Book Review: Shallow Graves, Kali Wallace (2016)

January 25th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Horror With a Heart

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including rape culture.)

Mom and Dad would be so disappointed. They had always told us there was no such thing as ghosts.

There’s something Karen Garrow once said about the fate of the universe. It was on one of her television shows, an episode I watched a dozen times on the basement TV. All of us, she said, all of us and all of everything that had ever existed and ever would exist, it was all made up of matter that formed in the very first moments of the universe, and it would all last until the very end. The atoms would decay, the particles would break apart, everything would disintegrate and shatter until it was unrecognizable – too degraded – but that would take so many billions and billions of years we didn’t even have words for time scales that large. Everything had come from the same hot explosion and everything would end in the same empty darkness. It had nothing to do with what we believed or what we wanted or how desperately we needed to reassure ourselves that the brief moment in which we lived meant anything at all. None of it would matter in the end.

And Karen smiled her playful smile, and she said, “But it isn’t the end yet. It matters now, everything we have, for as long as we can hold onto it.”

I was so fucking tired of men deciding whether or not I got to go on existing for another day.

One minute, seventeen-year-old Breezy Lin is at a high school party; the next, she wakes up in a shallow grave, in a vacant house just a few blocks from her house, a creepy man haunted by a creepier shadow eagerly digging her free. She reaches for him, pulls…and something in him snaps. The coroner’s report will list the cause of death as a heart attack, but Breezy killed him. Just like he killed that family of four, gathered around a dinner table, so many years ago.

A year has passed since her death, and during this time Breezy has morphed into something unnatural. Raised by magic – and the deaths of thousands of birds, every single one within a two-mile radius of her grave – Breezy is a revenant. An animated corpse, resurrected from death to hunt the living. Breezy can spot killers, who wear their guilt like a cloak; their sin calls to hear, awakens her hunger, and after she eats, she will carry their ghoulish memories with her, always. Unable to go home, Breezy starts hitchhiking across the country, seeking vengeance for other murdered souls.

But not for her. Never for her, because Breezy has no memories of her death. Her murder remains a mystery.

Shallow Graves starts out a lot like The Girl From the Well, with Breezy as a younger, Americanized version of the three-hundred-year old yuurei Okiku (who I absolutely adored). But Breezy only gets two bodies under her belt before she’s kidnapped by a evangelical cult that hunts monsters. Well, “hunts” isn’t exactly right: Pastor Willow’s father hunted them, while he finds, kidnaps (if necessary), and “cures” them – all with the help of the biggest, baddest, most ancient monster of them all, a cloven-hoofed beast they affectionately call Mother and keep imprisoned in an abandoned mine.

Desperate to be “normal” again, Breezy is torn between hope and realism. A newbie to the world of vamps and ghouls (and werewolves, and banshees, and nightmares, and ghosts, and maybe even mermaids; the monsters in this world are varied and imaginative and if there’s a sequel, I really hope we’ll meet more of them!), she doesn’t know down from up, let alone who to trust. With the help of a fellow captive named Rain; Ingrid the witch; brothers Zeke and Jake; and Violet, one of Pastor Willow’s success stories, Breezy must learn to discern the guilty from the innocent; the monstrous from the mundane. (Pro tip: species membership is largely irrelevant.)

Shallow Graves is a near-perfect mix of horror, fantasy, dark comedy, science geekiness, and feminist fiction. While horror is definitely the dominant genre, Wallace suffuses the story – Breezy’s observations in particular – with a wry, morbid sense of humor. (To wit: “The first rule of cannibal mermaid fight club is don’t talk about cannibal mermaid fight club.”) Though she’s obviously a smart, witty kid, her voice still sounds eminently believable. I pretty much fell in love with Breezy; she’s wonderfully nerdy, yet confident and comfortable in her own skin, brimming with ambition and confidence. When she wakes up undead, she adopts a rational approach to understanding her condition, complete with neat little lists of ways she cannot die laid out in her stolen NASA notebook. As a fellow list-maker, I can relate.

