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Never Trust a Dead Man
Vivian Vande Velde
Harcourt Brace & Co., 193 pages

Never Trust a Dead Man
Vivian Vande Velde
Vivian Vande Velde is the author of Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, A Hidden Magic, The Conjurer Princess, and many other fine fantasy novels. She lives with her husband and daughter in Rochester, New York.

ISFDB Bibliography
Vivian Vande Velde Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Conjurer Princess
SF Site Review: A Coming Evil

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

When obnoxious Farold, the miller's nephew, is murdered, 17-year-old Selwyn Roweson is the obvious suspect. Everyone in the village of Penryth knows that Farold and Selwyn never liked each other, even before Farold won their running battle for the affections of the beautiful Anora. Plus, there's the fact that Selwyn's knife was found in Farold's back.

Convinced of Selwyn's guilt, the villagers sentence him to be shut up in the burial caves with the body of his supposed victim. Terrified and certain he is going to die, Selwyn is astonished to encounter another living being: a witch, Elswyth, who has come to the caves in search of an essential ingredient for one of her spells. For the price of a year of his life spent in her service, Elswyth agrees to lead Selwyn to freedom. For another few years, she agrees to bring Farold back from the dead, to help Selwyn prove his innocence. Unfortunately -- or maybe fortunately, since by this time Farold's body is not in very good shape -- the spell goes awry, and Farold comes back not as himself, but as a bat.

Attempting to make the best of things, Selwyn asks Elswyth to give him a temporary magical disguise -- which she does, for another couple of years of service -- so that he can go back to Penryth and try to solve Farold's murder. But solving a murder is a lot more difficult than Selwyn thought it would be, even with the grudging assistance of an obnoxious talking bat. Penryth, it turns out, is quite a complicated place, and many secrets must be unraveled before Farold's killer can be identified.

In past books, Vande Velde has dealt strongly and convincingly with dark and even tragic themes, but Never Trust a Dead Man is a thoroughly light-hearted romp. True, there's murder, greed, lust, deception, and a spirit brought back from the dead, but even the most gruesome of these is treated with wry humor -- such as when Selwyn is being hauled to the burial cave, side by side with the by now rather odiferous Farold:

"Farold wasn't all that bad, Selwyn tried to tell himself again. He wasn't as bad as... as... as a skunk dying under the porch?"
Selwyn is a sharply-drawn character, plucky and determined, with an appealing sense of the absurd and a resourcefulness that sees him through even the most desperate situations. And Farold the bat, who has to cope not just with being rudely snatched out of the afterlife, but with an insatiable desire to eat bugs and sleep upside down, is very funny.

Never Trust a Dead Man, which takes place in an unspecified but believable medieval setting, is deftly plotted, with complications and reversals that unfold seamlessly and are tied up into a neat solution. There's a nice surprise ending, too. It's a delightful book, certain to be a hit with teenage readers who like their fantasy on the humorous side.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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