the identity of the other, but for REASONS can't bring themselves to confess the truth, and the tension just keeps building and you know the reveal is going to be awful and your beloved characters are going to suffer (interestingly, in the movie You've Got Mail, I don't care one jot if the protagonists suffer because I'm so disgusted with them both committing emotional adultery towards their current partners).
This book also doesn't underestimate the intelligence of its readers. You are not given a heavy info dump in the early chapters, giving you all the facts you need to understand how the world works, how the religion factors in, why people act the way they do and so forth. The relevant information is revealed when the reader needs it and they have to piece together the little snippets of knowledge to make up a bigger whole as the story progresses. As I've tried to explain in the plot summary, without spoiling too much, the world building and overall plot of the book is rather complex. There's a lot more to the story than two enemies finding each other through anonymous letters. What exactly is Tanria? Why are people so keen to keep going there, even though they might very likely be killed by drudges? How are the drudges possessed by the souls of the dead, and why are there suddenly so many more drudges appearing? Where are all these extra corpses in Tanria coming from? What's the story of the Old and the New Gods? How come some people are demi-gods and how are they different from the rest of the population? Why do Hart and Mercy hate each other so much? Why was Hart's unaddressed letter sent to Mercy in the first place?
The characters of the story, are as I mentioned, all interesting and fully fleshed out, even when they only appear in a few scenes. Mercy's family members are chaotic and lovely, and it's not cruelty or neglect that make them oblivious to her struggles at keeping the undertaking business from going under. Hart starts the book as an ornery and rather selfish person, but let's just say his heart grows a bunch of sizes after he is forced to first take on a bubbly apprentice and grows very fond of him, and then has to come to terms with his feelings for Mercy and their troubled past together. He also has to do a lot of reflecting on his relationship both with his dead partner who trained him and acted as the only father he ever knew, and the now strained relationship with his ex-partner and see if fences can be mended, despite the harsh words that were exchanged years ago. Then there's the whole issue of his real father. Does being a demigod mean that Hart is immortal (a lot of demi-gods aren't)? He certainly seems to heal very quickly from even really serious injuries.
This book may not be for everyone, but for me, it was pretty much perfection. It offered up something different from your general paranormal fantasy (this one doesn't really fit into 'urban' fantasy, as any of the settlements in this world are rather small and separate from the others), it had a fun premise, great characters, it made me laugh, cringe and towards the end, almost ugly-cry. Books that make me feel that many things deserve five stars. As far as I can tell, this is the first non-YA novel that Megan Bannen has written. I'm going to have to seek out her two YA books now, to see if they're as creative and well-written as this one. I also hope that there may be more books coming about Hart and Mercy, since Goodreads lists this as the first in a series. I would love to read more from this world and about these lovely people.
Judging a book by its cover: I'm not sure why the cover design and colour choices made me think this was a YA novel, but it really did. I love teal, so any book in that colour is likely to catch my eye, and the bright pink (which also seems to be on the spine) brings a bright splash to the centre of the cover. I love the contrast between the golden lines and flowers, and the naked, skeletal bones.