I am not sure who the target audience is for The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, but I think most readers would have a good time. As long as you are interested in part of the bizarre mix of contents that Megan Bannen has stuffed inside its pages you will have a ton of fun. I initially struggled to get into the story and found myself not connecting to the worldbuilding and setup. Yet, as time went on, I found that the story takes a minimalist approach to context in order to focus on characters, themes, and some very solid sex scenes.
The back cover of my ARC ( provided by Orbit in exchange for an unbiased review) is covered with a list of tropes contained inside Undertaking. This initially set my expectations for a book that was meant more to appeal to popular romance story hooks than substance. That was incorrect. The worldbuilding is a little thin (as I already mentioned), but there is enough there to tell a fascinating and exciting romance about our two protagonists, Hart and Mercy.
Hart and Mercy hate one another due to circumstances part luck and part inherited will. They sit at two ends of a job process and are forced to interact with one another regularly, much to their dismay. Hart is a cowboy/ranger type who patrols dangerous badlands to hunt down possessed bodies of the dead. Once he bags and tags them, he must bring them into an undertaker for proper sendoff so they do not get possessed again. Mercy is the manager of a local undertaker who is doing everything she can to keep her family business afloat. She loves her job, which most people find gross, and wants nothing more to keep helping lost souls move on. Both of these characters have depression, hate each other, and start writing letters to an unknown pen pal (each other) similar to the classic The Shop Around the Corner (or You’ve Got Mail if you are a youngin). They start to fall in love with their pen pals, only to have it get very complicated when they eventually discover who they are writing to. It is a contrived setup, but this is irrelevant because Bannen does absolute wonders with the premise.
I did not expect to get as attached to the characters as I did. Hart has a ton of baggage from an old mentor who died and a lifestyle that is not conducive to therapy. His story explores the idea of the death of the godlike parent figure and breaking the cycle of hatred. Mercy is embroiled in a family drama in which I cared deeply about the entire group. She has a loving father, brother, and sister who all have issues, and finding the correct puzzle combination of what to do is immensely satisfying. There are some interesting magical elements to Bannen’s world, but they primarily exist to further the character development of the leads. While the world doesn’t feel fully real, it does feel exceedingly clever and I really liked how the dominos Bannen set up fell down.
On top of all of this, I really enjoyed the sex scenes in this book, which deeply surprised me. I often do not enjoy sex scenes in stories, but these managed to be both extremely hot and further the character development of the individuals in the scenes. There is representation from all orientations, and Bannen knows exactly how to pace the story and action to keep you hooked.
Each minute I spent with The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy endeared it to me further. It is a complicated premise examined with brilliant scrutiny and a character story with a lot of depth and hot action to boot. I had way more fun with this standalone than I thought I would and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fantasy romance that is a little different.
Rating: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy – 8.5/10