Whitcomb (A Certain Slant of Light) revisits the hereafter with this ambitious fantasy that dips into Russian history to explain why Princess Anastasia and Prince Alex's remains were not found alongside the rest of the slain Romanov family: they were spirited away by Calder, a Fetch, who attends the dying and escorts souls to heaven. Calder is a hugely empathetic figure, abandoned as a baby and killed at age 19, but he errs, first by falling in love with a Romanov, and then in taking the dying mystic Rasputin's body as his own in order to pursue her, causing a major rupture in the spirit world. To heal the wound, he, Anastasia and Alexei (here called Alexis) travel the globe in search of a lost key. The story, riveting until this point, loses its focus as they begin their trek. Whitcomb's inventive vision of the afterlife almost makes up for the plodding pace of the narrative-it's an ultimately comforting place where souls see their deepest regrets woven into tapestries and their contributions displayed in the form of a garden only they can interpret. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Children's Literature - Claudia Mills
If you have ever wondered why the Russian monk Rasputin was so famously hard to kill (surviving stabbing, poison, and gunshot wounds), Whitcomb has a decidedly fresh take on the issue. In her novel, the Rasputin who cannot be killed is not actually Rasputin at all but a "Fetch" (or death escort) named Calder who has broken his heavenly vows to linger on Earth, inhabiting the dead Rasputin's abandoned body, while Rasputin himself goes off to wreak havoc in the world of the afterlife. Calder's breaking of his sacred vows brings with it terrible, unforeseen consequences, which lead to his having to flee around the globe with the murdered tsar's murdered son Alexis and murdered daughter Ana, trying to escort Alexis and Ana safely to heaven as they are pursued by a legion of Lost Souls unleashed by the mischievous, troublemaking Rasputin. As they race from Russia to Hollywood and on to London, Calder and Ana fall in love: will they be together for immortality or cruelly separated for all of time? The novel is almost 400 pages long, and much of it reads like a lengthy recounting of somebody else's dreams, with Calder slipping in and out of various visions of his long-distant past. But teens seeking a supernatural romance with an intriguing historical setting will find it here. Reviewer: Claudia Mills, Ph.D.
School Library Journal
Calder is a Fetch, a ghost who escorts souls from their "earthly shells" through the Death Door toward a waiting boat to Heaven. While each soul sees him differently, Calder knows himself to be a young man of 19 who died more than 300 years ago. Obsessed with a beautiful woman who tends a dying child, he breaks his sacred vows and enters the earthly world at a pivotal time and place: Russia, on the eve of revolution. Occupying the body of Rasputin, he enters into an intimate relationship with the imperial family, before and after their executions. As the action-filled plot, bound by the complex and sometimes confusing rules surrounding "Fetching," makes its twists and turns, Calder finds himself on a round-the-world journey with the embodied ghosts of Anastasia and Alexi, the hemophiliac tsarevich, in search of a key that will enable them to reunite with their family in Heaven. Meanwhile, the spirit of Rasputin and a host of malicious lost souls follow in hot pursuit. Only Ana, as the book calls her, sees Calder's true self. This fantasy, based on Christian themes of Heaven and Resurrection, is at its heart a tender love story. The author's romantic vision of the hereafter could be fodder for thoughtful discussion, as well as a satisfying escape for those who thrill to disembodied lovers.-Margaret A. Chang, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams
Whitcomb (A Certain Slant of Light, 2005) again tackles possession, spectral romance and reconciliation with the past, with a decided lack of oomph. Fetches are dead souls who usher others from their "death scenes" through "the Aisle" to their final resting place; this Christian-based vision of the afterlife is fresh and engaging. Fetch Calder breaks his vows when he falls for a mortal woman and ends up possessing Rasputin in order to meet her, only to find she is the doomed Tsarina. He gifts two of her children (Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Anastasia, here a winsome teen) with immortality but has unleashed mayhem by setting Rasputin's spirit free and cannot re-enter the Aisle until he sets right these wrongs as well as those of his mortal lifetime. Sadly, the promising setup gets lost in a literally circular journey, and the romance is a bore. Also, the 2007 discovery of bones that definitively proved that Alexei and Anastasia Romanov died with their family makes the choice to use that mystery as an underpinning suspect at best. (Fantasy. 12 & up)
From the Publisher
