Lex Bartleby’s parents send her to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer in the hope that hard farm labour will help her with her anger issues. It turns out that Uncle Mort isn’t actually a farmer, but a Grim Reaper, and he is going to train Lex to be a Reaper herself. Gina Damico’s Croak has a funny premise and a cast of colourful characters. It starts off very weak, in my opinion, but the story gets better as it goes on, and I loved the ending.
My main issue with Croak is that Lex’s anger issues were just overdone. The book begins with her in the principal’s office for having bitten (literally!) a classmate because he’d called her a vampire. She’s sixteen. She’s also been a straight-A model student until a couple of years ago, when, for no apparent reason, she starts beating up practically everyone she meets. Her parents take her home and say they need to talk. “Are restraints really necessary this time?” Lex asks. I thought it was just another snark until I read that the mother really did bring out jump ropes to tie Lex to a chair, just so she won’t punch her parents when she learns she’ll be spending the summer with Uncle Mort. Lex’s twin sister Cordy wonders if the ropes amount to child abuse, and by this point, I’m already picturing Lex as a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic. I’m also wondering, if her parents are that scared of her, why they didn’t just ship her to a psychiatric facility at any point in those two years. For that matter, why didn’t the school do anything? Just because Cordy is still acting normal doesn’t mean that Lex’s parents are immediately cleared of all suspicion.
Over the next few chapters, Lex throws a shoe at a bus driver, stabs her uncle with a stick and threatens to beat a stranger with his sunglasses. The romance in the book kicks off with Lex giving the boy a black eye and him giving her one back. I’m not generally queasy about violence in books, and to be honest, Lex’s antics are too exaggerated, cartoon-style, to even make her scary. Still, Lex is beyond bratty. When Uncle Mort cuts off one of her rants and orders her to grow up, I wanted to hug him.
Her discipline problems are explained somewhat — apparently, all born Reapers have serious rage issues until they enter Croak, the town where Uncle Mort lives and one of the Grim Reaper centres in the US. Still, I don’t see the connection. In the Percy Jackson series, Rick Riordan explains that demigods are dyslexic because their brains are hard-wired to read Greek, and that they have ADHD because their bodies are designed to react quickly in battle. I love that, because I can understand how such characteristics can signal that one is a demigod. In Croak, however, I have no idea how wanting to beat everyone up is directly linked to being a Reaper, especially since the Reaper’s job is actually one of mercy — freeing the soul trapped a body that’s already dead.
Fortunately, it gets better. Once Lex begins training and realizes how much she enjoys being a Reaper, her anger issues fade a bit, and the book gets much more interesting. Lex and the other junior Reapers have noticed some mysterious deaths, possibly at the hands of someone from Croak, and investigate. It’s an interesting mystery, and it takes us right into the world of Grim Reaping. I really like the other junior Reapers, especially Elysia, whose bubbly personality adds some welcome cheer to the group. The whole world of Grim Reaping is very well fleshed out, and I loved learning details such as their use of jellyfish and their version of alcohol. The story just kept getting more interesting, as the mystery deepened, leading up to a powerful climax. Good on you, Ms. Damico. Brave, emotional twist, especially in what I presume is just the first book in a series, and I admire you for raising the stakes this early.
I also love that Croak raises an interesting moral dilemma. The most important rule for Reapers is that they can only take the souls of their targets. This seems fairly straightforward, but what if they enter the scene of a murder? What if they have to take the soul of an innocent child and see the man who killed her just a few feet away? In my review on Loss, I complained that the author played it safe and kept her protagonist from really exploring his dark side. In contrast, I love that Damico shows how torn up Lex is about letting murderers go. Surely it’s only justice to take the murderer’s soul as well, or at the very least, turn him in to the police. Yet such justice is beyond a Reaper’s jurisdiction, and there are dire consequences for any Reaper who disobeys this law. Lex is torn, and I love that Damico isn’t afraid to explore this subject. It’s a slippery issue, with no straightforward answer, and I enjoyed reading about it.
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