Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: Graveminder by Melissa Marr

Graveminder, the next book to be reviewed for zombies month, turns out to not actually have zombies in it.  Or maybe it does.  I’m a little unclear on that.  See, the risen of this world are not referred to as zombies but as the Hungry Dead.  The Hungry Dead feast on the flesh and the blood of the living but unlike typical zombies, a bite will not infect the living.  It just really friggin hurts.  (Which totally makes sense since having parts of your flesh torn out is supposed to hurt.)  The more the Hungry Dead eat of the living, the more they come back to themselves – remembering who they were, where they are and how they came to be dead.  These are zombies who, when not dealing with their hunger, are able to think beyond "Brains!  Must eat brains!" and have complex thoughts.  So are they actually zombies?  The one time the subject comes up, the reader is told the Hungry Dead are not zombies, just “dead folk who crawl out of the graves.”  I’m not sure why this doesn’t make them zombies, especially since once out of the grave, these zombies want to snack on delicious, delicious humans.  They sure sound like zombies. 

Anyway, centuries ago, a gate between the living and the land of the dead was opened in the town of Claysville.   In order to stop the newly dead from returning, a bargain was struck between Mr. D, the ruler of the shadowy realm, and the town.  Two residents would work in tandem to keep the newly dead from returning.  The Graveminder tends to the dead providing food, drink and nourishment in order to keep them safely in the ground.  The Undertaker protects the Graveminder and opens the way to the land of the dead.  When the Hungry Dead return, it is up to the Undertaker to open the path so the Graveminder can escort the dead to their proper place.  The Graveminder has always been a Barrow woman, just as the role of the Undertaker has always been filled by one of the Montgomery men.   When Maylene Barrow, the current Graveminder, is murdered, Bek, her heir and granddaughter, must return to Claysville and assume the mantle.  Too bad no one has ever explained to Bek the town’s unique history or the role she is meant to assume.  Also kept in the dark is the future Undertaker, Byron Montgomery.  Together these two will have to figure out their new jobs, return the Hungry Dead to the shadowy realm, solve the mystery of Maylene’s death and work out their own troubled relationship.   

The story starts out nicely atmospheric, with an eerie small town gothic-y thing happening.  Marr has created a unique mythology to base her story on that distinguishes it from other rural fantasies.  There are no vamps or shapeshifters or fairies, just small town folk and zombies the Hungry Dead.  The world that exists beneath the town is neither heaven nor hell, just elsewhere and is made up of a pastiche of styles from past eras.  It’s an intriguing world and I would have liked to have spent more time there, as well as learned more about the inhabitants.  Both Claysville and the place beneath are filled with mysterious secrets I wanted to know more about.
However, the slow pacing ultimately hinders the tale and ends up becoming tedious.  The book doesn't really take off until more than half way through.  It takes that long for Becks and Byron to be told of the legacy they inherited and the jobs that they must step in to.  Even then, there are still dribs and drabs that are held back. It takes so long for the two main characters to learn what is going on that the narrative tension becomes clogged. The creepy atmosphere is not rich enough to carry the pokey pace.  I got to the point where I wanted to yell – Get on with it, fer crissakes!  More zombies!  

Our main couple has a complicated history (and to me, very little chemistry).  Bek and Byron were childhood friends who began developing feelings for each other.  The only problem was Byron was the boyfriend of Bek’s beloved cousin, Ella.  Shortly after the two had shared an illicit kiss, Ella died.  While the death was unrelated to the kiss, Bek’s has never gotten over what she saw as a betrayal.  She has spent most of her adult life moving from town to town, never staying still for very long.  Byron has spent much of his adult life following her.  Though they succumb to their passions during this time, Bek refuses to acknowledge that there is more than a friends-with-benefits thing between them.  In her mind, it would be disloyal to her dead cousin.  Byron only knows that he loves Bek but can no longer be a part of this game they have been playing.  So now they two are back in the place where they’re relationship first began.  Committment-phobe Bek and ready-to-settle-down Byron.  Herein lies one of my problems.; the two main characters inability to figure out their relationship.   They go over the same ground over and over, and it’s obvious that this has been the way their relationship has always functioned.  Nothing new is said.  She won’t commit.  He loves her.  Back and forth, back and forth until all of a sudden, Bek finally admits she loves Byron.  There is no climatic moment for her, no revelation that changes her mind. Byron gives an impassioned speech and she thinks about it for a day and then decides she does love him.  I couldn’t help but feel that Byron’s speech was nothing he hadn’t said before so I didn’t see why that changed Bek’s mind.  The whole relationship angst was repetitive and never deepened beyond what the reader was initially told.

The other weird thing about this book was that there were several scenes involving minor characters that seemed unnecessary.  There is a short chapter in which Penelope, the town psychic and Xavier, the town’s priest have a discussion about revealing info to the main characters.  The priest then goes to meet Byron.  This is the only time we see Penelope and once Xavier meets with Byron, we never see him again.  So what was the point?  Obviously the priest had important info to share but why couldn’t he just show up at Byron’s.  Why did we need to see the scene were he decides to go?  Look, I’m all for showing not telling but, you know what, some things aren’t worth showing.  It’s okay for some things to happen offstage.  This scene brought nothing to the story, was unnecessary, and split focus.

Despite the pacing problems, this is a readable story with a refreshing take on the small town gothic.  I lost patience with the back and forth relationship between Bek and Byron but I didn’t dislike them.  (Well, I liked Byron.  Bek was a little harder to care about as she never seem to make any active choices, instead allowing herself to be driven by events.)  Daisha, one of the Hungry Dead, was engaging and Mr. D and Alicia were captivating.  There is much to enjoy in this book even with the few weak elements.
Grade: B

(Though this novel was written as a stand alone, it could easily be expanded to a series.  Which may be why Ken Olin has optioned it for a television series.)

*I received my copy of Graveminder for free at BEA 2011.

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