The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, Megan Bannen’s adult debut, is one of the best fantasy romance novels I’ve ever read. From now on, with all other fantasy novels, I fear I will compare them to the coziness of the writing, delightfulness of the romance, and brilliant storytelling that’s on display in this exemplary novel.
Grumpy Demigod meets sunshine Undertaker
Set in a western-inspired world, the titular Hart is a marshal who protects the world from drudges (zombies, basically) and the titular Mercy is the undertaker who puts the bodies of those drudges to rest. Hart is a grumpy, erudite demigod but his soft spot for dogs keeps bringing him back to the Birdsall and Son Undertakers, where sunny over-worked Mercy is trying to keep the family business afloat. Though they’re at each other’s throats more often than not, the two have more in common than they could possibly know, which leads a letter from lonely Hart, addressed only to “A Friend,” to reach the lonely Mercy.
Unaware of the other’s true identity, they strike up a friendly correspondence that becomes a lifeline for them both. While the drudges get closer and closer to the border between Tanria and the rest of the border towns and Hart’s patrols get more dangerous, Mercy struggles to find purpose outside of the business she might lose.
Hopeful Hate-to-Love with exquisite banter
Reminiscent of You’ve Got Mail, and with fantastic banter and tension, there’s so much to delight in this romance. Hart and Mercy’s loneliness is palpable but as they write back and forth over the course of the book, they’re able to share secrets and worries that neither are able to share in real life. Hart becomes less lonely and Mercy more confident and the hope that grows between them is just as tenable as the earlier loneliness and loss, even if they’re unaware of their pen pal’s identity
In fact, this book is definitely one of the most hopeful I’ve read. There’s hope in surviving after grief, forging your own path despite familial and societal expectation, and not being afraid to confront your assumptions (especially about people you might have first misjudged). There’s also found family (there’s plenty of this), scrumptious food, and dogs.
The world of Tanria and the border towns that Hart patrols was a bit hard to get into at first, but once I did, I was fascinated. I read that the idea of a soul being in the appendix (Hart has to stab the drudges there to kill them) came because the author was captivated by the idea of Hart wearing a rapier. The owl and rabbit mail carriers, among those that the old gods left behind, and the equimaris, were among my favorite clever bits of world-building.
I often comment in my reviews of my favorite book about side characters. Because I usually realize that the difference between me liking and loving a book is if I really love every character, including auxiliary characters who don’t steer the story. And in The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, the side characters are perfection. I love the interactions between Hart and his trainee and Mercy and her family. The budding relationship between Duckers (the names in this book are really wonderful) and Mercy’s brother, Zeddie added another layer of sweetness.
It’s a great book when almost everyone gets their happy endings, even when there are drudges threatening their town and no way to stop them without an unacceptable sacrifice. But I won’t get into spoilers–just know that this book will have you laughing and grinning one moment and grabbing for the nearest soft object to wipe at your eyes in the next. Though there were serious moments, the book was lighter for the love that exists between the characters and those moments really shone through.
If you’re looking for a comfort read this, I can think of no recent release better than The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy. It is funny, whimsical, serious, and riveting. The world-building didn’t detract from the romance nor did it overshadow it. Megan Bannen blends both genres–fantasy and romance–seamlessly into one of the best novels I’ve read all year. I want everyone to read this book and then I want more of Hart and Mercy because I’m not ready to give up these characters yet.
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen was released on August 23, 2022.