"The rich descriptions, particularly of the exquisitely imagined afterlife, are exceptionally drawn, as are the sympathetic characters and the unusual premise. A challenging book with an intriguing conclusion, this will lead thoughtful readers to spirited discussions."—Booklist, starred review
"Whitcomb's writing is clear and thoughtful, and she makes elegant sense of this unusual and original plot . . . The title's genre-crossing nature will make it appealing to fans of several different categories: supernatural stories, mysteries, historical fiction, and/or romance."—The Bulletin
"This fantasy, based on Christian themes of Heaven and Resurrection, is at its heart a tender love story. The author’s romantic vision of the hereafter could be fodder for thoughtful discussion, as well as a satisfying escape for those who thrill to disembodied lovers."—School Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
Part I The Aisle of Unearthing
One Calder was a Fetch, a death escort, and had been since his own death at the age of nineteen. He had been a Fetch for three hundred and thirty years, and so had seen many women in the Death Scenes to which he had been sent. He’d watched women drowning, one with seaweed twisting her gown into a mermaid tail, another in a pond surrounded by lilies that glowed like funeral offerings about her floating hair. He’d seen women lost and broken in ivy- choked woods and in open fields where they lay fallen in the snow, half covered like gravestones. Some died safe in their downy beds, some forgotten in alleys.
He had also seen many women who tended to the dying—this one washing her sister’s face with lilac water, that one praying and weeping with her father. Some had been nursing soldiers, others dreaming beside husbands they did not realize had ceased breathing. For the last three hundred and thirty years Calder had seen thousands upon thousands of mortal women, so he did not understand why, on this day, the sight of this particular woman afflicted him.
On earth it was the winter of 1904. The Death Door had opened onto a nursery, and the dying body was that of a baby boy whose swollen belly was bleeding from the inside. The sight of a dying infant did not shake Calder, for he’d escorted hundreds of them through the Aisle of Unearthing. He had seen babes die alone in their cradles at night, or surrounded by doctors and priests, in dirty huts, in palaces, from cold or from fever, and he had often seen their mothers trying to breathe life back into their small mouths. Calder, like all Fetches, felt sympathy for this pain, but when a human soul—even an infant’s—reaches for its Fetch and slips out of its earthly shell, the cries and shudderings of those left behind are closed on the other side of the Death Door. No mortal terror, sorrow, or anger could ever rattle that portal open again. The Fetch holds the only Key.
So though it was not the first time Calder had seen a beautiful woman, when he first beheld this woman’s halo of reddish-gold hair, he was stung with recognition. And although he had seen many women devoted to their children, when he saw the way this woman held her baby in the nest of her white dress and whispered to him words that were not words but tiny prayers and magic charms, he was mesmerized. She sat, gently rocking in the lamplight, like a ghost singing in a forbidden language. She pulled at Calder’s heart, almost unfurling the stiff pages of his memory--so familiar, but he knew he had never set eyes on her before. Calder tried to remember if this woman looked like anyone he had seen during his nineteen years on earth, but just as the sorrow of the earthbound is shut on the other side of the Death Door, the memories of earth are drawn away from the dying soul. When Calder died and became a Fetch, his old life was eclipsed by his new one—he could remember being human in a distant way, like viewing a painting on a wall through an open door one room removed. Whether the picture of a Fetch’s past life was heavenly or hellish, it appeared serene and remained motionless. Calder’s own painting of his human life was a rich and shadowed thing, deep with color and detail but as still as any canvas mounted on a wall. Before a theatrical arch, under the warm glow of a paper lantern, with his audience of gentlefolk standing or reclining about him, Calder played an ornate drum and sang so sweetly that everyone stopped to listen. At his feet lay a fur cloak, perhaps a gift from his noble patron. What songs he sang and the name of his benefactor were distant to him now in both time and interest. But sometimes as he traversed the Aisle and heard the pulse of music in the Theatre or Feast of the soul in his charge, he would almost recall some snippet of tune or line of poetry that had been known to him on earth. A note that leapt up and hovered, a simple lyric of love unrequited. The memory would flare, then fade before he could repeat it. When this happened, Calder wondered if under this perfect picture of his human life there might not be another painting hiding in pentimento, its darker and forgotten shapes waiting to be drawn to the surface.
