THE UNDERTAKING OF HART AND MERCY by Megan Bannen (BOOK REVIEW)
“Mercy gaped at the inexplicable pouring out of a heart that she held in her hand, from a person as real and substantial as the paper on which it had been written, but as fragile and easily torn, too. Who had sent it?”
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen has single-handedly turned this epic fantasy/grimdark reader into a fan of cosy adult fantasy Rom-Coms. I’ve never really been fond of romance in my fantasy books, always preferring it to be in the background, a subplot to cut through the bleakness of whatever dark world I was entering. Yet lately, with the real world setting itself on fire, I was looking for something more fun, light-hearted and charming to escape into and let me tell you now, this was perfect.
Set on the island of Bushong lies Tanria, a place of wonder, of strangeness, of old gods and new, a place filled with death. There are those whose task it is to keep the dangers which reside within Tanria from getting out and endangering those who live on the outskirts. Hart is one of them. As a marshal, Hart faces the strange wilds of Tanria on a daily basis, his job is to kill drudge, zombie-like creatures who roam around always on the lookout for new human hosts to infect. In Eternity, Mercy Birdsall runs herself ragged taking care of Birdsall and Son Undertakers after her father’s health demands that he rest. Whenever Hart has a new dead body to dispose of, he takes them to Birdsall and Son, much to the dismay of Mercy who cannot stand Hart and his insufferable ways. The feeling is mutual as Hart finds Mercy just as irritating. Yet out of sheer loneliness Hart begins anonymously writing letters in the hopes that someone, anyone, might reply. Someone does. Unbeknownst to both of them Hart and Mercy begin baring their souls to one another through a series of letters and find they both have more in common than they think.
I adored the way Hart and Mercy felt like such real people despite them being in the backdrop of such a highly fantastical world. Through Mercy’s character Bannen reflects on day to day family drama, with particular attention paid to Mercy’s father and his failing health. Having suffered a heart attack and now losing his memory, the pressure to care for her father (he really doesn’t want to give up those sweet treats!), the business and her siblings—though she’s always taken care of them—builds upon Mercy. Bannen offers wonderful slices of family life; those awkward meal time conversations where discussions turn to talks of marriage, children, careers and the big old future. We see a father desperately wanting his daughter to settle down, a brother desperate to shirk his responsibilities and a sister holding back a secret. There are moments of tension and heated words are thrown at one another, but underneath it all their love always surfaces. It’s just that Mercy needs someone to listen to her problems, her fears and her desires.
That someone just happens to be Hart Ralston. An overwhelming sense of loneliness follows Hart wherever he goes, he hasn’t moved on from the loss of his mother, his absent father, his work partner and his dog. Hart may be a bit of a dick to begin with but throughout the course of the novel we see that he’s actually the sweetest of souls. As Hart starts to reconnect his friendship with his boss and grows fond of Duckers, his apprentice partner, we see Hart has a whole lot of heart deep within him. If only he could show that to Mercy’s face! I particularly loved the contrast between Hart’s inner thoughts, his unwanted lust for Mercy, the way his eyes linger on her body even when on the outside he ‘loathes’ her. They are just two people who truly got off on the wrong foot.
“I wonder, would either of us bother to scratch the surface if we knew each other in person? Or would we pass each other on the street and never bother to look?”
I love the way Bannen’s dialogue between the characters were always breezy, quick-witted and full of jibes and sarcasm. I laughed so much at the way Mercy and Hart call each other Merciless and Hart-ache! Duckers quickly became one of my favourite side characters too, his bewilderment when first seeing Tanria and his banter with Hart was absolutely priceless. Not to mention his growing romance with Mercy’s brother Zeddie was so damn adorable.
Though romance plays a key role throughout, for me the wonderfully inventive and quirky worldbuilding was exceptionally dazzling. The drudge might be the darker creatures found in Tanria, but the secrets behind their origins built into a fascinating narrative, in fact I loved discovering the history of Tanria itself and the religion surrounding it. Bannen included concepts such as birth keys, ID keys, hand-carved boats to carry the dead out into the Salt Sea which was beautiful, but my absolute favourite, were the nimkilim – a mail delivery service by talking animals. Just wait until you meet Horatio, the owl, and Bassareus, the rabbit!
An aspect of the novel which resonated with me was the way Hart and Mercy could express themselves openly through letters, without revealing their identity, far more than they ever could face to face. Words came far easier from the end of a pen for both characters than they ever did from the mouth. Which is the same for me, I can always better express myself through written words than I can verbally. Yet Bannen shows us that it is debatable how much both characters really get to know each other through letters alone. Sure, through these letters Hart and Mercy express their hidden feelings and vulnerabilities, but it also allows them to hold back details too. Therefore can you ever truly know a person you’ve never met?
In a time when the need for cosy, uplifting and heartwarming fantasy tales are on the rise, Bannen’s book certainly ticks off all those boxes. The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is a charming story of two lonely people, who by fate, find each other through the magic of words.
“While I am not alone, per se, there
are times when I feel like I’m at a party, standing against the wall when I’d rather be dancing. Everyone else is cutting a rug,
completely unaware that I’m there.”
ARC provided by Nazia at Orbit Book UK in exchange for an honest review. All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is out 25th August in the UK, but you can preorder a copy HERE