Review: Death Watch by Ari Berk

Friday, November 18, 2011
Title: Death Watch
Author: Ari Berk
Genre: young-adult, supernatural fiction
Series: The Undertaken Trilogy #1
Pages: 546 (Nook edition ARC)
Published: November 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

They say the dead should rest in peace. Not all the dead agree...
 One night, Silas Umber's father Amos doesn’t come home from work. Devastated, Silas learns that his father was no mere mortician but an Undertaker, charged with bringing The Peace to the dead trapped in the Shadowlands, the states of limbo binding spirits to earth. With Amos gone, Silas and his mother have no choice but to return to Lichport, the crumbling seaside town where Silas was born, and move in with Amos’s brother, Charles.
Even as Silas eagerly explores his father’s town and its many abandoned streets and overgrown cemeteries, he grows increasingly wary of his uncle. There is something not quite right going on in Charles Umber’s ornate, museum-like house—something, Silas is sure, that is connected to his father’s disappearance. When Silas’s search leads him to his father’s old office, he comes across a powerful artifact: the Death Watch, a four hundred year old Hadean clock that allows the owner to see the dead.
Death Watch in hand, Silas begins to unearth Lichport’s secret history—and discovers that he has taken on his father’s mantle as Lichport’s Undertaker. Now, Silas must embark on a dangerous path into the Shadowlands to embrace his destiny and discover the truth about his father—no matter the cost.

Ari Berk's slowly plotted but excellently told tale of teenage Undertaker Silas Umber is a magical, enchanting, if occasionally macabre, tale - one I found hard to put down. The smooth, mellifluous flow of the writer's style eased me into an alternate world of revenants, lichs and ghosts in the necropolis of the book's setting, in the town of Lichport. I can't stress enough how much I enjoyed this quirky, individual young-adult novel with a supernatural bent. Death Watch may take a while to sink its clever claws into a reader, but once I began there was no turning back for me: I had to get as much time as I could with this strange but completely, morbidly fascinating tale and Silas himself. This is a heavy, almost haunting novel - mournful without being too much, but very readable. I went into this expecting perhaps a modern, male Sabriel (shepherd of the dead with unusual tools, dead/missing father, etc.), but Death Watch is a creature of its own making and name.

Silas is one the best parts of the entire endeavor. While his name is both a clever hint and a subtle foreshadowing of his death-centric life (Silas is veeeerry similar to "solace" and "umber" is a brown pigment, hinting at the dirt of the deceased), Silas isn't a creepy character at all: he's kind, quiet, disappointed, sad, lonely (sly mentions of invisible friends allude to the persistent loneliness of the young Umber's life) - all normal, understandable teen emotions. He's a well-developed character that's very aware of words and the power they can have, and as an empathetic young man in a house of brutes or drunks he stands out as the only likable main character in the whole novel. I found Silas' reaction to his father's mysterious disappearance and his mother's complete indifference in response to be wholly compelling and added a nice familial conflict to add in to the more supernatural elements in Silas' life. I also very much enjoyed the arc of Silas development while in Lichport: from a passive but angry young man, he evolves into one of my favorite male protagonists of the recent past.

Silas's job as the Undertaker of Lichport remains vague for the most part of the first half of the novel. I was very curious about this and the role the dead were to have in Berk's tale - fearful he'd veer into caricature or horror - but my fears were unfounded. The role of the Hadean Clock, or Silas's tool to see the ghosts the Death Watch itself, played a minor if very vital role. After so mant paranormal/supernatural reads I loved that the focus of the novel was on Silas himself rather than his "magic" or his Watch. While I found the repeated and varied ominous warning anf fear of the "mist ship" to be less than effective for creating suspense, other characters more than made up for the lack (coughCharlescough) that the supernatural failed to bring. What did more than add to the general atmosphere and the feel of history of the story/family were the notes/addendums/quotes taken from previous Undertaker's collection of knowledge. These little bits and pieces of scattered information did a lot to sate my ever-growing curiosity about the Undertakers, but did not give away too much detail to spoil the story. The supernatural elements the author does choose to include within his mythology all work together marvelously with the mundane, humane aspects to create a very fun novel for readers of any age.