Calder tried now to recall women he had known on earth, but he could not remember any sisters or his mother. He imagined what the women might have looked like, those that listened to him sing. Graceful ladies in satin and pearls, nodding with admiration. But none of the feminine visions he could conjure brought him joy like this woman in white. Calder stood still so as not to disturb her, though he couldn’t be seen or heard by most mortals. She must have been the nurseery maid or governess, for she was wearing a simple cotton dress with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, in contrast to the room, which was riiiiichly dressed with brocade curtains, cushioned chairs, and a brass crib filled with lace bedding. Perhaps the baby was only her charge, but it was clear that she loved him as though he was the only child on earth. Calder studied her delicate fingers as she cupped the baby’s head and lifted him to her lips. He watched her heartbeat tap an almost invisible rhythm at her throat. He felt despair pulsing through her, but only the slightest trembling was visible in her shoulders. She was calling all her strength to the task; Calder could feel it as distinctly as he felt his own tremors; she was trying to still her nerves and calm her breathing so that the dying child would sense no fear. Calder watched with a confounding sense of loss. And this was when he did something he had never done before in all his years as a Fetch.
He hoped the child would live. Calder, like all Fetches, was supposed to be indifferent to the outcomes of Death Scenes, and usually that came naturally. Some souls chose to cross over; others chose to stay. And it was not always the sickest who chose death or the one with the slightest wound who chose life. A Fetch was to respect this choice without question and without judgment. Calder had never wished to stop a Death, but when a Death Scene held a single mourner, one human left alone with no relative or friend as comfort, Calder felt an instinct to stay with him, though, of course, he could not.
As Calder gazed down on these two mortals, he could hear men’s voices coming from the corridor—hushed, apprehensive whispers—perhaps doctors, perhaps holy men. This family could afford the best physicians, but some hurts cannot be healed. A gentleman, with dark whiskers and fine clothes, came to stand in the nursery doorway. A woman peered over his shoulder. These were the baby’s parents, perhaps. Calder paid little attention to them, for he was reluctant to turn away from the governess since he would have so little time with her. He knew a good Fetch would not stare this way at a human, but he could not help himself.
Moments later the father and mother had gone, but a child appeared in their place—a girl of no more than four, peeking around the door frame. Calder had no intention of looking at the girl, but she had a strong presence, like a bit of mirror-reflected light flashing in the corner of his vision. Her hair was as reddish-blond as that of the governess, but her face was not angelic—she was like a storybook elf, with pointed chin, a short, round nose, and curious eyes beneath brows arched in a kind of challenge. Calder suspected she was lonely since her governess needed to spend so much time with her baby brother. The girl watched the governess for a moment, then turned to Calder and set her tiny fists on her hips. He regarded her, unruffled. Though Fetches were invisible to most adult humans, very young children could often see them—some animals could, as well. But since the children able to see Fetches were usually too young to describe their visions with any clarity, and since they would forget the incident within a few months, the Order of the Fetch remained a secret. As the elfish child glowered at him, Calder felt a familiar movement in the spectral air, the spirit wind that accompanied a soul’s indecision. The wind circled the nursery, rippling Calder’s hair but leaving everything tangible in the room undisturbed. This was the turning point in a Death Scene, the secret discussion between the body and the spirit. Next a stillness fell over everything, the sign that the decision had been made: The baby would stay. He had chosen life. Calder felt almost sick from the pleasure. He wanted to stay until the governess realized the baby would live, but he knew he could not. She wouldn’t feel the relief of it for hours, but the little girl in the doorway knew something had changed. She dropped her hands to her sides as if any threat Calder had brought with him was now past, then slipped out of sight, the flip of her petticoats flashing like a white rabbit through the dark hole of the doorway. Calder felt the Death Door appear again in the air behind him. Though he longed to, he did not linger. He took his Key from a chain about his neck and unlocked the Door, opening it without another glance back. He couldn’t stay with the governess, but neither could he leave her behind. He set the memory of her in a secret drawer of his mind, like a tiny locket he could open at will, though he did not know her name.