Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

“Sometimes, dead is better.”
-Jud, Pet Semetary

This column’s theme: Books about things coming back from the dead – which, I know, is kinda heavy given how 2020 is going, but I’d written this a few months back, and the books here are really good, so the staff here at Sweatpants & Coffee would like to take the edge off by sending a little something to the first Facebook commenter who figures out what the connection is between all these books and the number nine.

So if you like

Gothic science fiction, like Warhammer 40K, or The Chronicles of Riddick
Smartass female protagonists
All. The. Necromancy.
The art H.R. Giger did for Dune.
The feel of Grimdark

You might like

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Overview

Necromancers in The Hunger Games with shades of Agatha Christie on the island from Lost. It absolutely shouldn’t work, but it does.

Sample passage

Gideon, dizzy with success, crossed one leg around the other and leant back on the dresser in a posture of triumph. “Come on. How bad could it be?”

Harrow’s lips curled. They showed her teeth, stained slightly pink with blood. She smiled again—slower than before, just as terrible, just as strange.

“Down there resides the sum of all necromantic transgression,” she said, in the singsong way of a child repeating a poem. “The unperceivable howl of ten thousand million unfed ghosts who will hear each echoed footstep as defilement. They would not even be satisfied if they tore you apart. The space beyond that door is profoundly haunted in ways I cannot say, and by means you won’t understand; and you may die by violence, or you may simply lose your soul.”

Gideon rolled her eyes so hard that she felt in danger of twisting the optic nerve.

“Knock it off. We’re not in chapel now.”

But Harrow said: “It’s not one of mine, Griddle. I’m repeating exactly—to the word—what Teacher said to me.”

“Teacher said that the facility was chocka with ghosts and you might die?”

“Correct.”

“Surprise, my tenebrous overlord!” said Gideon. “Ghosts and you might die is my middle name.”

Takeaway

There are certain story elements that I know just don’t work well in combination, because one actively undermines the other. Contemporary slang used in anything but a contemporary setting? Mixing science and the supernatural? Smartass characters that need to be taken seriously? Unlikeable characters that need to be interesting? And the danger of combining the above and ending up with the dreaded Too Much Stuff Going On. Now, try any one of those pairings in a first novel? Guaranteed to crash my suspension of disbelief in the first chapter, and I won’t make it to the second.

And it’s here that Muir pull has pulled off an amazing magic trick:

It works.

I saw it work

And I have absolutely no idea how she pulled it off.

This is a shockingly strong debut. Now I think she got around the Too Much Stuff Going On by slowly revealing a whole bunch of detail in layers. Like how Gideon is a smartass warrior and rival of her house’s necromancer, and how the both of them get stuck dealing with other houses in a competition to discover dark(er) magic.

So really, I don’t want to say too much about it as there are a number of interesting reveals in this, but suffice to say that the pacing is excellent, as each answer leads to more questions. Gideon the Ninth is the first book of a trilogy, and does have a definite conclusion, but the end hints that there will definitely be more going on for these characters. (Update: the second book in the series comes out in August 2020.)

Or if you like

Urban fantasy
Street smart female protagonists
Murder mysteries
Interesting worldbuilding

You might like

Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo

Overview

The kid from The Shining gets a job overseeing the mystical societies at Yale.

Sample passage

“It makes sense you don’t see them here,” he said. “Certain things will draw them to graveyards and cemeteries, but as a rule, they steer clear.”

Now he had her attention. Real interest sparked in her eyes, the first indication of something beyond watchful reserve. “Why?”

“Grays love life and anything that reminds them of being alive. Salt, sugar, sweat. Fighting, tears and blood and human drama.”

“I thought salt kept them out.”

Darlington raised a brow. “Did you see that on television?”

“Would it make you happier if I say I learned it from an ancient book?”

“Actually, yes.”

“Too bad.”

“Salt is a purifier,” he said, as they crossed Temple Street, “so it’s good for banishing demons—though to my great sorrow I’ve never personally had the honor. But when it comes to Grays, making a salt circle is the equivalent of leaving a salt lick for deer.”

“So what keeps them out?”

Her need crackled through the words. So this was where her interest lay.

“Bone dust. Graveyard dirt. The leavings of crematory ash. Memento mori.” He glanced at her. “Any Latin?” She shook her head. Of course not. “They hate reminders of death. If you want to Gray-proof your room, hang a Holbein print.” He’d meant it as a joke, but he could see she was chewing on what he’d said, committing the artist’s name to memory. Darlington felt an acute twinge of guilt that he did not enjoy. He’d been so busy envying this girl’s ability, he hadn’t considered what it might be like if you could never close the door on the dead. “I can ward your room,” he said by way of penance. “Your whole dorm if you like.”

Takeaway

This was just a great book, start to finish. Excellent writing, plotting , smart main character, interesting yet logical twists and turns, and a narrative structure told with flashbacks that inform the present, making the whole story more interesting. Highly recommend.

To elaborate a bit more on the plot, Alex has been able to see ghosts her whole life, with the resulting psychological trauma that comes with it. After a bad situation goes worse, she’s recruited as a trainee to do oversight of the 8 mystical societies at Yale, and has to juggle classes along with an investigation into a murder that nobody else wants to look into. The worldbuilding here works particularly well as the reader is introduced to it through Alex’s eyes as she learns about what each society is particularly good at, and how dangerous that can be.

Or if you like:

Stephen King
Indigenous burial grounds
Knowing that there are worse things than death
A reason to hate cats

You might like

Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

Overview

A doctor moves to a small town in Maine and discovers an old graveyard that brings pets back to…life? How could that possibly go wrong?

Sample passage

He put her up in her bed and then, came downstairs to the kitchen, where Rachel was beating cake batter too hard. He mentioned his surprise that Ellie should just cork off like that in the middle of the morning; it wasn’t like her.

“No,” Rachel said, setting the bowl down on the counter with a decisive thump. “It isn’t, but I think she was awake most of last night. I heard her tossing around, and Church cried to go out around three. He only does that when she’s restless.”

“Why would she . . . ?”

“Oh, you know why!” Rachel said, angrily. “That damned pet cemetery is why! It really upset her, Lou. It was the first cemetery of any kind for her, and it just . . . upset her. I don’t think I’ll write your friend Jud Crandall any thank-you notes for that little hike.”

All at once he’s my friend, Louis thought, bemused and distressed at the same time.

“Rachel—”

“And I don’t want her going up there again.”

“Rachel, what Jud said about the path is true.”

“It’s not the path and you know it,” Rachel said. She picked up the bowl again and began beating the cake batter even faster. “it’s that damned place. It’s unhealthy. Kids going up there and tending the graves, keeping the path . . . fucking morbid is what it is. Whatever disease the kids in this town have got, I don’t want Ellie to catch it.”

Takeaway

Stephen King has written over sixty books, and given that output, some are going to be better than others, but Pet Semetary is very well executed, with a buildup that sticks the landing, and has one of the best final lines of his books, or any other author’s for that matter. His writing is clear, the pacing is good, and if you’ve not read him before, this is a great example of King at his best.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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