I did wish for a more developed cast of background character in the case of Silas's mother, the very off-putting Dolores Umber. Silas has a strained relationship with his gin-happy mother, but Dolores is painted only one color for the whole novel: black of heart. She is never shown to have a heart or even care for her son and I felt that "disappointed in her life" was a lame and quick sop to explain her extreme apathy for her husband and their child. The slightly Hamlet vibe between Dolores and Silas's Uncle (aka Dolores' brother-in-law) is just plain creepy and did more to establish "Uncle's" character than anything else said about him. The third-person perspective used by Ari Berk is done quite well: equal light, both favorable and disfavorable, is shone upon all the characters of the novel. I just wished for a more believable motivation behind Dolores' actions and vitriol. Her bitter, typical woman-done-wrong routine seemed out-of-tune with the otherwise (mostly) superbly plotted novel. The other periphery characters of the novel - the friendly but dense Mrs. Bowe, the question of Bea - add more flavor and mystery to the novel, but none were what I would call fully-rounded and developed characters. In a novel with so much prose dedicated just about the importance of the past, of ancestors and history, I found Silas's extended family to come up a tad wanting.

While I loved the style, the voice and the characters I did have issues with the plot-lines central to the story. From the initial and almost McGuffin-esque disappearance of Amos Umber to the mysterious ghost ship to the creepy Bea, nothing felt wholly explained or even thought-out by the end of the book. Bea in particular seemed quite unnecessary and like filler for the alternate plots within the story - I would have rather more time with search, in Uncle's house, etc. These essential plot-lines also tended to get lost in the story and the details in Silas's explorations of the town and probably didn't help later on when the novelty itself flagged and I got slightly bored. The mist ship, source of so much worry and fear for 500 pages was a complete let-down and a bust. Its end was sadly all-too-predictable and lessened my overall opinion of Death Watch for it felt out of tune with the rest of such an atmospheric and affecting read. It also doesn't help that it takes quite a while (nearly 250 pages in the 540 page tome) to get any kind of real explanation of basic principles of the world/the magic/the Undertaker job itself.

Another love of mine throughout the pages of Death Watch was the town of Lichport itself. With such an obvious harbinger for a name, I loved the random but delightful flares of supernaturality in the town. From "the Restless" (basically a reanimated corpse/lich) to angry and unsettled ghosts, Lichport is a field of deadly imagination.While I thought Silas explorations of the misthomes/shadowlands fell way short of its potential for awesome. Instead of showcasing the individuality and flair of the nearly-dead town, it was an extended yawn for me after about page 350 until just about 100 pages later. I will admit to chuckling at the sailor's club line about their wives, but one quip does not save 100 pages of meandering novel. It is very impressive that the rest of Ari Berk's novel is strong enough to carry a 4 star rating, even with that 100 pages of yawns. Also: Mrs. Bowe's ridiculous reticence to tell Silas ANYTHING! made me very frustrated and cranky with her character. That also was a situation drawn out too-long and made both Mrs. Bowe and Silas act in ways contradictory to their personalities.

I love love LOVED the author's unique way with words. Ari Berk can write, make no mistake. While I might have minor issues with select parts of the novel, I cannot deny I was repeatedly struck by a passage of a quote in the middle of a page, a paragraph. I know quoting from ARCs is supposed to be a big no-no, but this is a perfect illustration of why I adored the reading experience itself from Death Watch:

"The day his dad didn't come home, it was like a huge window over their heads had shattered, and every day they were walking through the broken pieces. Nothing fit together. Nothing made sense or seemed connected to anything else, and every step hurt."

This is an author that doesn't delve into purple prose or overdone phrases laced with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs: his is a style of simple lyricism and ease, with a vivid picture easily attached. I loved the frequent descriptionary verbosity as it built a vivid and compelling frame for his characters, but I can see why some readers may be put off by his intensely wordy writing, in addition to the slower pace of the novel. This is certainly not for everyone and I will understand most complaints a reader could have for this story, but for me, this was a wonderful read that left me more than eager for its sequel. Death Watch is best summed up as: a compelling, morbid, weirdly fascinating tale of Wailing Women, Peller-Men, families of mutes, ghosts, lichs, revenants and a great hero, all told in unique and fresh stylings of Mr. Ari Berk.

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