“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is an old proverb that we all know, and while it’s lovely as a metaphor about acceptance and understanding, there’s an entire industry devoted to the fact that we do this literally all the time. If I’m scanning a pile or web page full of books not looking for anything specifically, I’ll pick up the ones with eye-catching, interesting covers or titles that jump out to me. This title-based method is how I ended up reading Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers and The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex. I read Sellevision because it was meant to be a witty satire of home shopping channels, and I mean, it certainly was that, but it was also a bizarre and hellish rollercoaster of an experience.
Anyway, this is also how I ended up reading Hold Me Closer, Necromancer—I saw it in a sea of Book Depository sales items and went “Whoa, now, what is going on there?” It’s not just a pun, but a singable pun, and promises to be about raising the dead. A book with that much ridiculousness and black humour just in its name had to either be amazing or terrible. Unfortunately, Lish McBide’s debut novel with the delightful pun title wasn’t bad, but didn’t commit to being dreadful either, so it just ended being kind of heartbreakingly mediocre. With spontaneous cage sex.
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is about Totally Relatable Loveable Slacker Sam, who has dropped out of college and is scraping by working in the fast food industry (one of the things that first grabbed my attention upon actually looking the book up was that it was urban fantasy not about teenagers, but about university-aged people—exciting for a change!). Because he’s a Relatable Slacker he sneaks out for a break during a shift and plays potato hockey with his other Relatable Slacker co-workers, a sport I’d never heard of before this (does Sam’s workplace make all their hot chips from hand-cut potatoes? This seems mind-numbingly inefficient, and unlikely, given that their employees have enough unallocated time to piss off and play potato hockey). In the process, Sam scores a “goal” by accidentally sending a potato flying into the brake light of a fancy car parked nearby, and this is where the adventure begins.
The owner of the car comes into the restaurant to enquire why there’s a slightly mangled but fully intact potato lodged in his shattered brake light. His name is Douglas, and he exudes an air of menace, yes, even moreso than a customer usually does when they come in to complain. Halfway through complaining, he notices and zeroes in on Sam, recognising and pointing out the latent power of necromancy Sam didn’t know he had. Sam has no idea what he’s talking about, but after a few Douglas-organised scuffles, comes to learn that he has hidden magical powers and Douglas is peeved. Douglas is also a necromancer, you see, and can’t stand the idea of not being the supreme dead-raiser on the block. He tells Sam that he can either agree to join him as his apprentice, or basically die. Which is much worse than what you usually get when customers come in to complain.
Thus, Sam finds himself sucked into the world of Seattle’s supernatural. It pains me to say it, but given the book’s “Seattle has more supernatural types than it has coffee places” premise, I was hoping for a more City of Bones-ish warlocks holding house parties, vampires being mistaken for goths in night clubs kind of thing; especially given that the main characters are college students, which opens up so many “demons at the back of the campus bar” options. The interplay of ancient magic and the modern world is always a fascinating thing, but it’s not really gone into that much, and when it does, the book lacks pizzazz about it.
There are some genuinely fizzy and funny moments: Sam’s friend Brooke becomes the first female character I know of to be fridged while still alive, when Douglas murders her to “send a message” to his protégé, but keeps her severed head alive and conscious via magic. Brooke, despite lacking a body, remains a relevant and quite entertaining character throughout the story. Douglas also implies that he’s brought at least one member of The Rolling Stones back from the dead, and this kind of “gig” is how you can earn money and prestige as a necromancer in the modern world. Apart from these displays and little gems of necromancy-based humour, though, the magical worldbuilding is kind of flat and uninteresting. There are plenty of glimpses at potentially fascinating characters, but, as these things have the disappointing habit of doing, the book is required to focus on the naïve and Relatably Ordinary Sam.
Not that Sam’s not a likeable character, it’s just, well, when he’s put in a cage (literally) next to Brid, the powerful and badass hybrid werewolf who’s heir to a dynasty, it’s pretty obvious which one of these people is more interesting and dynamic. At least, we’re told through flashbacks and Douglas’ murmurings that Brid is a badass, but she literally spends almost the entire book stuck in a cage being experimented on. She doesn’t describe herself when the novel switches to her point of view (maddeningly using first person for Sam but third for everyone else), so we only learn what she looks like 100 pages after meeting her, through Sam’s “wow! A pretty girl!” narration.
And oh boy, here’s the best part, where, for me, this book tipped to “ridiculous in and of itself, but not overall owning that ridiculousness enough to be genuinely entertaining”: Sam and Brid shag in the cage. Because Brid, badass werewolf that she is, is getting all pent up and going crazy from not being able to transform or run around. All that built up energy has to be released somehow! So Brid says, I know! Let’s have sex! Sam, ever the gentleman, tells her he doesn’t want her to feel pressured into it, but makes no comment about how she’s effectively pressuring him into it. Of course, he doesn’t see it that way, because as a Relatable Average Hot-Blooded Guy, why would he say no to a hot werewolf girl insisting they have sex on the floor?
Despite “rules of the magical worldbuilding decree we must bone now!” being a porn trope (whether you find it in fanfic or early versions of Fate/Stay Night), mercifully we get a fade to black rather than an actual smut scene, because I don’t think I could have handled that in Sam’s pithy and blunt narration. Does leaping to pop the Average and Relatable Slacker protagonist’s cherry make Brid a less respectable and well-rounded character? No, I am not making that accusation. But she certainly becomes less of a hero herself and more a Sassy Hot Magic Girl once we see her through the frame of the protagonist’s experience.
This is the first book in a series, which is both to its betterment and detriment. It’s heavy with info-dump conversations as Sam tries to find out who he really is, many of the characters come off a little flat, and as I mentioned before the urban fantasy world set up has the promise of being interesting but doesn’t quite get there. This can all be forgiven in some ways because you know there’s plenty of room to expand on this and improve in further installments, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit of a dull muddle as a book. It has plenty of funny little moments, but they’re not so much balanced with the darkness to create a landscape of black humour as saddled alongside it, leaving the book not entirely committed to being silly, the same way it’s not committed to being awful.
Thus it just ends up in an unfortunate middle ground. Alas and alack, apart from telling all my friends about the weird and spontaneous cage sex, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is probably going to fade out of my memory.