Funeral Games is a unique, fantastical romp through a medieval world. Syphax is a prince, but an unimportant one, being the younger son of one of his father’s many wives. He doesn’t excel in much of anything, other than reading and daydreams of greatness (reminds me of myself in some ways… I jest… but really). Syphax is a member of the nobility who are called the Undying because, when they shuffle off this mortal coil, they rise again as tangible ghosts called ancestors. These ancestors help govern the living and form another spooky faction in the sprawling complex of the capital city that is Ingerval Palace. The walls of the palace are filled with dead and living nobility who are divided into many different houses with a tangled history of treaties and backstabbing, all with the goal of more power for the members of their clan. The future looks, if not bright, then at least rosy, for our hero, Syphax, until, at one very memorable funeral celebration, something completely unexpected happens. And then, all hell breaks loose inside and outside the walls of Ingerval.
I loved the juxtaposition of the living and the dead in Funeral Games. It added a whole other level of political machinations to the usual struggles of a monarchy and its nobility. Here is the scene at one of the funerals: “The crowd roared with laughter- at least the Living among them. The Dead sat at their assigned places. They didn’t eat or drink, and weren’t the least bit amused by the antics of their descendants. There must have been two hundred ghosts and at least as many Living in attendance. Normally, the Dead kept their own company, but the day was a special one.” loc 56, ebook. I also loved how, in the course of the story, Heintze dealt with the ghost’s eternal nature, limitations, and struggle for recognition beyond the grave. It really is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
There is a love interest in this but it doesn’t dominate the storyline or descend into the ridiculous. In fact, the girl/heroine, though she doesn’t play a huge part, is kind of hard core, which is a refreshing change of pace for the genre. In this passage, she’s talking to Syphax about one of the ancestors: “I feel like he watches me, Syphax.” “You’re in a palace full of ghosts. It’s natural to feel that way.” “Sometimes I have these dreams. And when I wake up, he’s always nearby…” … “It will be fine,” I said. “He’s harmless. All ghosts are.” loc 136, ebook. (suspenseful music building…)
My favorite part of Ingerval is, of course, the Library! “Ingerval Palace had many wonders. None were as great, nor so underappreciated, as the Library. Books were one of the few pleasures afforded to ghosts, and the Dead’s demand for the written word made Ingerval the world’s leader in the production, purchase, and dissemination of books.” loc 367, ebook. I would fit in well with the Undying, I think.
There is some rough language in this, some tense moments, and a small, if not too graphic, torture scene, so I’d suggest a reading audience of 14/15+ depending on the maturity level of the reader. I’d recommend Funeral Games for not-too-serious fantasy fans as it lacks the complexity of, say, the Malazan books, but for some folks (myself included), that may be considered a plus. Some similar reading: The Interminables by Paige Orwin (a ghost plays a large part in this story too), Ink Mage by Victor Gischler (fantasy world, lots of adventure), or The Quick by Lauren Owen (different time period, but also a fantasy).
Thank you to NetGalley and Curiosity Quills Press for a free digital copy of this book. And, thank you for reading!