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Slow start, profound finish.

By Chris Poirier, editor

Aug 6, 2008: I read Mortal Ghost last night. Perhaps I should clarify: I read all of Mortal Ghost last night. The last time I went cover to cover on a book in one day, it was Ellen Hopkins’s Crank—a year ago.

Mortal Ghost begins with some legitimate fear and an act of mercy. Jesse is in his teens, homeless, and alone. He’s just spent the night under a bridge—not his first—and the big items on his list for the day are finding some food, and avoiding getting raped or beaten up. He has a few bucks—proceeds from mowing lawns or running errands or whatever legitimate work he can find—but he’s not looking to find something permanent. He’s just passing through. As quickly, and as quietly as he can. He hopes to see the ocean one day. But mostly, he just hopes to escape his haunted past.

While at the river trying to clean himself up a bit, he meets a stray dog and a kestrel with a broken wing. With a little careful work, he heals the kestrel and sets it free—for that is something he can do. But there’s a cost. Already worn down by constant hunger, his exertion leaves him sick, and desperate for food. He sets off into town. The stray dog follows.

But Jesse is intensely aware of his limitations. Of his reality. He can’t take care of a dog—he can barely take care of himself. But the dog won’t leave him. So he picks up a rock and throws it. Enter Sarah, who doesn’t see it as an act of mercy, and who considers it a matter of course to enter the fray on behalf of the weak.

Sarah’s a child of privilege—but not a spoiled brat. She’s intelligent, opinionated, and has the fearlessness of someone who’s never faced real danger. She starts up a conversation with Jesse, in the aftermath of their argument about the dog, and ends up taking them both home with her. Jesse doesn’t really want her charity—he certainly doesn’t trust her—but the offer of a real meal and maybe an actual shower is too much to pass up.

And so the story begins. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill homeless teenager story. Jesse is not quite your ordinary teen. He can heal things, yes. He can do things with fire, too. And he seems to have an odd awareness of things present and past—an ability that is eerie and unnerving, at times. Something is not quite right with Sarah’s family, either. Her parents are also intelligent, kind, caring—they happily take Jesse in, careful enough to phrase it in ways he will accept—but there’s darkness in their past, too. A dead brother for Sarah, a dead son for her parents. And a lot of buried anger and pain.

Over the course of the story, Jesse’s dark past and Sarah’s family’s demons interact and overlap, building to something quite explosive. The story seldom lacks for action, but maintains a strong character base.

At its heart, Mortal Ghost is a story about damaged people getting to know, and trust, and love one another. Nobody in this story has had a simple life, and Jesse’s abilities serve only to complicate things. A lot. But everyone here is so bright, and, at their cores, so decent, that, regardless of the set backs—and the fundamental difficulty of laying down your emotional shields and weapons, when all you’ve ever known is fighting—they keep trying to make it work.

In the end, does everything work out? No. It’s not that kind of story. But they find some happiness along the way, and some peace. And maybe just a little justice.

Mortal Ghost isn’t a perfect novel. The writing is slow, at times, and overly descriptive. Chapter 1 is particularly slow; and, in Chapter 21, the story heads into cyberpunk territory, and nearly jumps the shark in doing so. That said, the real problem with Chapter 21 may simply be sloppy writing—most of the chapter reads as narration through characters, and was bad enough to nearly convince me to stop reading.

More generally, the narrative point of view jumps from head to head a lot, without warning, and I found the transitions distracting every time. Also, the author switches from past to present tense any time a main character experiences something supernatural, or is "in the zone". I suspect the intent was to make the experience feel as immediate for the reader as it does for the character—the written equivalent of slow motion. Unfortunately, I found it very jarring each time.

That all said, Mortal Ghost was a solid read. Jesse uses his abilities for good, more often than not, but, he’s a teenager, and some things beyond his control push him places he maybe shouldn’t go. Additionally, it is never clear to him or anyone else exactly what he is, and as his powers and abilities grow, his journey from scared street kid to powerful, confident adult is complicated and interesting. When finished, Mortal Ghost left me with that odd buzz of conflicting emotions and profound experience—and I’m very glad I read it. I got to spend the night with some wonderful people whose presence I will miss, and to experience a story that kept me guessing, that never lacked for action, and that taught me something about what a good story can be.

Go read Mortal Ghost. Push past the slow first chapter, ignore its technical flaws—especially chapter 21—and enjoy an otherwise wonderful story.

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