Arts book review

Corpses, bad name-based puns, and 100 pages too many: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

This book is 415 pages long, and for what?

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
August 23, 2022


In my opinion, romance is the hardest genre of writing to do successfully. My metric of success is highly scientific: does the storyteller convince me specifically that these two made-up people connect on a level we could call love? A lot of times, the answer is ‘no’: the banter is awkward and annoying, or worse, there’s no banter at all; the characters are as bland as the tofu served in McCormick dining and together they somehow have even less substance, or maybe the trajectory of their romance is so contrived that I check out before we even get to the third act miscommunication. Basically, a lot of things can go wrong in a love story. 

Unfortunately, a lot goes wrong in The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen. The Undertaking is a fantasy romance set in Bushong, a province — a city? It’s unclear to me, and that’s one of the problems with this book. It’s set in the Federated Islands of Cadmus, a world that feels very similar to our own, except with less technology and more paganism. One of the main characters, Hart Ralston, is a demigod patrolman who patrols Tanria, a magical territory within Bushong from which dangerous creatures sometimes escape. These creatures — drudges — are corpses infected by lost souls who attack living people. 

The other main character, and Hart’s romantic interest, is Mercy Birdsall, a female undertaker who is very tall (which we’re reminded of a lot). She’s also trying to keep her family business afloat, Birdsall & Son, an undertaking business on the edge of Tanria, which processes dead bodies. The two often see each other due to their lines of work, and they hate each other because Hart was rude the first time they met years ago and Mercy responded in kind. 

One day, Hart gets super lonely and sends a desperate unaddressed letter. Mercy receives it, and then they become anonymous penpals. A spicy premise. 

My major issues with this book were world-building and the development of atmosphere, or the lack thereof. After 415 pages immersed in this world, I still have barely any idea what anything looks like. Bannen fails to describe most things, from side characters to creatures to landscapes, adequately or at all. I found myself flipping back and forth often to try to figure out what certain things were. For example, Hart rides this animal called an equimaris, which is supposed to be some kind of watery horse, yet I don’t know whether this is a horse with special nautical hair or an actual seahorse. I have barely any idea how big Tanria is or what Mercy’s place of work looks like or anything about the world outside of Tanria and its bordering towns. The descriptions that Bannen offers, if she does offer any, are given once and only once, because God forbid she come up with another way to describe the same thing.

The way Bannen offers world-building information is also pretty transparent, and while it’s not the most awkward world development I’ve ever seen, it’s also not seamless. Giant chunks of information are presented at once, such as when Hart teaches his new apprentice about Tanria, or sometimes there are just straight paragraphs of mythology, and not a lot of it stuck in my head. 

This world also has its own religious system, one that seems to be loosely inspired by Greek mythology: there are Old Gods and New Gods, each with their own domains, and these gods are all related to one another. But the names and figures of this mythological system are not mentioned often enough outside of swearing and brief prayers or differentiated enough from one another to create any kind of meaningful atmosphere. These gods don’t actually seem to have that much of a hold over the people in the story, despite what the author seems to be trying to get across. The characters did not feel like characters living in a world where gods were alive and well — they felt like characters from a small town in America. 

And that was one of the weirdest things about this book for me. Despite the fantastical setting, this felt very much like a small-town romance, complete with the whole struggling-family-business trope going on with Mercy’s family (which consists of herself, her ailing father, younger brother, and brother and sister-in-law). This isn’t necessarily an issue per se, but the adherence to the small-town romance tone really slowed down the pace for me in the beginning.

And wow, the plot really dragged for the first 300 pages. In this part, we just get a lot of Mercy and Hart griping about their lives, both internally as they go about their world and through the letters they send to each other. The letters themselves came across as a little pretentious, and I didn’t think they really sounded like either of the characters. It was hard to get invested in the letters, yet those were the only connections between Mercy and Hart until nearly 200 pages in. Given that this is a romance novel, that’s a pretty big problem. When they do get together, it’s after a near-death situation. Near-death situations trigger the most significant developments in their relationship throughout the book, which makes their whole dynamic feel very inorganic. They also have this weird thing of calling each other puns based on their names — for example, “Merciless” and “Hart-ache” at the beginning when they hate each other — which is maybe supposed to be cute and banter-y but mostly just strikes me as odd. 

