Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden’s first book in the Cemetery Girl trilogy, The Pretenders, tells the story of Calexa Rose Dunhill. That is not her real name, but, then again, the poor girl can’t remember what her real name is. She was left for dead in a cemetery, with only a few scattered memories of her life before to keep her tethered to sanity.
Maybe she died when her body was dumped. Maybe that’s why she can see the spirits of the dead as they rise from their graves and head off to the Afterlife. Or maybe she could always see ghosts, and her current predicament is an old habit refusing to die.
What Calexa does know is that someone wanted her dead, and given the lack of concern over her disappearance in the local papers, she’s inclined to stay that way. She builds a little nest inside one of the mausoleums in Dunhill Cemetery, surviving by sneaking food from the generous caretaker’s fridge and on the kindness of a neighborly old woman. When the night falls on her and she doesn’t know what to do, she doesn’t have to go 2,000 miles, just around the corner. A few months into her isolation, a group of experimental teenagers break into the cemetery to try their hands at some black magic, with tragic results. Blood is spilled and lies are buried in the graveyard. Even worse, instead of the dead kid’s spirit wandering off to wherever it is ghosts go, this one possesses Calexa. Now Calexa’s memories are peopled with the ghost’s childhood memories, slowly swirling past like the wind through the trees. The ghost hijacked her world that night, and neither can be free from each other until she brings the killers to justice.
Every fantasy fan is familiar with Charlaine Harris, if not directly than most certainly indirectly. Her Southern Vampire series is wildly successful, to the point where Alan Ball spun it off into the hot mess that is True Blood. She’s also written several popular series starring Aurora Teagarden, Lily Bard, and (my personal fave) Harper Connelly, as well as a crap-ton of shorts and oneshots. Christopher Golden has written a ton of fantasy fiction and comics, plus a bunch of co-authored stuff (like the excellent Mike Mignola-paired Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire). Don Kramer has worked on a ton of Marvel/DC/indie comic titles, including Nightwing, Batman, and JSA, and was doing pencil work during that sticky wicket when J. Michael Straczynski left in the middle of his runs on Superman and Wonder Woman). I was unfamiliar with Kramer before Cemetery Girl (save the Straczynski sitch), and only knew Golden through his work with other authors I like. I’ve read a lot of Charlaine Harris over the years, but gave up on Sookie Stackhouse about book 10. Harris has never been an especially eloquent writer, but she is entertaining as all get out when she wants to be.
I want to tell you how much I loved this graphic novel. I want to tell you how excited I am to see this trilogy—created by two highly acclaimed fantasy novelists—evolve and conclude. I want to tell you the story was thrilling, exciting, dark, and mysterious, how the plot was propulsive, the characters fascinating and intriguing, the dialogue crisp and personal. I want it to be the talk of the town. I want to tell you it’s so good that if you don’t drop everything and run to your nearest independent comic book shop and buy it your life will be all the poorer for it. But I also don’t want to lie to you. So instead I’ll tell you it’s not great and it’s not bad. It’s just sorta ok.
No one will ever accuse The Pretenders of being too original or overly creative. It’s a tale as old as time—a young, attractive girl gets caught up in sinister happenings; a hero with a murky history can do fantastical things; a person who dies and comes back to life can suddenly see the dead (heck, this one is so clichéd Charlaine Harris is even retreading her own territory)—and a tale that long ago went stale. But fine. Whatever. What’s the old saying? That there are only eight stories and every writer is stuck trying to find a fresh way to retell them? Apparently Harris and Golden didn’t get the message.
Don’t get me wrong, the story is fine, just not particularly interesting. Let me clarify that. The whole point of a mystery is that the audience knows enough to speculate—with a few red herrings thrown in for good measure—yet not enough to solve it before the author is ready. Harris and Golden fumble on both counts. So little of Calexa’s past is doled out that absolutely nothing is gleaned from her memories. In fact, they show us the same two memories repeatedly, which, again, does nothing to help the audience guess at what happened. As for the other mystery involving the teenagers and the murder, the question isn’t whodunit or how Calexa might help the ghost but when she’ll finally get over her own obnoxious fear and do the thing—the one and only thing—she’s supposed to do. The story arc and trilogy arc are mysteries that simultaneously uninteresting and not mysterious. Fun times.
On the plus side, the comic is simple enough to make a great entry point for young teens looking to get into graphic novels but unsure where to start. This is where a familiar, easy plot is actually a boon, as it makes is easier for comics newbies to get used to the visuals and page layout. Kramer’s illustrations also help in this regard. His artwork is simple, uncomplicated, uncluttered, and a little trite, but its straightforwardness makes it less daunting for beginners. In fact, the whole thing, from script to ink, feels like Comics For Beginners. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind. But I suspect those looking for a wee bit more of a challenge in their reading will be as disappointed.
The book is rated for teens, but save a splash of blood here and there, pre-teens and adventurous tweens could probably handle it pretty easily. I read the whole thing cover to cover in 20 minutes flat, then read it again because I felt bad finishing it so quickly. It’s taken me longer to write this review than it did to read the darn thing. If you’ve got a young teen who’s not quite ready for The Hunger Games but is ready to advance out of Bone, Cemetery Girl is a good bet.
And if you think I’m embarrassed about all the Pretenders references, you don’t know me very well.
The Pretenders is available now from InkLit.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.