(By Trent Jamieson)
Anthropomorphising death is not a new idea; humans have been doing it for thousands of years. Perhaps my favourite, and one of the more famous modern examples, is Terry Pratchett’s Death, astride his white horse Binky. ‘Death’ has often been characterised as a single individual, either solely responsible for the actual death of every person (much like Santa visiting every kid), or as some sort of observer, making sure your death goes according to plan. Trent Jamieson takes a different approach, by taking and developing the idea of the psychopomp.
Psychopomps act somewhat like the ferryman Charon: not responsible for death itself, they are rather charged with ensuring the soul makes it to the afterlife. This role has often been seen as a supernatural one, with the psychopomps themselves feared as bringers of death. Jamieson’s trick, and one that works very nicely, is to make psychopomps basically ordinary humans, who happen to have a somewhat unusual job. And this is one aspect that makes Death Most Definite an amusing novel to read: being a psychopomp is just that. A job. Complete with bureaucracy, office politics, bad Christmas parties, and the potential for aggressive takeovers.
Our narrator is Steve, a Pomp who joined the business because it’s what people in his family do (with the exception of the Black Sheep, that is. I love the idea of the black sheep being the ones who want ordinary lives). He’s not bad at his job, which essentially consists of being a conduit for souls to reach the afterlife (they actually go through his body, in some sense), and keeping an eye out for Stirrers – nasty critters from the Other Side, who are capable of inhabiting a dead body and must be sent back, lest they start to take over the world. But he doesn’t love it, and he doesn’t really have the social nous to deal effectively with office politics. Things start to go badly for him when he sees a dead girl in a food court who doesn’t appear to want pomping – and who then tells him to start running. Right before someone starts shooting at him. These things should not happen; and he should most definitely not be checking out the dead girl, and finding that she is decidedly hot.
The plot follows Steve discovering that all is not well at Mortmax (which is a great name), the company that employs the Pomps. In fact, things go very bad, with all sorts of unscheduled deaths taking place and office politics getting decidedly unpleasant. Steve must figure out what is going on, not get killed himself, cope with being one of the few Pomps left to do their work… and eventually take a stand to save the world (his bit of it, anyway).
Steve is an engaging and amusing narrator. He’s self-deprecating, which adds a nice light wit to the tone of the novel without turning into an attempt at a seriously comedic book – attempts that too often fall flat. He’s agreeably individual – tall, gangly, moping for an old girlfriend, and into scrapbooking – without coming across as The Only One With A Destiny. He’s ordinary, and so are his workmates, which helps make the business of being a pomp also seem quite ordinary.
The other main character is Lissa, fellow Pomp and recently dead. She’s feisty and determined, not prone to damsel-in-distress mode. She and Steve share some marvellous banter – it felt quite realistic. Because the novel is from Steve’s point of view, however, we don’t learn nearly as much about Lissa as we do about Steve, which was a little disappointing. As a result, she’s less well-developed and complex than him. This is not to say she’s stereotyped, though – she’s not, and there are hints at depth which will hopefully be more fully explored in the next two novels (Managing Death and The Business of Death).
One of the more unexpected aspects of the novel is the fact that it is largely set in Brisbane. Brisbane is not exactly renowned as a place to set urban fantasy (which I think this is, although I’m not a great categoriser). I don’t know the city at all, but from the descriptions of the streets, the shops, and the general layout I get the feeling that the book stays quite true to it. Such a setting – and the occasional foray into the Queensland hinterland – adds to the sense of ordinariness that permeates the book. I mean that in a good way, of course. Clearly the work of a psychopomp is not ordinary, and the nastiness that ensues throughout isn’t either – thankfully. But unlike some urban fantasy that makes the characters and places seem exotic and mysterious (which can be entertaining to read), I can well imagine meeting these people and walking these streets. It brings a sense of… proximity, I guess, that made me at least care all the more about what happened to Steve in particular.
This is Jamieson’s debut novel, which actually surprised me a bit; it doesn’t have that feel. It’s a fast-paced, engaging, and overall entertaining book. Although it’s the start of a trilogy, it is self-contained, for which HALLELUJAH. Of course it’s nice to know that there is more to find out, but it is also very nice to not be left in suspense at the end of a book when you don’t have the sequel sitting right next to you. Hopefully, Death Most Definite and its sequels do well, and there will be more Jamieson novels in the future. I read it in one sitting (well, with a break for dinner, but that hardly counts).