Book Review: A Sanctuary of Spirits by Leanna Renee Hieber
By Meghan SchulerNovember 19, 2019
I’m always unbelievably excited when a new Leanna Renee Hieber novel drops, and Sanctuary of Spirits is no exception. In the second act of her Spectral City novels, heroine and medium Eve Whitby discovers there’s more to her case against the mysterious undertaker, Monsieur Dupont, than she could have fathomed. She also discovers a new danger facing the spirit world, threatening to destroy a sanctuary for departed souls if the boundaries between the living and the dead grow too muddled. A serial killer, a dangerous mesmerist, and a man possibly resurrected from the grave send Eve, her team, and Detective Horowitz into the dark world of stolen memento mori and the anguished spirits of children unable to find peace.
It never fails to feel like a homecoming diving into Hieber’s work. Her characters and settings have such a life and presence that I immediately feel part of the narrative. I paid Gramercy Park a visit last December, and though there’s no actual funeral home on the square, I could envision it perfectly just from the lush descriptions. There’s such a perfectly creepy vibe throughout this book, and it hits hard from the prologue on:
Monsieur Dupont, career undertaker and director of a Manhattan viewing parlor for the dead, considered a postmortem body the most beautiful treasure. For him, the tired cliche of an undertaker being obsessed with death was transcended; he rejoiced that the dead made him feel so alive.
The dead were the key to the kingdom of heaven.
His craft had started innocently enough. Locks of hair. The obsession progressed. Other tokens and trinkets were next, taken and procured with exquisite care. Subtle trophies.
No one would know or see. No one could. Grief was such a strange, ever-changing beast, but one constant remained: no one ever noticed all the details of a corpse. No one would notice if some small thing wasn’t exactly as it had been, as death had already made the familiar strange.
Memory rewrote itself. He’d seen the proof of it time and again. The dead were transformed and made perfect by their loved ones. In that perfection it was just so lovely, so sacred, so beautiful to take a small scrap of that elevated, exalted existence . . .
So, he began. Tokens of his little saints made into sacred objects. Tiny souvenirs from the world’s most innocent: children. Taking something from a child was the most sacred of all transactions. Procured and placed into sacred vessels. Surely no one would mind. Their bodies were photographed for posterity, and a souvenir was taken in private just before the body was taken to the grave.
No one but the ghosts, that is. Spirits of children noticed what was gone but didn’t understand.
. . .
There was such life in this city, and to juxtapose it with constant death was high art.
It’s not just the spirits of the children plaguing Eve and her colleagues; Vera, one of her ghostly assets, is still missing and the haunting visage of a man seems to float in every window Eve peers into. Threats against her and her precinct have resulted in the appearance of her department being shuttered, though they still operate within the same office. And if that weren’t enough, the ruse of courtship with a certain very handsome and charming detective is beginning to strain against Eve’s heart. With so much to handle, Eve’s determination to be the stalwart figurehead of her friends starts to crumble.
Dupont is an absolutely wonderful (and horrific) villain, and this book did not disappoint. It concluded the case from the first novel, A Spectral City, while opening the door to the deeper, darker matters at hand. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this series is headed in terms of the overall story, as well as how she weaves characters from past novels into her current ones.
Not only is Hieber a master at crafting scenery and story, her characterization is truly otherworldly. Maybe I’m a little bit biased because two of my very favorite and most beloved characters made an appearance, complete with gothic dramatics and the greatest helmet ever to be worn by anyone living, dead, or undecided. I’m privileged in being able to text the author and squeal in real-time. It’s genuinely a treat to do so.
I can’t recommend Leanna Renee Hieber’s work enough, and truly believe there’s something for everyone in her impressive collection of novels and short stories.