“I’m pretty sure I died. For like, a minute, at least.”
Against a blue and black background, a spidery streak of lightning illuminates the sign, Dunhill Cemetery. In the second frame, a car appears, twin spots of red, the brake lights, gleaming like eyes as a shadowy figure unloads another figure from the trunk and hurls it down a defile. That’s how Cemetery Girl: The Pretenders, by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden opens.
The body is that of our main character, a teenaged girl with no memory of her past, only sketchy recollections of an attack. She knows that someone tried to kill her, and that her life now depends on letting them think they succeeded.
The girl seeks shelter in a crypt and chooses names from the headstones, Calexa Rose Dunhill. She steals food from the caretaker (who knows it, and lets her) and from a nearby house. The book employs a counting device to keep the tension mounting, as Calexa mentally tracks how many days, weeks and months she has been hiding in the cemetery.
Calexa learns a bit about herself from watching funerals – most notably, that she can see the spirits of the dead. She cannot just obsess about her situation, although she does, a bit too much, in the first half. Soon she has more pressing problems. A group of high-school students comes to the cemetery at night, planning to work magic. Cerise, the leader, takes magic seriously, and later, when a member of the group is killed by a drunk driver, Cerise makes a choice with devastating consequences for another character, and for Calexa. Calexa must decide not only to do the right thing, but how to do the right thing, leading to a tense and exciting second half of the book.
Artist Don Kramer gives us a hazel-eyed, chestnut-haired Calexa with just the right amount of vulnerability. His color palette evokes the peacefulness of a graveyard at times and the frightfulness of it at others, especially at night. A nice touch is the epitaphs, which are legible on several of the headstones as the story progresses. I don’t think they are clues, necessarily, but they definitely add grace notes to the story. The artwork is atmospheric, even if we do see Calexa leaping over headstones a few too many times.
Calexa becomes friends with Lucinda, the elderly lady whose house she robbed of food, and continues her cautious relationship with the lonely caretaker. These two older-generation characters give her a support network. At the end of The Pretenders, Calexa is recovering scraps of memories, which lead to more questions. How is it that she understands Latin? Whose funeral did she attend, as a little girl? Most ominously, what was in the syringe that injected her, in the attack she barely remembers?
The Pretenders is a first-rate opening to this YA graphic trilogy. In a couple of places I found the language jarring, but I think this is because the writers are trying to let us know it’s set in the south, without giving us a specific town or state. The characters, the set-up and the suspenseful story carried me through Book One, and I look forward to reading the next two.