The Story: Once Dead, Twice Shy, by Kim Harrison, is the first book in the Madison Avery trilogy. In this initial installment, Madison was supposed to die in a car accident after her prom. Instead, she snatches a magical amulet from her death-dealing angel and is able to traverse both the mortal plain and the angel realm, meaning she’s neither fully alive nor entirely dead. Over time, Madison learns that the amulet she took has put heaven’s dark reapers in her command, but it’s up to her regarding how she uses her new-found power.
Okay, it’s not that bad, but Once Dead, Twice Shy doesn’t avoid the typical YA staples of teenage drama, crushes, and tropes we’ve grown to
love. I suppose if I was in the chief demographic for this book, these elements might not annoy me, but being an adult reader, I cringe at all of the teenage antics and banter. To its credit, this novel has a spunky female lead – Madison is an upbeat girl who doesn’t act like a jerk, which makes her likable and…that’s about it. She’s a good protagonist, even noble and polite at times, but she’s not memorable. However, the main appeal of this book, I sense, isn’t Madison but her legions of angelic admirers.
In this novel’s world-building, angels are split into two “classes,” light reapers (guardian angels) and dark reapers (angels of death). While light reapers work to protect mortals from darkness, death, and evil, dark reapers are only out for one thing – mortal souls. There are also seraphs and Timekeepers, both of whom have their own unique functions, but personally I think the world-building could have excluded them as their additions just felt tacked on. I know this is the first book in a trilogy, so it’s going to lay down the framework for the other novels, but I thought the war between the light reapers and the dark reapers was sufficient without any other beings taking up time and space.
Another thing I liked about this novel in a way is that it does focus on angels rather than the typical YA paranormal staples, namely vampires and werewolves. That being said, while the depictions of angelic beings in Once Dead, Twice Shy certainly don’t mince the fact that there are supernatural forces for both good and evil in the world and don’t turn angels into powerful beings pinning over the desire to be Human, it does take certain liberties. Up front, I don’t take issue with having angels as characters in fictional works provided the author tries to respectfully depict them; therefore, love triangles or sordid affairs involving angels and mortals are always sticking points with me as it just seems sacrilegious. Thankfully, Madison’s love interest is confined to the mortal Josh as opposed to her guardian angel (though that doesn’t stop her from crushing on him). As a whole, the angel characters aren’t necessarily disrespectful in their depiction, but a few act about as flighty as Madison does at times (no wing pun intended). Also, neither God nor Satan come into the picture here, so dark reapers aren’t fallen angels (they’re just a “bad” angel class), and light reapers are strictly commissioned with protecting mortals and aren’t shown worshiping God or sending messages to mortals on Earth.
Plotwise, this novel is mildly entertaining but doesn’t seem to do anything new with the concept of a mortal stuck between worlds and having to contend with an overarching destiny. To her credit, Madison takes her responsibility seriously once she learns of the ramifications. But aside from the fact that the fate of the entire celestial realm rests on her shoulders, she’s not given any other notable qualities and seems to fall into the Goth chick trope. This actually makes Once Dead, Twice Shy hard for me to review as nothing jumps out as particularly memorable, either from Madison as a character to the presence and function of angels in the story’s world. So the plot itself and its delivery and development were just average – not terrible but not socks-blown-off good.
But my largest complaint with Once Dead, Twice Shy was with a major facet of its world-building. While Harrison’s creation of light and dark reapers is interesting and easy to follow, it’s Madison’s undead state that is the most frustrating to grasp. Allow me to explain (no worries – this is all spoiler-free):
In the novel’s opening scene, Madison is at a summer camp and clearly visible to both her guardian angel and the mortal campers yet she’s already “undead” at this point, meaning she can exist both on Earth and in Heaven. Later on, she’s able to interact with her father, her boyfriend Josh, and other mortals – much like a mortal herself. Yet she’s undead, meaning she’s not fully dead, as she can exist in the mortal realm, but she’s not fully mortal as she can go straight to heaven without dying (interestingly she never traverses Hell as, being in spirit form, you’d assume she could do but why would she, I suppose). But since Heaven is a spirit realm, then Madison’s body couldn’t actually enter Heaven, thus she would have to be a spirit being herself, much like an angel, yet other characters in the mortal world can see and interact with her just like they can anyone else without noticing anything different about her (quite unlike an angel, I’ll add!).
If a character is supposed to be dead yet not dead, there should be a stronger distinction between how much interaction she has with mortals and/or immortal beings. I suppose the fact that Madison can communicate and interact with people on earth and angels in heaven implies she can dwell in both realms. But the novel’s premise is based upon Madison’s “illusion” of a body, which I am assuming follows the glamour principle where a character can disguise his or her form from others yet not be rendered entirely invisible. But who is the body an illusion to? If it’s an illusion for Madison’s sake, that would mean she can see herself in the form of a corporeal body but no one else could or only a few people could glimpse her in a normal body when she’s really in spirit form. But if the illusion of a body is for everyone else’s sake, that means Madison is a spirit appearing in bodily form to mortals yet she has control over who sees her and who can’t just as the angels tend to keep a low profile while on Earth.
Neither assumption is presented thoroughly enough for my liking, so I was left scratching my head at what Madison’s undead status ultimately meant. Overall, I would have been more convinced of her “illusion” of a body if her contact with mortals was limited or if she was visible only to select people. Otherwise, it seems like she’s just a normal girl who can hang out in Heaven with angels whenever she wants to. The idea of having a character having an illusion of a body is certainly a workable idea and I like it in principle, but I didn’t feel it was fleshed out like it could have been or at least in the way I was expecting it to, which kind of ruined the whole book for me since everything else hinged on that concept.
Language – Essentially none. If there is any language, it is minimal and occurs so infrequently, it’s easy to overlook.
Violence – Most of the violence is of the fantasy sort rather than outright gore, so there are no graphic scenes of death, torture, or brutality.
Sexual Material – None. Madison has a crush on her guardian angel and on the mortal Josh, but that’s as far as it goes.
Once Dead, Twice Shy has its moments but, overall, is a bit bland. The world-building is interesting in parts but there is some vagueness regarding the main protagonist’s undead state. Based on the overall tone and delivery, I sense this novel is intended to appeal to teens and teens only as anyone old enough to not be counted under the YA umbrella probably won’t find much to mine here. Granted, it makes for fun, light reading but that’s as far as it goes. So if you’re looking for clean teen paranormal fare, as well as angel-based books that don’t involve sordid romances, then Once Dead, Twice Shy is a good choice. But unless you’re already interested in these types of stories, then there really is nothing that will pull in anyone outside of the 14 to 17 crowd.