This young adult novel was reviewed in November, but with the holiday focus on books for children and young adults, it seemed wise to feature it once again.
Seven decades dead, Mary van Amsterdam is charged with an important afterlife role: caring for animals known as the Tragically Dead in Recovery. They live in a seventeenth-century Amsterdam row house, where Mary and another shepherd, Aal the Eel, help creatures great and small overcome the trauma associated with their deaths so they can progress to the next level of the afterworld.
The most emotionally damaged member of the household is Darkhorse, who can’t shed the guilt associated with his death as an early 20th-century fire horse. Every morning he awakes painfully bound in misaligned harnesses, and every morning he clomps to Jaap’s shop, where the friendly dead locksmith frees him. He’s despondent that his best friend, Gerald the hippo, is moving to the next level and leaving him behind, even as the dreadful straps drop from his dry bones.
Late one night Mary receives a message, delivered by a flying green orb, that a traumatized new soul in Prague needs her help. Travelling in a conjured train car, she’s attacked by a malevolent Soul Reaper when she ventures to the bar car. The being attacks the bartender, Luis, trapping him in a suffocating death cough, even as Mary repels it. But as the grim entity vanishes, she hears a faint and familiar voice calling to her, begging for help and recognition.
The creature in need is a maimed crow, Tycho, devastated that his most recent death destroyed his beak. Despite his never-ending generosity and goodness, his many lives have been difficult, leaving him hopeless. However, kind Duke Vaclav creates a magic golden beak for him, endowed with incredible powers, and the little black bird immediately puts it to use in the service of his savior, Mary.
Back in Amsterdam, both Aal and Darkhorse glimpse the Soul Reaper, but manage to avoid it. However, when Mary returns and organizes an outing for the residents, the creature descends on the picnic, once again intent on cornering Mary. Darkhorse ushers most of the animals back to the house and helps set up fortifications, while Mary, Tycho, and Fawn, a fearless little doe, confront the Soul Reaper in a spectacular standoff that destroys the smoky being, but robs Mary of her powers and renders her talisman lifeless.
To regain her magic and recharge her amulet, she journeys to Edinburgh to appear before the Council. Tycho transports her with his magic beak, since she’s lost the Guardian ID that permits passage on the spirit train. She returns to Amsterdam with even more abilities and a revived talisman, but still wonders about the voice crying out to her from the depths of the Soul Reaper’s choke-inducing darkness.
Mary van Amsterdam and the Tragically Dead is a heart-rending tale of afterlife care for good-hearted animals and charmingly illustrated with the author’s black and white drawings. Readers can only hope that such a fate awaits humans on their passage.