THE UNDERTAKING OF HART AND MERCY by Megan Bannen.
Orbit Books. p/b. £8.99.
Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins.
Marshal Hart Ralston, a demigod, has another body to deliver. This one is going to Birdsall & Son, one of the few undertakers in town that accepts keyless bodies. More importantly, Birdsall & Son is home to Leonard, a very affectionate dog that Hart will enjoy spending time with while he is there, and less importantly, it is home to Leonard’s owner, Mercy Birdsall, the woman who hates Hart with undisguised passion. It is a feeling that is more than reciprocated.
Since her mother’s death and her father’s recent heart attack, Mercy is shouldering the family business in the absence of her brother and sister, neither of whom are remotely interested in the undertaking business. The work is exhausting, the business is in financial danger and their competitors growing in strength even as the number of drudges to put to rest increases in Eternity. If that wasn’t bad enough, who should be ringing the bell this morning but Marshal Hart-ache.
Hart has had three partners in four years, and the Chief, formerly his very great friend, tells him it is high time he had a new one. Bill is long gone, but the bitterness remains, and no one understands. Hart’s loss is still raw. First Bill, then his dog, and in desperation and loneliness. Hart puts pen to paper and shares his innermost pain and desires with a pen pal, a stranger he would call a friend, not really expecting that anyone would write back and change his monotonous existence.
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is a sweet, star-crossed lovers romance that follows the in-person hate-hate relationship of Hart and Mercy and the budding pen-pal relationship between Hart and his friend. It is set in a fantasy world where dead bodies can be raised again as drudges and have to be put down by the likes of Marshal Hart by destroying the appendix and sending them off to death. There is competition, conspiracy and supernatural elements, but above all, this is a romance.
Hart himself is endearing from the start. He is a practical yet gruff demigod plagued by not knowing whether he is mortal or immortal, scarred by the death of his former partner and craving connection. He has little patience, and the relationships between himself and Mercy, his boss, the mail service, and his new, naïve partner unfold wonderfully on the page. It is hard to compare this book to anything. It plays the loneliness and romantic longing of Cyrano de Bergerac against a danger-torn fantastical wild-west style backdrop, and it works superbly.