Structurally, Mercy and Hart’s relationship mostly follows the stereotypical romance plot points: initial meeting, getting together, honeymoon phase, third act miscommunication or conflict, separation, then reunification, and a happy ending. And I’m not upset by that — those plot points exist for a reason and they can still be executed well. But once again there were pacing issues for me. While the build-up to Mercy and Hart getting together was super slow, the honeymoon phase felt way too fast. I had a hard time believing that these two people who had supposedly been on acrimonious terms for years could suddenly just be all over each other, when (mild spoiler alert) Mercy doesn’t even know that Hart is her pen pal when they get together. The third-act miscommunication was also very predictable and it failed to really trigger the kind of angst in me that this plot point usually should.

The secondary plot about a sudden dangerous increase in drudges (those possessed corpses that attack people) was also unsatisfying. The villain is cartoonish and pretty obvious, and I predicted the outcome at least 100 pages before it was explicitly resolved in the text. This subplot clearly took the second stage to the romance, which is fine since this is a romance first and a fantasy second, but there was so little effort to create some kind of meaningful, thought-provoking conflict for the characters. And ultimately, a plot without meaningful struggle for its characters leads to uninteresting characters.

Mercy’s and Hart’s character concepts seemed very promising in the blurb, but the execution of these characters was uninspired, and they were both stereotypical romance leads. Mercy is a tall girl who really wants a man who matches her height. She’s also super quirky because she likes books and pastries (or something like that). She actually doesn’t even think much about undertaking or the process of dealing with dead bodies at all outside of when she’s doing her job, which is such a lost opportunity for a cool interest that is not often found in a romantic lead. She’s voluptuous and Bannen never calls her “plain,” which are refreshing choices in a landscape full of stick-thin female romance leads who are mysteriously unaware of their physical appeal. But beyond that, Bannen doesn’t really take this character into any really interesting territory.

The same can be said for Hart. He’s a demigod who doesn’t know his godly parentage, and somehow this is barely talked about until the last quarter of the book. Being partly god is a really thematically rich concept and Bannen barely touches it. I will say that he’s much more emotionally repressed and angsty than Mercy, which is always very fun to see in a character. But once again, Bannen doesn’t go as crazy with the repression as she could. Lastly, Hart works as a marshal, which is basically a cowboy/cop figure in this world. I’m just not going to get too into that. 

Other character development choices irked me. For one, we don’t see enough of either person’s background or memories. There are very few flashbacks or prolonged scenes of active recall of Mercy’s or Hart’s pasts, and this just means that we don’t see either of them fully as characters. Ultimately, I was primarily irritated that these characters weren’t made more extraordinary, with more problems — we’re literally in a fantasy world! Anything is possible! And somehow, these characters just tread the same emotional and psychological territory that you might find on The Disney Channel. Finally, one minor nitpick was Mercy’s family — there were just too many characters, and I didn’t particularly care for any of them or the conflicts introduced among them. The Birdsalls are very much the Big Happy Family where misunderstandings occur, but ultimately there are no serious relationship problems between any of them, and it’s just such a boring choice. 

Despite the issues I had with the book on all these levels, the writing style itself was pretty competent. Sentences did not feel clunky or misplaced. That said, the writing also wasn’t very striking or notable. I only had one moment where I thought, “Wow, this is actually an interesting sentence or concept.” When Mercy and Hart wake up after having sex for the first time and Hart is late for work, Bannen writes that Hart “laughed with a self-deprecation that Mercy could eat with a spoon.” I like that sentence, and that sentence only, in this book. Elsewhere, I often felt that the emotions of each character were overexplained. The narration is quick to identify exactly what each character is feeling explicitly before any attempt to show us. There’s also no creativity in varying the syntax to create different moods.

Ultimately, my verdict is that no romance novel needs to be more than 400 pages and this book is no exception to the rule. The Undertaking’s fantasy aspects aren’t developed enough to justify the page count here. Beyond that, this book just felt really stale. Nothing was very exciting. The author executed what she promised in the safest way possible and brought nothing else to the table. It’s quite a disappointment given the interesting ideas introduced in the blurb and the first few chapters. 

I guess if I want to satisfy my romance cravings, I’ll have to rewatch the second season of Fleabag, where the protagonist has recently recovered from a period of high libido and falls in love with a Catholic priest…