Standalone novella by Seanan McGuire
“…dead is the change you can’t take back, dead is the mistake that can’t be unmade.”
Another stunning Seanan McGuire novella. There are two supernatural groups at play: ghosts and witches. Ghosts need to take time away from humans. This means that the human is made younger, and the ghost is older. It’s the only way they can age and reach the time they were meant to die. Their dying day. Jenna Pace is a ghost, killed when she ran into a ravine while grieving for her older sister Patty, who committed suicide. Witches draw their power from a singular source, which can vary. Witches can tell the dead from the living and they can control whether or not a ghost gives or takes time from them.
Jenna operates under self-imposed conditions. She needs to feel that she’s earned the time she takes. She does so by working at a suicide hotline and counting only the minutes from calls that she felt made a difference. Proof that, as the book later says, ghosts are still human.
Most of the beginning is establishing the world and its rules, which is good. I didn’t understand “taking time away” at first. The plot kicks in when Jenna is warned that all of the other ghosts in Manhattan have disappeared. She and a sort-of witch friend named Brenda work together to find out why they’re gone.
The cast is principally female, which felt natural and not forced. The writing is melancholy, with a bit of a poetic bent that makes for a dreamy reading experience, as well as nicely establishing Jenna’s otherness, both as a ghost and someone who is old while never having quite aged like a loving person. I was lucky enough to score a glass-door study area at the library, which combined with my cold to make for an atmosphere of altered consciousness.
“As always, it’s comfortable to put my death-clothes back on, like I’m setting the world a little closer to right. The shape of the skin under the shroud has changed as I’ve stolen my way into adulthood, one minute at a time, from the people around me, but this is one thing that will always fit, no matter how old I get. I was buried in it. It knows me.
This is a ghost of a garment, worn thin by my memory, and as gone as the rest of me. The worms have had my flesh by now. The creeping roots of trees have had the cotton stitching at my hips and the colour of my hair. It’s been forty years since I went to the earth, and even my bones will be crumbling by now, going down into the Hollow, like the bones of all the folk who came before me. There’s something comforting in that.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t perfect. The ending is rushed in the worst ways. That could just be a mild irritation, but so much of it falls short of satisfaction. Lots of things go unexplained, which is already bad in a shorter work, but looks worse in comparison to all of the things that interweave and call back so well. The antagonist gets the worst of this. Coming in late is fine, but they had almost no motivation, no explanations, and lacked impact.
Still, this author is generally a win with me, and with good reason. She has awesome ideas and the execution is often just as much fun as the core concept, which is sort of the holy grail of cool moment generation. I think this novella is a perfect gateway for people interested in checking out the paranormal genre without romantic elements.