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.
Full review here.