This was a warm blanket of a macabre fantasy Romance about life, death, and making yourself actually live your life that I devoured in a day and have spent nearly a week searching my mind for how to review. There are a couple things that have held up the writing, one that it’s a weird book that is both very straightforward in its description but the minute you scratch at its surface it gets quite difficult to nail down, and second that this is a Romance tied up with death, grief, and soul crushing loneliness but is also very funny.
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is by all counts a Fantasy Romance and finds ways to blend both genres in ways that help strengthen the other. The quick description is that this is an enemies to lovers riff on the classic Shop Around the Corner/ You’ve Got Mail storyline – two people who do not like each other end up writing to one another, although they don’t know that, and discovering that what they had interpreted as hate was actually something much closer to love. Of course, one of them pieces it together before the other, and then must work out what to do.
The fantastical comes in on the world Megan Bannen’s characters inhabit and the method in which their letters find each other. We have Hart who is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria and dealing with its undead problem, a common profession for demi-gods like him. It’s a dangerous job that Hart has been doing solo since his last partner became his boss which means he’s got plenty of time to contemplate his loneliness and isolation from the larger world around him. Mercy has been, through sheer force of will, single-handedly keeping her family’s funeral home business afloat. The world she lives in doesn’t have room for women undertakers even though its work and ritual that give her a deep sense of fulfillment, and with her younger brother finally admitting that he can’t and won’t take on the work she is left scrambling to find a way to keep her dream while everyone is telling her the other dreams she should have instead.
These two are thrown together by the mechanics of their world as the government has a policy that unidentified dead bodies be brought to certain undertakers, and Hart has plenty of those as he kills drudges (read: zombies) with his new apprentice/partner. He and Mercy have never gotten along, not from the first time they met, and after their latest exasperating run-in, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born as two people very much in need of a friend find one in the letters they send back and forth.
And then the plot really gets going. I loved the sections that were the letters between the unknowing Hart and Mercy, I really have grown to love epistolary novel mechanics. Once I got my feet under me – because Bannen just drops you in to her world and explains later as things become relevant – I loved the richly fleshed out world, with its placement seemingly out of time; gas lamps, hand crank transistor radios, romance novels, and bubble baths. It’s also a world of islands and much of the geography is aquatic, which surely threw me off for quite a while (in this book a dock means a dock, not the loading dock my terrestrial brain automatically filled in).
What really got me to round this book up was the way in which it became a treatise on loneliness and how we handle that loneliness in our lives. Hart is purposefully prickly, having chosen his isolation as a way to handle his grief and his fears. But it isn’t serving him, not anymore. Mercy is trapped in a place where no one in her life who loves her – she has a great family – really seems to fully know her desires or stop to listen to her. Partly because they have their own ideas, and partly because at some point she stopped fighting for her own voice. In their letters, and subsequent relationship, Hart and Mercy reckon with their own choices, and make small but decisive choices to let life back in. This book doubles down on the agonizing ordeal of being known as the engine for romance, because its only when they finally let the masks down in person as they had in their letters that they realize what the have been looking for might be right in front of them. But they do the work themselves. Mercy sorts out her family business issues and Hart deals with his own emotional labor. They inspire each other, they support each other, but they do their own work.
There’s so much more that this book interrogates and investigates as the problem of the ever-increasing drudges and the corporate funeral home chain that is trying to buy out Mercy’s business all come to a head. There’s a deep dive into the faith of this world, and how the characters in the ever-growing web of Hart and Mercy’s lives deal with the very real grief and fear in their lives. I haven’t even told you about the glorious side characters, from Hart’s apprentice Penrose Duckers to Mercy’s family, to the perfectly odd magical animals who are the mail service. There’s also just a baked in queerness to the world, which is always good in a book that features a non-queer relationship. I loved my time with this book, and I have a feeling I’ll be buying myself a copy of my own as I’ve had to return my library copy so that I can visit these characters whenever I like.
As a content warning, there is literal and metaphorical death throughout the story, from Hart’s job dealing with the drudges, Mercy’s as an undertaker, the religious traditions of the world Bannen created, and the mechanics of the plot. Before picking this up, make sure you are ready for it.