For years, Rebekkah has bounced from city to city. But when her grandmother Maylene passes away, she's drawn back to tiny Claysville and finds she's inherited more than just the family home. She's responsible for seeing that the dead stay dead.
Claysville isn't a regular little hamlet. It's tied just a little too tightly to the land of the dead. To manage that connection, previous generations made a compact with the lord of the underworld, and Rebekkah returns home to find herself intimately involved in upholding that bargain. Like Maylene, she's actually the town's Graveminder, responsible for working with the Undertaker to ensure the dead stay in their tombs. Making matters even more complicated is the identity of her new partner: It's Byron Montgomery, her sometime lover and the man she just can't seem to get over, no matter how hard she tries.
The emotional core of the novel is the relationship between Rebekkah and Byron. He's been head-over-heels for her since their late teens, but Rebekkah keeps pushing him away. That's partly because she still thinks of him as her dead cousin Ella's boyfriend. But she also just can't bring herself to commit, and so they circle around each other and periodically hurt each others feelings. This is one of the many subtle ways Marr leverages her small-town setting — they're both drawn back to Claysville, meaning they can't ever quite get away from each other long enough to kill their feelings for each other.
But Graveminder isn't just about these two and their commitment issues. They're not just an average couple struggling with everyday problems. Byron and Rebekkah have otherworldly responsibilities to upload, and this is where the book really shines. Melissa Marr has the rare talent of making deeply weird things seem perfectly normal, and making perfectly normal things seem deeply weird. At first, the nature of Maylene's responsibilities aren't entirely clear to Rebekkah. She loved her grandmother, but she's pretty sure her cemetery visits are a sign of deep eccentricity. Byron at least has the benefit of some explanation from his father, his predecessor as Undertaker.
Then matters take a turn for the weird, and Marr's world-building talents become clear. We meet Charlie, the man who rules the underworld that gives Claysville so much trouble. He's suave and sophisticated, decked out in the height of Gatsby-era style. The man is sketchy enough to know he's untrustworthy, but charming enough that you don't want to believe it. The depiction of the land of the dead is compelling, as well. It's a disorienting jumble of people and historical costumes and architectural modes, and the terrain is constantly shifting. It's also strangely lifelike. The denizens still fight and maybe even make love, which is an interesting take.
The book has its flaws, though. Most glaring is Rebekkah's noxious aunt. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say she's both a bit bonkers and incredibly vicious. She has some motivation, but it just seems a bit misaligned with the consequent behavior. The result is a one-dimensional character that could have been more interesting. Family drama is often less black and white than the conflict Marr portrays here. Cissy is straight-up evil. More often, the offending family member says or does something incredibly hurtful and insensitive, shit goes down, some sort of dysfunctional reconciliation is reached, and the warring parties are stuck together — at least until the next flare-up. Seeing something similar between Rebekkah and Cissy would have been an interesting direction to take the plot and might have created a more nuanced foil for our protagonist.
The deeper reason frustration with the novel is the imbalance between death and life. Namely, death just seems way, way too appealing. To the Graveminder's eyes, the afterworld is bright and colorful and lively. Why would she want to stay alive, committed to the depressing task of tending the dead? Byron's distrust and dislike of Charlie and his domain does help balance out Rebekkah's fascination. But even to the Undertaker, whose job is to keep his partner anchored in this world, it's clear that being dead isn't that bad, or even that different from being alive. You can't leave, but they can't really leave Claysville, either. Marr has clearly set herself up for a sequel, and it'll be interesting to see how she fleshes out this tension in further novels.
Nevertheless, these are fairly minor gripes. In Graveminder, Marr has crafted a fascinating world that offers plenty of room for sequels — as well as reason to want them.
Graveminder is in stores now, and available as an ebook.