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Book Review: Graveminder by Melissa Marr

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Rebekkah Barrow is a woman in her late-20s with wanderlust. For the past few months, she’s been living in San Diego, and she is glad her sub-let will be up soon. Unsettled, the only place she’s ever felt at home is at her step-grandmother Maylene’s house in the East-Coast town of Claysville.

Byron Montgomery has loved Rebekkah almost as long as he’s known her, but they’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship that was currently off. Byron grew up in Claysville and went on to live other places, practicing his trade as funeral director, but he came home to Claysville a few months ago and knew he was there to stay. Claysville is different from any other place he’s lived. It exerts a pull on him, creating a tension he wasn’t aware of until he crossed the town borders and felt relieved.

One night, Byron is called to Maylene’s house. When he arrives, he can see Maylene had been murdered. The town sheriff is in no hurry to collect evidence, however, which both puzzles and infuriates Byron. Still, there is business to attend to. One of the oddities of Claysville is a law that dictates that anyone who had been born there  would be buried without embalming and so had to be interred within 48 hours. This means Rebekkah has to come home for the funeral, and fast.

Rebekkah returns home to an empty house, Byron, and her conviction never to be trapped anywhere. But what she doesn’t know, and neither does Byron, is that she is the next Graveminder of Claysville, and Byron its next Undertaker. Hundreds of years ago, the founders of the town struck a deal with “Mr. D.” The citizens of Claysville would enjoy disease-free life until the age of 80 as long as the Graveminder tended the dead and the Undertaker helped her deal with any dead that were not properly minded by escorting them to the Underworld.

Something unusual is amiss even for Claysville. Normally, the passing of the Graveminder has been prepared for and the transition to the next generation goes smoothly. However, Maylene and Byron’s father, her Undertaker, decided not to tell Rebekkah and Byron of their status and coming duties, hoping to spare them the burden of knowledge for a while. With Maylene’s unexpected passing, events are set into motion very quickly, and Rebekkah and Byron have to step into their dangerous new roles with virtually no understanding of what to do, while also dealing with their fraught relationship with each other. The next few days in Claysville, and below it, are action-packed. Violent death continues because the dead are walking, and not of their own accord. Rebekkah and Byron also have to figure out what or who is causing it.

With Graveminder, Melissa Marr has created a fabulous, richly-imagined world in Claysville and its attendant piece of the Underworld. She deals out information about how Claysville works slowly and effectively and leaves just enough questions at the end for the story to continue, should she decide to make the town the scene for a series. I wish I could say there’s the same kind of consideration for her characters. There is no question of whose motives are pure or not; any complexity in the story is to be found in its setting. Rebekkah and Byron are immensely likable, but Marr oversells the difficulties of their relationship, which dominates the first third of the book. After that the fantastic world of Claysville takes over, the action speeds up, and the story starts to soar.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.