The Story: Croak, the first novel in a trilogy of the same name by Gina Damico, introduces readers to Lex Bartleby, a teen wild child who would rather get into fisticuffs than make good grades. When one act pushes her family to the breaking point, Lex is exiled to the tiny town of Croak, home of her enigmatic Uncle Mort. But Uncle Mort is more than just a motorcycle-riding farmer – he’s a Grim Reaper and, as it turns out, Lex has inherited the same trade. But with such a massive task as ushering souls into the afterlife comes a sense of responsibility that Lex will have to learn before a dangerous enemy from within the Reapers’ ranks threatens to tear apart their entire way of life…and death.
My Take: How can you resist the cheeky yet morbidly humorous cover of this book? That was the first thing that caught my eye along with the premise’s promise to offer up an interesting moral dilemma involving a teen Grim Reaper. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a boring and rather juvenile read that left me flipping through the pages just to put this story to rest.
Croak certainly starts off promising as we’re introduced to Lex (short for Lexington), who has gone from the perfect daughter and student to a violent problem case. After Lex bites a fellow classmate for seemingly no reason, her parents send her away for the summer to visit her Uncle Mort, who lives in the small town of Croak. But Croak isn’t your usual slice of Americana – it’s actually home to a gathering of Grim Reapers and serves as a gateway to the afterlife.
This novel sets up its characters and world building rather nicely. Lex is a fun character and, even though she’s not exactly role model material, she’s not despicable. Croak itself was enjoyably described with plenty of humorous death-inspired puns for its various businesses and shops; and while the various classes and functions of Reapers were slightly busy, the information wasn’t overwhelming. The Reapers as a whole are a bit amoral – all they do is usher souls into the afterlife and don’t ask questions as far as how right it is to claim, say, the soul of a murder victim as opposed to seeking revenge upon the victim’s killer. Lex, to her credit, rightfully questions this system but didn’t endure the big moral dilemma I assumed she would judging by the cover’s back blurb. Granted, this is the first book in a trilogy, but I was left wanting more on the morally-torn heroine front.
For me, the story held together best when it focused on Lex, Uncle Mort, and Driggs (Lex’s reaping partner); but when a slew of other characters entered the fray from the book’s midsection on, the cast got too expansive too quickly for me and these newly-introduced characters failed to make any lasting impression. Also, some of the plot devices and twists didn’t surprise me (such as the villain’s reveal and Lex and Drigg’s eventual attraction to each other). While sometimes I don’t mind being able to piece together a story’s plot, there has to be other elements at play to keep me invested. Sadly, Croak‘s novelty factor wore off about halfway in.
Also, this is a YA novel that I sense will strictly appeal to the YA crowd, not adults who enjoy reading YA. The overall tone is light (despite its subject matter) and some of the humor is smart but most of it comes across as very juvenile. I sped-read a portion of this book because the writing was so easy to breeze through, which sometimes isn’t a good thing. Lex’s rough-and-tumble image is likable but she’s a teen who definitely talks and acts like a teen, meaning she can act a bit too immature for my liking. Similarly, her relationship with Driggs has a bit of an I-like-you-but-I-can’t-stand-you sort of air, which also came across as immature, at least for the age I pictured Lex to be (as I imagined Lex to be between 16 and 18 years old). Granted, Lex doesn’t try to act too grown up and there are times when her anger is channeled properly, which shows she’s trying to not act rashly all of the time; but sometimes her teenage antics and wisecracks didn’t resonate with me and seemed hackneyed.
Another point worth noting is the way this novel portrays the afterlife. Rather than sending departed souls to Heaven or Hell, everyone goes to the same nondescript location. One character tells Lex that Heaven and Hell are only how someone chooses to perceive the afterlife, either as a place of paradise or torment. This might trouble some readers who believe in a Heaven/Hell afterlife, though I myself (as a Christian) didn’t take a huge issue with this in terms of the story’s context. (It’s fiction, so it’s depiction of the afterlife will be fictional, too.) That being said, some of the novel’s goofiest and most groan-worthy moments occur when Lex encounters some of the afterlife’s famous denizens, from Edgar Allen Poe to Elvis, which, while it fits the story’s tone, does make for some corny exchanges that left me grimacing more often than grinning.
Language – There are some harsh profanities sprinkled throughout (including a cut off f-word). Most of these are uttered by either Lex or Uncle Mort and do fit their characters’ personalities, but in a book for teens, I felt the language could have been toned down.
Violence – The book (as expected) focuses on death but maintains a comedic tone when appropriate. Since Reapers don’t kill but only transport souls, most of the violence occurs off-page with only references to violent acts. (However, it should be noted that a death does close out the book, and I was a bit disappointed that the novel ended the way that it did.)
Sexual Content – There is an obvious attraction between Lex and Driggs but nothing pushes the boundaries of good taste. (Though, just to note, I did end up speed-reading some of this novel, so there might have been scenes I missed. But based on what I read, which was the majority of it, this book is tame in terms of sexual content and surprisingly conservative in its approach to violence.)
Overall, Croak disappointed me in that I was expecting a darkly humorous romp driven by a serious moral conflict involving whether it’s right or wrong to avenge innocent souls. Instead, this was a fluffy read with a very juvenile tone that I suspect won’t appeal to most adult readers. That being said, I wouldn’t automatically hand this book off to a teen without perusing it first due to its language and views about the afterlife. In the end, Croak is a niche book that will appeal to some readers but certainly not all. I wanted to like it but, ultimately, it kicked the literary bucket for me.