As a reviewer who occasionally reads and reviews her friends’ books, this can result in the peculiar scenario of writing about how much I loved a story that evolved from the grief experienced by a person I care for. Though there is a romance through-line to this book, the true themes involve how the two characters develop not as they recover from their grief, but as it continues to be a living element in their lives (as grief often tends to be). Instead of depressing, however, this author’s voice shines through in her unique style of Southern gothic meets Midwest pragmatism, adding levity where necessary but still respecting the characters and their experiences.
The contemporary fantasy element to this world is immediately set in the very first pages, starting subtly and growing as Dylan learns more of his dark origin story. This is balanced in the second narrative point of view, in which Keller isn’t an unreliable narrator so much as he keeps things close to his chest in a way that immersed me in the story while also allowing me to be surprised at the appropriate moments. At first, I found Keller bland in contrast to the dynamic secondary characters and against the strength of Dylan’s personality. By the end of this book, I realized that he is simply a fascinating sort of mirror, both dark and light, to Dylan and the others around them.
The murder mystery that acts as this story’s inciting incident first seems merely like a vehicle to move characters in place. At least until Bauer starts dropping amazing plot twists that had me delightfully tangled in the external storyline and how it directly affected the character development that leads to the romance. Keeping these multiple arcs both balanced and hinged upon each other is managed as deftly as the fantasy worldbuilding. Magic in this story exists as a tool, not inherently good or evil, but is also directly influenced by the beliefs the characters have about it. If you were curious, that’s how Bauer effortlessly crafts a necromancer who’s also a ray of sunshine, who also displays acute and chronic grief and anxiety, and like any well-written three-dimensional character, never makes any of those extremes come across as contrived.
Though there are some fairly dark and gory instances in this story, it is not a horror. Even with magic involved, family is family no matter the genre, as are relationship arcs. Dylan and Keller aren’t an easy match, but I appreciated that I had to put in the work for their happily ever after, just as Bauer had to put in the work to bring us this fantastic story despite its origins rooted in sadness.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.