In Megan Bannen’s adult fantasy romance debut The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, magic is almost an afterthought: The Shrek-like fantasy town of Eternity leans more toward steampunk, dotted with gaslight lamps and amphibious autoduck vehicles. The reader almost forgets about the presence of magic, until a nimkilim (or animal mail carrier) hops or flies to the door with a letter, or when a drudge (or zombie) shambles into town.
Despite the You’ve Got Mail comparisons—and though the characters are certainly well-read (with Mercy an especial fan of demigod/mortal romance)—it’s not bookstores that are in competition, but funeral homes. The business of death is booming, thanks to an overabundance of drudges to be prepared for the afterlife. But the real magic—the spark that startles ordinary people and makes them believe in something impossible—comes in the form of a letter to A Friend, where a pen and a lonely impulse transforms virtual strangers into correspondents, confidantes, and potentially something more.
The eponymous enemies-to-Friends-to-lovers are Mercy Birdsall, thanklessly running her family’s mortuary business while her younger brother gets ready to officially inherit it; and Hart Ralston, a Marshal in the neighboring high fantasy land of Tanria… and a demigod, sired by one of the land’s Old Gods but feeling constantly out of place among mortal humans. As is often the case, a misunderstanding at their first meeting four years prior set the foundation for Hart and Mercy’s fractious encounters, each one more viciously barbed even as these nemeses lash out from their respective insecurities: she for never being good enough to be a legitimate part of Birdsall & Son, he self-conscious about his divinely inherited height and the potential identity of his absentee father. And of course they’re attracted to each other—in a “what a shame they’re such an asshole” way—but neither can see past their bad first impression.
What they need, and get thanks to the mail-carrying nimkilim, is a second chance at a meet-cute: In a fit of loneliness, Hart writes a letter while on patrol in Tanria, addressed simply to A Friend. That missive finds its way to Mercy, who is so struck by this stranger’s earnestness that she decides to admit to her own isolation (even within her raucous, loving family) and write back. What follows is a correspondence that is freeing in its anonymity, as they commiserate over career frustrations and tease each other about reading material.
But where things really pick up is when one of these pen pals figures out who’s on the other side of those letters, and how it complicates their in-person interactions while they must continue with their day-to-day lives and respective career struggles. And when circumstances contrive to spark a romance parallel to the letters, Bannen handles the resulting romance-trope tension with aplomb.
She also infuses the world of the book with quirky details, like the soul existing in the appendix (the marshals’ impeccable crossbow aim is a matter of life-and-death-and-resurrection) and the fact that any new technology developed after the time of the Old Gods doesn’t function in Tanria (the aforementioned crossbows over firearms). The portals between Eternity and Tanria create some hurdles to communication as well as a temporary barrier for the drudges, though as with any zombie story, it’s only a matter of time before they breach the borders. If anything, Eternity itself seems underdeveloped; for a town that’s been established for only the past twenty-five years, it seems a rich setting for a small-town fantasy romance, yet we only get glimpses, like a swoony dance at the Founders’ Day party. Most of the action takes place at Birdsall & Son, at a pivotal café, or on patrol in Tanria (where there lurks a mysterious house that only Hart can see…).
The You’ve Got Mail premise falters a bit since Hart doesn’t actually work for Cunningham, nor does he have a vested interest in the coffin conglomerate succeeding in overtaking mom’n’pop enterprises like Birdsall & Son. Sure, his own prepaid funeral package is with them, but that was fueled mostly by spite toward Mercy herself and an overall lack of engagement with his own mortality—or, as he has long feared, potential immortality. Without any redeeming correspondence, Eternity town bigwig Curtis Cunningham is purely, capitalistically evil, and Birdsall & Son is the uncontested underdog.
Yet that doesn’t diminish the spark of the epistolary romance. Neither the letters nor the book itself shy away from the matter of death, ably situating conversations about our inevitable ends alongside these epistolary beginnings of friendship and love. As Undertaking reveals, making yourself vulnerable to love (but also to rejection) lives alongside being open to the possibility of loss that death brings—loss of life in the worst case, of course, but also loss of control, loss of a future you let yourself hope for by twining your life with someone else’s.
Balancing fantasy and romance, the latter comes through stronger. As a reluctant romantic hero, Hart is compelling in his self-consciousness; it’s understandable why he would hesitate to come clean to Mercy, unable to trust that she could reconcile the friend in the letters with the man she’s starting to tolerate. The Birdsall family is the kind of charming, chattery brood that bring texture to a romance; Mercy’s relationships with her siblings (aspiring chef Zeddie and pregnant sister Lil) versus with gruff teddy bear Pops help amp up the tension around what she wants compared to what everyone else thinks she wants. And when the undertaking of the title turns romantic, it’s as steamy as Mercy’s favorite bathtub read, Enemies and Lovers.
The fantasy twists are a bit easier to guess at, though Hart’s ultimate reckoning with his ancestry brings some belated resonance to Tanria and will pluck the heartstrings of the sappier of us readers. I would love to see more love stories set within Eternity; it’s the ideal setting to build out a fantasy romance universe, whether via more nimkilim-couriered love letters, homemade cakes at the local café, or the perfect library book sought out by two potential lovers.
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is published by Orbit.