Death Watch (The Undertaken Trilogy Book 1)
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2011
It feels to me that today’s YA market is supersaturated by a preponderance of speculative novels about werewolves, vampires, and faeries. Maybe that’s just my perception of the YA world post-Twilight, but it does mean that when I see a YA novel with supernatural elements that doesn’t include any of the aforementioned creatures I get rather excited. Originality is always something to be praised and the minute I set my eyes on the somber and minimalist cover of Ari Berk’s Death Watch I knew that I was in for something wholly different.
In this novel Silas Umber’s father is missing and believed dead. Amos Umber, Silas’ father, was an Undertaker whose job it was to help the restless dead and recently deceased find their way down whatever path they were meant to trod. Silas is a moody and somewhat fanciful figure who barely suspects the truth of his father’s profession. He is constantly butting heads with his mother whose rocky relationship with his father, and whose rapid acceptance of his death, causes no end of conflict between the two. With Amos gone Silas’ mother decided to move backer to her and Amos’ hometown of Lichport where she will live with Amos’ brother Charles. Silas embraces this change since it will offer him the opportunity to travel in his father’s footsteps. Of course, all is not as it seems in the house of Charles Umber and Silas soon find himself in conflict with his strange and menacing uncle.
The story of Death Watch unfurls slowly and somehow masterfully combines an air of gloom with the sense and comfort of home. The novel, particularly during its opening, does a wonderful job at moving Silas along the stages of grief and hanging up initially and quite understandably on “denial” but touching upon the various other stages of the Kubler-Ross model as it progresses. The word is in the title and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that death plays a major thematic role throughout the novel. Berk works in some small discussion of funerary rites and the importance of those for the living and, in his world, the dead. Indeed, Berk crafts a whole fantasy landscape out of death and the means through which it can trap both the living and the dead. It is a particularly mature theme and one that young adult targeted fantasy titles rarely seem willing to touch.
Along with Silas readers are take through a languid journey across the sometimes dilapidated and oftentime gloomy streets of Lichport. Berk infuses the world of Death Watch with a sense of history and life. It is a landscape full of wonder, mystery, magic, and myth. There is a sense of completeness to the world glimpse in the pages of Death Watch, a sensation the exists despite the fact that there questions left unanswered and shadows left unexplored. The tone of Death Watch is serious and less prone to whimsy than Gaiman’s Graveyard Book yet I was much reminded of that title as I read through Death Watch. Whereas Gaimain’s work seemed to focus on the last grasp of childhood before stepping into the adult world leaving magic and wonder behind Death Watch feels like the inverse of that theme where the abandonment of magic wonder would be an abdication of responsibility. Both novels would make interesting comparison reading.
Death Watch tells a complete story in and on its own. There are few novels I’ve read that have done as good a job at taking a character through a journey of growth and discovery and Death Watch’s examination of Silas, and particularly his relationship to his parents, goes a long way towards grounding the novel in reality. Where some YA tends towards melodrama Death Watch conveys emotion with seeming ease and readers will latch on to Silas right from the outset. Ari Berk is definitely a writer to watch and the Undertaken Trilogy (of which Death Watch is the first) is a series the definitely needs some more attention. Death Watch is thoughtful, beautiful, and absolutely mesmerizing prose that adults and teens should experience for themselves.