Book Review : The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

I received this book for free from NetGalley, Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The Undertaking of Hart and MercyThe Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Published by Orbit Books on August 23rd, 2022
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 453
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Source: NetGalley, Orbit Books

Hart Ralston is a demigod and a marshal, tasked with patrolling the wasteland of Tanria. The realm the exiled old gods once called home is now a forsaken place where humans with no better options or no better sense come seeking adventure or spoils, but more often end up as drudges: reanimated corpses inhabited by the souls of those who’ve died in Tanria before. Hart tells himself that his job is simple: neutralize the drudges with a quick zap to the appendix and deliver them back to polite society at the nearest undertaker’s, leaving the whys and hows of the drudge problem for men without the complexities of a god in their family tree. But working alone, Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder exactly those questions he’d most like to avoid.
Too much time alone is the opposite of Mercy Birdsall’s problem. Since her father’s decline, she’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son undertakers afloat in small-town Eternity—despite definitely not being a son, and in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart Ralston, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. The work’s not the problem—Mercy’s good at it, better than any other Birdsall—but keeping all her family’s plates spinning singlehandedly, forever, isn’t how Mercy envisioned her future.
After yet another run-in with the sharp-tongued Mercy, Hart considers she might have a point about his utter loneliness being a bit of a liability. In a moment of sentimentality, he pens a letter addressed simply to “A Friend,” and entrusts it to a nimkilim, an anthropomorphic animal messenger with an uncanny connection to the gods, (and in Hart’s case, a bit of a drinking problem). Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.
If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most–Mercy. As the two unlikely pen pals grow closer, the truth about Hart’s parentage and the nature of the drudges creeps in. And suddenly their old animosity seems so small in comparison to what they might be able to do: end the drudges forever. But at what cost?

The Undertaking Of Hart and Mercy is a retelling of You’ve Got Mail, the quintessential 90s romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. There’s just one teensy difference: zombies. Yes, you read that right. The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is truly a unique experience with its fantasy world, brand of humor, and romance, and I both laughed and cried while reading it. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t quite manage to pull off everything it sets out to accomplish. 


First of all, the romance, which was the main reason I chose to read this book, is cute, but not the most well executed. The first time the male and female leads meet, we read from the male perspective, and though he’s being nasty to Mercy, he’s admiring her breasts, and lamenting how unfair it is that this shrew of a woman is so attractive. Now this may be a realistic portrayal of a man and his inner thoughts, but if so, it was a little too realistic for me. I like some fantasy with my romance novels and I like when the male leads at least treat women with some respect while admiring them.  


“‘Welcome to Birdsall & Son. How can I help you?’ Hart stood up—and up and up—towering over Mercy as her stomach (hopefully) sank down and down. ‘Oh. It’s you,’ she said, the words and the unenthusiastic tone that went with them dropping off her tongue like a lead weight. Hart resisted the urge to grind his molars into a fine powder. ‘most people start with hello.’ 

‘Hello, Hart-ache,’ she sighed.

‘Hello, Merciless.'”


But to be fair, Hart and Mercy are both awful to each other for reasons that are never really explained. They’re supposed to be the quintessential enemies-to-lovers story, but while Tom Hanks is running a new corporate book empire that drives Meg Ryan’s local book store out of business in You’ve Got Mail, Hart actually gives Mercy’s struggling undertaking company business—as a Marshall he brings in the unidentifiable zombie corpses, which gets her much needed money from the government—so it’s hard to see why this makes them enemies in the first place. Though near the end of the book, Hart explains that he thought Mercy was just trying to profit off of deaths, this is a pretty weak and unbelievable explanation, not only because Mercy never displays anything remotely like this behavior, but also because he is supposedly a pretty smart guy. I don’t know how we are supposed to believe that Hart doesn’t see that her competitor, Cunningham’s, is the one actually taking advantage of grieving people and trying to form a monopoly.


But getting to the main premise of The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, the two unknowingly form a friendship through anonymous letters pretty early on. These exchanges quickly become very important to both Hart and Mercy, despite the basic content of their letters. I’ve had more meaningful conversations with my internet friends than these two people have in their own letters, but for some reason, this apparently counts as a deep, pivotal, and romantic connection. Before long, Hart and Mercy are desperate to meet the person on the other side of the pen and paper, which just like in, You’ve Got Mail, goes anything but smoothly. 


When things go south with their romance, I don’t really understand why they do. The whole conflict makes no sense to me, as not only could it be solved with a simple conversation, but then View Spoiler » It was also completely bizarre and unrealistic to me how Mercy dealt with the aftermath of this situation, which I don’t want to spoil, but I definitely had trouble suspending my disbelief with how Mercy handled things.


“I’m an undertaker, or at least, I have been for the past few months. I salt bodies and wrap them in sailcloth and sing the incantations over them. I build boats for the dead and send them where they need to go. I love what I do, helping souls find rest in the House of the Unknown God, and comforting the living in the process.”


Despite the imperfections of the romance, I still somehow managed to find The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy cute, though not at all as heartwarming or convincing as the relationship in You’ve Got Mail. Even if not as well carried out as the 90s classic rom-com, I really enjoyed the humor that ran throughout the novel, and loved that Mercy wanted to take over her father’s undertaking business, something that was originally intended for her brother to do, as apparently undertaking is typically viewed as man’s job. Her determination to keep the business afloat and to get to the bottom of the mystery of why there is a sudden influx of zombies, at the same time as being a loving daughter and sister is a very sympathetic plight. Her entire family was also a hoot, their banter continually cracking me up. 


I also liked the idea of the world The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy took place in, though it too, is inadequately explained. Despite being charming and wacky, the descriptions of the world and the way it works were not the most coherent and often described in what felt like sporadic and thin information dumping. For instance, there’s demigods, strange animal creatures named nimikilim who deliver mail, people drive autoducks for some reason (I must have somehow missed this explanation), and there is a whole Old Gods versus New Gods thing going on that is very reminiscent of the Titans versus Zeus and friends in Greek mythology. Hart and Mercy live on this mystical island(?) called Tanria, but I never fully grasped why it’s different and how it’s related to the rest of the world.


This is most definitely not my first fantasy world, so I really just think the explanations surrounding it were lacking and lost in the face of the humor and romance. But the world itself, contemporary but with extra spice in the way of fantasy/science-fiction, reminds me a lot of TJ Klune’s books, like The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door.  And those that love those novels for their LGBT+ romances will be happy to know that The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy also features more than one LGBT+ romance, though these romances are not the focus of the novel.


If you don’t look too hard at the issues with the romance and the logistics of the world, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is a sweet and light read, full of plenty of heart (pun intended), and perfect for fans of both fantasy and romance. However, if you compare the novel to the movie it’s based on, You’ve Got Mail, which thankfully I haven’t seen in years (but has always been a favorite), the novel doesn’t surpass its inspiration, and even pales in comparison. Regardless, I enjoyed reading The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy a lot and would definitely pick up other works written by the author in the future.


Book Review : The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy - Blogging with Dragons

Posted July 12, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Romance


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