Release date: 23 August 2022
Narrators: Michael Gallagher and Rachanee Lumayno
Book boxes: FairyLoot July 2022 Adult
Synopsis: Hart Ralston is a demigod and a marshal, tasked with patrolling the wasteland of Tanria. The realm the exiled old gods once called home is now a forsaken place where humans with no better options or no better sense come seeking adventure or spoils, but more often end up as drudges: reanimated corpses inhabited by the souls of those who’ve died in Tanria before. Hart tells himself that his job is simple: neutralize the drudges with a quick zap to the appendix and deliver them back to polite society at the nearest undertaker’s, leaving the whys and hows of the drudge problem for men without the complexities of a god in their family tree. But working alone, Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder exactly those questions he’d most like to avoid.
Too much time alone is the opposite of Mercy Birdsall’s problem. Since her father’s decline, she’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son undertakers afloat in small-town Eternity—despite definitely not being a son, and in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart Ralston, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. The work’s not the problem—Mercy’s good at it, better than any other Birdsall—but keeping all her family’s plates spinning singlehandedly, forever, isn’t how Mercy envisioned her future.
After yet another run-in with the sharp-tongued Mercy, Hart considers she might have a point about his utter loneliness being a bit of a liability. In a moment of sentimentality, he pens a letter addressed simply to “A Friend,” and entrusts it to a nimkilim, an anthropomorphic animal messenger with an uncanny connection to the gods, (and in Hart’s case, a bit of a drinking problem). Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.
If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most–Mercy. As the two unlikely pen pals grow closer, the truth about Hart’s parentage and the nature of the drudges creeps in. And suddenly their old animosity seems so small in comparison to what they might be able to do: end the drudges forever. But at what cost?
I’ve never read one of Bannen’s books before, though I started The Bird and the Blade and have not yet finished it. TBatB has lyrical writing and a complicated plot structure, even for a YA. The premise of Bannen’s The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy sounds fun—with two enemies mistakenly falling in love with each other anonymously while hating one another to each other’s face—even though it is highly derivative and formulaic. It’s certainly not as lyrical as the Bannen book I’ve started reading, but I did love the chemistry between Hart and Mercy in this one. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook some of the other failings of the overall narrative experience that take away from the romance.
Mercy is a stout, plus-sized heroine with height and bulk to rival that of any man. She’s overly tall for many men’s tastes and hauls the dead bodies of her father’s undertaking business like they weigh next to nothing. Of course, this kind of woman would intimidate any man (according to the implications of the story), and Mercy has all but given up on romance and focuses instead on keeping her family business afloat. Enter Hart: our wonderful, tall-glass-of-water demigod. He touts a 6’9” stature and surliness and snark to go with it. Of course, while he seems like the perfect man for Mercy, their first encounter happens when they’re both having the worst days and their crankiness and nasty comments drive a wedge between each other that seems irrevocable—until Hart’s loneliness overcomes him one night, and he writes an anonymous letter to anyone who could be “a friend.” Who else would the letter have gone to but Mercy?
Predictably, and according to the many other epistolary romances before it, such as You’ve Got Mail and all of the stories before that, the two fall in love with each other over some paper and ink. Without the walls the two threw up between one another, Mercy and Hart get to know one another intimately as strangers, which in turn helps their romance blossom in the real world, once they discover each other, of course.
Speaking of in the real world, I did truly love the world building in this narrative—to a degree. The premise of alternate realms and the monsters that lurk there always has a certain appeal for me. Hart, who happens to be perfectly suited to the job, takes up the task daily of taking care of the monsters and the reanimated bodies they create, which he disposes of at different undertaking establishments, including Mercy’s. There are also talking animals who are mythical beings relegated to mail delivery and other mundane tasks, which they mostly are not happy about, and the discontent comes out in hilarious dialogue. The drawbacks to the world building for me come with the negative references to the old gods and the Unknown God, which I interpret as commentary on actual beliefs and cultural systems. I like fantasy without intrusion from the real life, and this was a constant jolt that brought me out of the book world regularly. I also feel it is a bit disrespectful.
Additionally, I was immediately put off by the setup at the beginning. It started with adult-aged characters who act like they’re in a YA novel and use lots of foul language. Sure, that could sound prudish on my part, but I feel it was a bit overdone. Adult books aren’t adult just because the characters use profanity all over the place. The amount here seemed excessive to me. It honestly felt a bit like a Disney channel star trying to establish him- or herself as an adult actor by overcompensating with seedy behavior instead of just behaving with maturity and decorum. Add that to the not-so-sly intrusive political and social commentary, and I have a recipe for a story that becomes an unpleasant experience for me.
3/5 stars. While the chemistry between the two main characters was amazing, and I loved their banter and interactions with one another, this one fell flat for me in too many other places.
Narration: 4/5. The voices were nice and didn’t grate; however, I wish there were more differentiation among the character voices.
My thanks to Orbit Books and Hachette via libro.fm for the ALC, for which I willingly give my own, honest opinion.
*I also own the FairyLoot copy of this book, which is why I’m posting the review on my blog earlier than the requested 2-week prior mark.*