Please don't let the fact that this is published by Harlequin dissuade you. There's nary a heaving breast or throbbing member to be found. Instead you have some very well written speculative fiction.
The Returned by Jason Mott. Published by Harlequin, August 27th, 2013. 352 pages.
Bottom Line: Not a flawless book, but a very good book. Focusing more on human nature and relationships than supernatural, it is a nonetheless eerie book that succeeds in getting under the skin of the reader. Recommended for purchase by most librarians. Will appeal to fans of China Mieville and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
All around the world, the dead are returning. They're not coming back as zombies or ghosts or vampires (not that type of novel), they're just coming back. Thousands of miles from home, with no memories of the afterlife, just returning in much the same condition they were when they died. This presents problems when, for example, a group of Nazi soldiers comes back in a small town in rural America. At first the Bureau tries to reunite the returned with their families, but not every returned is welcomed back. They bring out a lot of complicated feelings. And the problems grow as the numbers of returned grow.
At the heart of the novel is the small town where the Hargraves live. They face complicated feelings when their young son, drowned nearly 50 years earlier, is returned. And then their town is taken over for a detention center for the returned. As tensions burn between the returned, the soldiers, and the "True Living" townsfolk, no one is ready for the chaos.
The concept is fascinating. The dead returning as almost but not quite living with no explanation. The reader receives no more explanation than did the people of the novel allowing us to share in the mystery and frustration.
The setting is incredible. You see this small town, a bit run down by the economy, filled with people who aren't good or bad but just people, and you feel like you could live there. Or that you do. Because it is every small town, but it is also its own place.
Characterization was fantastic. Even the "villains" are fully developed complex characters. No one was predictable. Some of the characters I thought I knew the best managed to surprise me right at the end, but surprise me in a way that was consistent with their character and shed light on every previous action. In other words, some of the best characterizations I have ever felt.
Great premise. Fantastic setting. Incredible characterization. Mediocre plot. The plot pacing was uneven. And that kept everything from entirely gelling together. This book was very good, but just short of great.
Between the chapters about the main characters, there are interludes written from the point of view of a returned. These are some of the most beautiful and haunting, little glimpses into the confusion. They were some of my favorite parts of this novel. I think I would really have enjoyed seeing this novel as a series of short stories set in the world dealing with this returning of the dead.
But I can't wish for a book that doesn't exist. And I did really enjoy this book. I do recommend it. It's speculative fiction without being hardcore, returning from the dead without being zombies, paranormal but not frightening, it does what great literature does, it makes us look within ourselves to ask how we and our neighbors would handle a situation.