The beauty of the romance genre can be found in its timeless narratives—countless stories that successfully manage to tug at our heartstrings (and sometimes run our emotions through the wringer) because of their promise of an ultimate happy resolution, even if the journey to the end never takes the same path twice. Thrust any combination of tropes, plot elements, and character types into the hands of ten different authors, and the journey to true love across the resulting books will be delightfully varied.
Along those lines, one could never accuse Megan Bannen’s adult debut The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy of being anything less than wholly unique, although you might recognize some subtle homages to rom-coms of yore, all wrapped up in an imagined setting that will hook you in from page one and keep you reading until the catharsis of its ending.
The premise is this: Mercy Birdsall is an undertaker in the land of Tanria. Technically, she’s only supposed to be taking the reins of her family’s business until her brother can step in and assume his rightful place as the head of Birdsall & Son, but between her father’s recent health scare and said brother’s reluctance to continue in the family tradition, she’s been keeping the lights on all by herself. Naturally, it’s when she’s the most rundown that she just has to cross paths with her personal nemesis, Hart Ralston, a marshal who finds himself at the undertaker’s place more often than not thanks to the bodies he’s responsible for dropping off there.
When it comes to Hart and Mercy’s relationship, they’ve never gotten along, with their conversations taking the most barbed routes possible: he calls her Merciless, and she refers to him as Hart-ache. It all goes back to the day they first met, when Hart was having a Bad Day and behaved even worse as a result, and Mercy matched his (negative) energy without missing a beat. But while they’ve always been at each other’s throats face-to-face, circumstances arise wherein Hart decides to pen a letter anonymously to a “Friend” and mail it off without an address attached… and it winds up in Mercy’s possession.
Those already familiar with the conceit of two people unexpectedly falling in love through correspondence will no doubt catch the book’s tribute to You’ve Got Mail, but there’s a reason these romantic themes have been both beloved and readily revisited over the years. Who can resist the notion of a character who can never manage to say the right thing to someone in person learning to be truly vulnerable and bare their heart on a piece of paper?
When Hart and Mercy are writing to one another, the words flow so easily that arranging a meeting to learn each other’s true identities is a foregone conclusion—but the difference between knowing you should tell someone the truth and actually confessing it proves to be one of the book’s most absorbing emotional arcs. (Undertaking also thankfully avoids the professional conflict element that You’ve Got Mail falls prey to by placing Hart in a different field from Mercy, relegating the storyline of a superior competitor trying to elbow Birdsall & Son out of business to a minor character instead.)
All of this happens within the fore of a compelling and inventive world, and Tanria exists as a place equal parts founded in contemporary reality and fantasy realm. Rather than spend an exorbitant length of time on the background information of her setting, Bannen immerses us there straight away, with details slowly parsed out within the first several chapters. Expect some initial confusion, but what proved delightfully surprising for me was how seamless the transition was between adjusting to this environment and having a fully developed understanding, which only led to more frantic page turning in order to discover what would happen next.
The book’s more fantastical details—such as the fact that talking, anthropomorphized animals are responsible for delivering the mail—are merged with elements that make its world feel not all far off from our own. The business of undertaking is much the same as it’s always been, only the aforementioned bodies that Hart is dropping off to Mercy are actually zombies (or “drudges,” as they’re called here), a result of lost souls who are searching for new bodies to possess when they can’t travel to the afterlife. Morbid an element as that may seem, it’s not a source of significant horror, but a vehicle through which the story explores some of its biggest and most important themes, and the book remains whimsical enough throughout that it keeps the story from descending into too-bleak territory. Given that Undertaking also teases the foundations of a greater mythology, with Old and New Gods alike having partly shaped Tanria into what it is by the time we encounter it, I couldn’t help but think that Bannen has only just scratched the surface of the stories that can be told; sequel potential abounds here.
The novel’s greatest strength is found in the relationship at its center. Hart and Mercy have an undeniable connection from the moment they start sharing the text together, and whether they’re sniping or unconsciously admiring each other’s attributes, their building tension is heading in a divinely inevitable direction. More than physical chemistry (although even that is exquisite, both teased and fully realized), the most heartwrenching revelation comes from understanding that these two people are quite lonely, and even though they aren’t initially aware of their true romantic potential, their souls figure it out for them first, reaching across the yawning chasm of misunderstanding that separates them and bringing them together to forge a fulfilled whole.
With The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, Bannen has crafted a fantasy romance that should be on everyone’s radar—a story about love, about loss, and yes, about death, but ultimately about how important it is to live, especially when you find the one person you want to spend that life with most.
Carly Lane is an Atlanta-based writer who considers herself a lifelong Star Wars fan, newbie Trekker, diehard romance reader, nascent horror lover, and occasional live-tweeter. She is the senior TV editor at Collider, a former contributing editor for SYFY FANGRRLS, and has also written for Vulture, the Boston Globe, Nerdist, Teen Vogue, Den of Geek, The Toast, and elsewhere around the Internet.