Book Review: Scorch, by Gina Damico

I read Gina Damico’s Croak when it came out last year and enjoyed it, so I was pleased to spot Scorch on the shelves, because I have a fondness for the series and the characters. Let’s face it: I have a soft spot for death in general, and I’m kind of in love with the growing genre of quirky books about death and the people who live with it. I realise the trope of people working as reapers, necromancers, or related, er, employees of death, as it were, is a bit overdone, but I’m not quite sated yet (see also: Lish McBride’s necromancer series).

I think it’s because deep inside, I still wish Dead Like Me was on the air. Death fascinates me in all its myriad forms and laughing at death fascinates me even more, because there is in fact something about death that can be deeply funny and awkward even as it is also terrifying for some people. And making light of the seriousness of death helps some people cope with it, turns death from a scary unknown into something familiar and funny, rather than remote. It’s telling that so many YA series about working for Death are lighthearted at their core, with sharp, sassy characters rather than unrelenting doom and gloom.

In the case of Damico’s series, her heroine is a Killer, someone who frees souls from their bodies at the moment of death. Working with a Culler, a person who collects souls so they can be transported to the afterlife, she travels around her patch of the Grim network by ripping through the fabric of space and time. She learns about her career, and her destiny, when she’s dragged to her uncle’s house for the summer after misbehaving so egregiously that her parents have given up on understanding who their daughter really is.

Croak set out the premise and gave us some stakes, and Scorched raised the bar significantly. It turns out that Lex has some unusual powers in addition to the standard set, and those powers are a subject of fear and controversy in her world. As she faces off against a seriously motivated enemy, she also has to do battle with a crew of bureaucrats who hate her, her uncle, and everything they stand for, and figure out who’s helping her enemy from the inside, allowing her to do tremendous damage inside the system as well as without.

What I love about this series is that Lex is such a distinct, powerful, strong character. She’s got a really clear voice that comes through loud and clear, and while she is, yes, a bit snarky, it’s not formulaic or dull. She has a bright edge to her that makes her sparkle, and she grows and develops as a character over the course of time as the stakes get higher and more of the people around her start really mattering to her. She makes a great anchor for the series, and she’s offset well by the strong and complementary characters around her, like her uncle Mort and partner Driggs.

Scorch, like Croak is set in a very whimsical world with considerable silliness going on around the edges, along with wry references, but it does have a serious plot that does take us somewhere interesting. Damico does a good job of deftly keeping the book light and fun without letting it collapse; it is a bit of a souffle, a fine and delicate balance that she carries with aplomb. It’s also very action-driven, moving along at a rapid pace without forcing the reader to linger, which makes it a superb skulking around on the weekend reading books when you’re probably supposed to be doing something else read. Because you can totally justify getting sucked into it and needing to read just a bit more to see what happens next.

I’m interested to see where she goes with the next book, which she very much set up for here. These are characters I definitely want to keep seeing, and a multibook arc is certainly suitable for the story she’s telling right now, but I hope she doesn’t wrap up so many ends that there’s no reason to keep writing their stories, because there’s so much more I want to explore about the Grimosphere, and so much more to learn about how the characters and their world actually work; Damico has set up some interesting premises within these books about how to structure society and who is the best choice to be in charge of complex and serious projects, and the books overall position teens and young adults as people taken seriously in their society, and people who should, by extension, be taken seriously in the real world as well.

It was a sneaky bit of commentary to embed in a series that already had a variety of things going on within it. Damico wasn’t heavy-handed about it and didn’t feel the need to beat readers over the head with it, but it was definitely there, and it certainly fit the story and the setting. I like that this is a world in which youth are encouraged to try a number of different jobs to find the one that’s right for them, and that this is a world in which young people are looked to as leaders because of their ability to bring fresh blood into the world and rethink existing standards and norms to push things in new directions. It’s a far cry from the idea that elders are the only source of ideas and should always be the ones in charge, instead creating a more cooperative model that involves people of all ages working together in solidarity, and I like that as a model for young readers.