Written by Laura Hickman and Tracy Hickman (of Dragonlance fame), Unwept is the first book in the Nightbirds series. Let’s cut to the chase: It’s awful. In fact, I would, if I could, send Unwept to the naughty corner for its terrible writing, inane worldbuilding and overreliance on tell-not-show.

It starts well, with a prologue in which our protagonist Ellis wakes up from death to realize she is trapped inside a coffin and her body is nothing but bones. Beating the fear and the panic she feels, Ellis is able to build herself up and to crawl out of her grave. It’s an arresting opening that is equal parts mysterious and thrilling. Unfortunately, everything goes downhill after that.

The next thing we know, Ellis is waking up from that nightmare inside a train, on the way to Gamin, Maine, with no memory of who she is and how she got there. She is told she is a recovering patient on the way back to a place she is supposed to know well, to meet her cousin Jenny and Uncle Lucian (who is not really her uncle at all but a creepy doctor that is supposed to keep an eye on her). If that wasn’t enough, things don’t seem quite right in Gamin. There are no children there, there are impossible houses with hidden rooms, everybody knows Ellis but they don’t seem trustworthy and their refusal to tell her anything about who she is and what happened to her is irritating. Worse, they make her wonder about her sanity. What is Gamin? What is happening to everybody? Who is killing women (yes, there is this added element too), and what is the “game” everybody seems to be playing? Also, who are these two men who seem to be fighting over who owns Ellis (seriously)?

The problems with Unwept are manifold.

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For the first two thirds of the novel, the cryptic nature of the story (the mystery surrounding Gamin and what happened to Ellis) moves the plot forward, but then expository revelations come hard and fast in the final part, entirely out of place with the “mysterious” mood of the novel. Ellis doesn’t recover her memory, but she is told—point blank—by many characters the “history” of Gamin and the circumstances that surround its inhabitants. Basically, the worldbuilding is a retelling of the biblical war between heaven and hell, except here the two factions split between living forever in this limbo they called Gamin or living a “real” life in which they all eventually die (but not really). They can cross from one place to the other through a Gate that no one knows where it will appear (apart, it seems, from Ellis). In Gamin, each inhabitant has a scrapbook in which they prepare themselves for their Day, and it’s all part of a Game. Or something. For some reason, it also attempts to be a historical novel, set around World War I.                

This is all not only convoluted and confusing but also incredibly silly. For example, there is a place in between which is called…”Tween.” Gamin is called Gamin because of the game people play (get it? get it?). Regardless of the mythic all-encompassing nature of the worldbuilding, this particular usage of words make this world limited to English speakers. Of course.  

And then we have the writing. The text is peppered throughout with pearls such as:

"The tenseness in her jaw relaxed"

"hesitation crawled up her spine"

"weariness wrapped its sleepy arms around her"

"alarm spread to her limbs"

I have a pet peeve about writing shortcuts like these: They describe important moments in the life of a character and yet they tell me nothing about them. It’s not enough to tell me that a character is tense, fearful, scary or weary. I want to know how a character experiences those things, how they react to them. What frustrates me the most about these in this particular book is that this feels like such a wasted opportunity to truly develop a character who doesn’t know who she is.

The writing is perhaps my biggest grievance—if it wasn’t so bad, the book might have fallen into that “so silly it is actually good” category. Alas, no.

In Book Smugglerish: an unwept 3 out of 10

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.