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There are a few signs that the book you’re about to read is good, so good it’ll open the trapdoor you didn’t know was there and deposit you someplace you didn’t know you wanted to go. Perhaps a playground, but not one of those sad plastic excuses. Tire playgrounds covered in thick, splintery mulch with high rings and black rubber seats that get so hot in summer you can see the steam rising off the surface. The kind of playground where all who enter are bound to get hurt and in a weird way that’s half the fun.

Such signs of good reading to come include either George R.R. Martin as the author or a map. A hand drawn map tells the reader, “You Are Here inside this story. You are not sitting on a couch/chair/floor/bed in some room where phones can ring and buzzers can buzz. You are gone from that place.” Death Watch by Ari Berk has a map. And, because it’s about death, someone is bound to get hurt, probably several characters and possibly the reader, too.

If, like me, you’re a little too sensitive to the sun to enjoy a full day in the waves, this beach read is for you. A little darkness will do you good.

Death Watch by Ari Berk

Death Watch by Ari Berk

Silas is 17 and about to graduate high school. He’s into strange old books and believes in magic. So what if he doesn’t have any friends? He adores his father, who works as an undertaker in Lichport. But one day his father doesn’t come home from work and Silas is left with his alcoholic mother. Soon they lose their home and have to move in with his uncle in Lichport, his parents’ hometown by the sea. Unable to accept the possibility that his father is gone for good, Silas relentlessly searches the town for clues while his mother tries to move on with a glass of gin in one hand and Silas’s creepy rich uncle in the other.

Lichport is filled with graveyards, narrow cobblestone streets and abandoned homes that haven’t lost their grandeur. It’s a town that knows death in ways few do – the old ways. In questioning the rather anxious neighbors, Silas learns his father’s work was far more complex than traditional undertaking, and the services he performed are still much needed. Turns out undertaking is a craft that runs in the family. Silas is urged to continue the work his father left behind. But what is the work exactly? No one wants to say.

Smack near the middle of the story a surprisingly valid theory on zombie origins.

Dead folk who come back angry. … That’s all those movies are about. Zombies are just reminders that someone has been forgotten by their kin.

In his quest to learn more about his family, Silas discovers a relative. At first the relation looks like a corpse, and he is, but he’s also a walking talking reminder that when you forget your kin, you forget who you are. One of my favorite passages panders why the dead are so quickly ushered out of sight.

And no one wants to be reminded of the inevitability of death every day by a corpse sitting with them at the dinner table.

Berk blurs the lines between life and death and sets his story in the haze between, but the focus is actually quite traditional. Silas is at that stage when he’s grown, but not yet a man and he needs his dad. Internally, he’s struggling to understand his purpose in life by uncovering who his father really was. Sure, there’s the death watch, which allows him to see the dead and the dead to see him, but it doesn’t change the rules. Certain lessons have to be learned again and again. That the dead do not come back, for one.

All the while there’s an almost love story hovering on the periphery with a certain mysterious girl who gives Silas butterflies … or is it chills?

…he might learn what kind of light she actually was: lighthouse beacon, or mooncusser’s fire.

There’s an ephemeral quality to this story that matches its author’s light touch. I liked the writing quite a bit even though the pacing felt a little jerky with some unnecessary back and forth and back and forth plotting. Berk’s brain must be overflowing with death rituals and customs gleaned from cultures around the world throughout time, like having a sin-eater attend the wake. But it’s not grim. Through all the graveyards and mists and tragedy is Silas’s love for his dad, and the courage that gives him to search far beyond the limits he’s always known.

This is one book that male and female readers, both young and adult, will love. You can tell it was written and then crafted and tweaked and polished. There’s not a sloppy sentence in the whole 500+ page tome. Unlike many series, the main story line finds its ending and you could easily forget this is the first in a trilogy, The Undertaken Trilogy. It could have worked as a stand alone, but I’m looking forward to book two, Mistle Child, which is already out.

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