Monday, November 7, 2011

REVIEW: Death Watch by Ari Berk

Death Watch

The Undertaken Trilogy
by Ari Berk

(from Goodreads): 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.

Silas Umber: Could a name be more poetic? Silas, which is quickly pointed out, sounds much like solace, and Umber, the color of rich, brown earth… the Solace of the Grave, the comfort of being laid to rest peacefully beneath the earth. Is there a more perfect name for an Undertaker? I think not.
Silas is the child of Amos and Dolores Umber, and he is a boy lost. His father disappears in the first chapter of the book, and through the rest of the story we witness Silas coming of age as he moves back to Lichport with his mother, and seeks to find the truth of what happened to his dad.
Bea: A mysterious girl who is infatuated with Silas and, like almost everyone in Lichport, obviously has secrets of her own.
Mother Peale: An elderly woman, and one of the Narrows Folk (the Narrows being the part of town filled with people of the sea) Mother Peale is an old friend of Silace’s father and wise in the ways of those who have remained to wander the streets of this haunted town.
Mrs. Bowe: A close friend of Amos Umber, Mrs. Bowe is a source of knowledge and support for Silas as he tries to walk in his father’s footsteps. Often infuriatingly vague, to the point where you just want to scream, “JUST TELL THE BOY ALREADY!”, she has her reasons for being so, and is always worried about Silas’ well being. She has a special role to play in the town, and is an aide and associate to the work of the Undertaker, as well as someone with invaluable insight into the motives of Uncle. She also has quite the mysterious relationship with bees, and I often wondered, as I read, if we would find out more about this.
Amos Umber:
Silas’s father, and the Undertaker of Lichport, he disappears in the beginning of the book, but his presence haunts the pages throughout. Obviously well loved by his son, as well as the town of Lichport, he is a well formed and delicately constructed character whose portrait is painted for the reader through his own items left behind, as well as the abundant stories of the townsfolk.
Dolores Umber: Silas’s neglectful mother, she spends most of her time at the bottom of a bottle and is a character that one finds it very hard to have sympathy for. She has traits in her, though, that can be seen in Silas, and that the reader spends the book praying he will overcome.
Uncle: Overly kind in the most creepy of ways, it’s obvious something is amiss with Uncle the minute you read his letter. He is set on one mission, and nothing will stop him from carrying it out. As with some of histories best villians, he is scary because he truly believes that what he is doing is right.

If you dislike books like The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien or The Foundling Series by D.M. Cornish, then don’t read this book. Death Watch is filled with eloquent prose rich with world building. The town of Lichport stands out, a character on its own, and invites the reader to walk its streets right along with Silas.   
It is not often that I force myself to slow down while reading a book, but I had to with Death Watch, for fear that it would be over too soon.  I couldn’t help but take the time to savor each page. The book begged to be read aloud, the rich detail of each paragraph pouring from the page and painting a vivid picture of the world through which Silas walked.
Drawn in from the opening pages, this rich, dark story gripped me in the same way that books such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Coraline or Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes have. It was haunting and filled with a potent atmosphere of the macabre. Each chapter offered insight into a new mystery from Lichport’s past, and not a word was wasted.  The ghosts that haunted the pages of this book continued to haunt my imagination long after I put the book down and turned out the lights. They followed me like shadows throughout the day, enticing me from my responsibilities so they could have the chance to further tell their tales, and like Silas, I quickly learned to shut up and listen.
Truly, it was hard to deny this book… and as rich as the world building was, the characters themselves were just as layered and mysterious. Silas spent the book learning mostly through experience, rarely making the exact same mistake twice. He grew as he went, changing from boy to man, letting go of childish behaviors that prevented him from truly seeing the world around him.

I don’t think I can rightly express how happy the end of this book made me. When I read the cover and saw that this was a trilogy, I dreaded reaching the end, because frankly, I’m getting tired of how every YA book these days tends to be a trilogy, and often, most of them could easily have been wrapped up in one book (or just weren’t worth three+ books to begin with).  Death Watch had a complete and satisfying ending, and with it, I was left wondering if this would be more along the lines of The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, where each book was dedicated to different characters. Regardless of whether each book follows Silas, or simply other Undertakers in the town of Lichport, I am now a dedicated reader. I cannot wait to see what book two brings.

This is not a book of sappy, sparkly, meaningless romances that seem to develop without any true rhyme or reason.
Thank God.

This is a coming of age story, under the most dire circumstances. It’s a book that causes the reader to sit back and wonder how, and if, they could handle what Silas is faced with. As much about the world of the living as it is about the world of the dead, the book balances on a knife’s edge between the two, and the reader often finds themselves wondering if Silas will be lost to one or the other.

Death Watch is woven together from multiple story threads that span the history of Lichport, adding to the rich background that serves as the stage for Silas’s own adventure. Each one is just as intriguing as the next, and kept me reading avidly until the end, wanting to know what had happened in each circumstance.

 Believability of World:
Lichport is so rich, so detailed, so steeped in nostalgia that it feels as if I’ve already been there, even though I know I have not. Lichport itself is a real town, and I wonder how much of this book draws from its history. Regardless, the version in this story, even with its paranormal patrons, reads as a town that just might be found if one looked.

Overall Grade: A+ ~ A book for those who love stories with rich, deep histories, with detailed descriptions that make you feel like you were there. Not for readers looking for a gushy love story, or driveling characters that need a significant other to make up their minds for them. Death Watch is for lovers of literature, those readers who revel in the velvety texture of words as they roll off the tongue. It is for those who read aloud at night to empty rooms, just to hear each line sing. This will go on my shelf of favorites, thank you, Mr. Berk, for such a rich tale.