Breezy is also refreshingly socially aware, which is what gives the story its feminist/social justice bent. A biracial kid – Irish on her mom’s side, Chinese on her dad’s – Breezy is no stranger to racist microagressions. She’s also sexually active in a society that labels girls who enjoy sex “sluts” – and denigrates them as “prudes” should they abstain. Shortly before she’s killed, Breezy is the victim of slut-shaming rumors…rumors that would have been overshadowed by later summer events, had she not gone missing (including one of her classmates coming out as trans). Plus she’s bisexual, and totally cool with it.

There are so many wonderful feminist details in this book, I can’t even (!). They’re subtle enough that readers are apt to overlook many of them if they’re not paying attention. For example, Breezy’s mom has a different last name from her kids, suggesting that she kept her name when she married. Breezy is delightfully geeky; she dreams of being an astronaut, went to space camp as a kid, and reads Scientific American for funsies. Breezy waxes poetic on the nature of the cosmos – much to my joy – in what are some of the loveliest passages in the book; some I even set aside to add to my not-a-religion religion cannon. (Think: Octavia Butler’s Parables duology.)

And Breezy isn’t alone: Breezy’s mother studied neuroscience at MIT, and her mom’s best friend Karen Garrow (also biracial, and Breezy’s first girl crush) is a physicist who often appears on television shows about physics and astronomy. “She was the one they interviewed when they wanted to prove that science was for minorities and young women as much as old white men.” Breezy is not wanting for badass female role models.

I also love that Wallace set Breezy up with a prophecy, a fate, a destiny – one which Breezy obstinately decided to ignore, at least for the time being. She will not be a slave to your predictions, yo! The ending is pretty much perfect, though I do hope Breezy crosses paths with her killer again. An annual pants-wetting is the least she owes him/her, methinks.

Wallace frequently references pop culture, and the various elements of the story remind me of some of my favorite books and television shows: Being Human; Supernatural (especially the Winchesters’ evolving concept of good and evil, human vs. monstrous); Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie (the cryptids!); Rin Chupeco’s The Girl From the Well, which I already mentioned, and its follow-up, The Suffering; there are even shades of Buffy here, from Pastor Willow’s name to the sly humor and its celebration of smart women. I haven’t read any of Holly Black’s stuff yet, but the story is definitely in the same wheelhouse as Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

A strong 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary. I had hoped to see more righteous vengeance (and monsters!), but the story’s pretty great anyway.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Breezy Lin is biracial: her mother is Irish and her father is Chinese; he immigrated to the U.S. when he was 18. Breezy is bisexual; when she was younger, she had a crush on her mom’s best friend, Karen Garrow, a physicist. (Breezy’s mom is in neuroscience and kept her last name when she married.) Karen is also biracial (and a survivor of domestic violence): “tall and dark haired, with copper skin and gray eyes. My sister Sunny told her once she looked like Nefertiti, and Karen had laughed and said she had her father to thank for that, whoever he was.” Breezy has to deal with racism as well as slut-shaming.

Breezy’s friend Maria Garcia (whose life she cribs to make her patchwork girl) is Latina; she has family in Mexico. When Breezy tells the ghoul Jake about how she kissed her best friend Melanie on her last night as a human (and received a slap for it), he sympathizes: something similar happened to him wen he kissed a guy friend. One of Breezy’s classmates came out as trans the summer she died. Pastor Willow’s father abused (and ultimately murdered) his wife; Breezy laments her lack of a name in Willow’s memories.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Shallow Graves, Kali Wallace (2016)”

  1. Hannah Black Says:

    Dear Kelly Garbato,

    I’m really like your review about the book “Shadow Graves”. It keeps me thinking a lot about who Breezy is, the real Breezy, if she was out there. And if it is possible, I will buy this book then immediately read it. It’s able to say that I truly love it after reading your review.
    However, there’s something in this review I don’t understand much.
    “There are so many wonderful feminist details in this book, I can’t even (!)”
    I don’t know what you are trying to say, why you laid that mark. I wonder why. Could you explain that for me, please?
    By the way, have a nice day!

  2. Kelly Garbato Says:

    Hey Hannah! That’s my shorthand for saying that there are so many great feminist details in this book that I can’t do anything other than flail around in excitement. :)

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