Set in an alternative history, The Undertakers follows Hetty Rhodes, an escaped slave, as she uses her magic to help the Black community where public services will not. A series of fires in Philadelphia sets Hetty and her husband Benji investigating a case with a corrupt Fire Company. They need all their savvy to stay ahead of the fires and escape a bounty hunter from their past who won’t let them be.
On the surface, The Undertakers ticks all my boxes. An alt-history fantasy with magic that gives a voice to underrepresented Black women. Told from Hetty’s point of view, there are two narrative threads covering her past and present. We witness the white characters’ blatant racism in how they treat Hetty and her friends. However, I had an issue with the story’s peril. It didn’t feel like any of the characters were in any danger.
The magic system doesn’t appear to have any rules. Hetty practices Celestial magic, which is looked down upon and uses constellations to shape her spells. She always has a spell for whatever situation she is in, and there were never any consequences for her magic use. She is never tired, never fails, never afraid of her power. When there are no challenges to her using magic, there is no threat because she always has an answer. The Undertakers is the second book following Hetty and Benji’s escapades, so I am aware there may be more description in book one, The Conductors, but The Undertakers needed some recapping of this area.
Another area that reduced the peril level in the book was the banter between Hetty, Benji, and their friends. There are a lot of characters in the book, a constant stream of friends either living in the same building as Hetty and Benji or close enough by to pop in whenever they want. There were a lot of non-essential conversation and outings that distracted from the plot; there were also very few fires, despite the blurb’s promises. The relationships, especially Hetty and Benji’s, were two-dimensional. For a married couple, there was little affection to show us how they worked together. They appeared more like brother and sister than husband and wife. Because of all the socialising, we don’t see the characters under pressure, so we can’t connect with them on a meaningful level.
For a story highlighting the treatment of Black people throughout history, The Undertakers didn’t pack the emotional punch I needed to really engage with the characters and share in their ups and downs. An absence of rules regarding magical use meant everything was easy for them and robbed the book of peril.
Penguin, paperback, £8.99