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I'm pretty particular when it comes to what I read and what I don't. I like a fresh take on things, sure, but I like to tread certain familiar genre paths. I don't think I'm alone in that. People whose preferences tend toward detective novels might not be interested in, say, an old-school bodice-ripper, for instance. Personally, I like epic fantasy, chock full of forgotten kingdoms, magical powers, and strange, deadly beasts. Urban fantasy . . . not so much. I don't rule it out, because I never rule out an entire genre on principle, but it's generally not my cup of tea. I like to let my imagination bask in another world the way a sunbather catches rays, soaking it all in and forgetting the place I left behind. Epic fantasy does that for me. But it feels less like of an escape when the main character is driving a Honda and drinking Starbucks, so I tend to steer clear of urban fantasy. So believe me when I say that when I get hooked on a urban fantasy novel, that really means something.
Enter Katrina Monroe's novel, REAPER, the urban fantasy tale of wannabe writer, Oz, whose untimely death launches his real career as a collector of souls. There is an awkward middling stage-- isn't there always?-- in which he's forced to spend his time in a sort of writer's purgatory, writing ironic deaths. Then a lottery win plunges him into his existence as a reaper, lurking invisibly among the living and learning the ropes of soul-gathering from his grizzled, foul-mouthed mentor, Bard.
If I had to pinpoint what really drew me into this story in a subgenre that usually has me tiptoeing in like a swimmer into cold water, I'd probably identify three big strengths: (1) solid writing, (2) good world-building, and (3) relatable characters. When you've got these three things going for you, it doesn't matter what genre you're writing in. You're gonna suck people in. And Ms. Monroe has got all three.
I'll admit, I stumbled in the beginning of the book, thinking "oh God, oh God, there are going to be cars and blenders and shit in this story." Then the excellent use of language caught my eye and sent it gliding like scissors cruising through a sheet of wrapping paper. Of Oz's mother, we're told that, "Her sighs and groans were like their own language, known only to Oz," and that she "was the kind of woman who'd win a gold metal in the Guilt Olympics." With regard to Oz's father, we learn that "[t]he man saw [his] house as his own private fiefdom, and the vacating neighbors only strengthened his claim on the land." In those few phrases, I got where Oz was coming from, and a little bit of why he turned out the way he did. Later, the click of typewriter keys in an office is described as a "syncopated tapping like the hum of worker bees," something that starts to hit Oz's ear-- and mine-- like music. There's also a paragraph about a calender featuring a tabby kitten "frozen in mid yarn ball" that's fabulous in ways I'll leave you to discover for yourself. But the words, they are good. And I know good words.
The other thing that riveted me about this book was the world-building. I'm a writer, myself, and I know how tricky it is to weave in the details of a magical system or a mythology without having a character just sit around and monologue excessively. However, in seamless little snippets, Ms. Monroe paints a picture of the lonely, surreal world Oz inhabits after his death. And it is a rich, unusual place, from the means that the reapers use to send souls on to the afterlife to the hidden perils that stalk them while they work. The hidden world that Ms. Monroe superimposed upon the familiar was so intriguing that I couldn't bring myself to mind that little aftertaste of reality. There was still a feeling of escape, of new and unusual discoveries the turn of every page. And that satisfied even the most car-phobic, epic fantasy reader parts of my brain.
Then, of course, there's Oz. It's beyond important to have a main character that people either really like or hate in a fascinated sort of way. Oz delivers on the former quite well. I related strongly to his earnest attempts to seek authenticity in his writing, which resulted in the occasional silly experiment. Say, for instance, slamming a car door experimentally to try and hear the sound of finality in it, as he'd written in his novel, and being rewarded with the sound of his car door breaking. Been there. Maybe not exactly there, but I'm somewhere around the corner, absent-mindedly breaking shit while I plot.
Oz did make some bad decisions across the pages and there are times when I liked him less for them, but there were moments where he won me over strongly enough that I figured we could weather any storm. The first such moment happened when he was walking along with Bard during his initial jaunt into the real world and Bard catches him making ridiculous faces in the reflection of a shop window. He's died, been to purgatory, and come back as a grim reaper, and this is where his natural urges take him. That's my kinda guy.
Ultimately, REAPER is not without its flaws. I don't think I've read any book that doesn't have at least one thing I could pick at, if I was in the mood for picking. But all in all, it was an entertaining read that kept my attention, and it delivered an especially solid ending, which is my personal benchmark for a book worth recommending. After all, there's nothing more disheartening than trekking across the pages with a group of characters and then arriving at the end feeling wildly unfulfilled. In my humble opinion, a good ending can make or break a book, and this one really shines. So I recommend you click the link above and get your hands on a copy today.