When we left the somewhat hapless Steve at the end of Death Most Definite, he had just managed – through no intention of his own – to become Australia’s Regional Manager of Mortmax. Essentially, he became Australia’s Death. He had also discovered that the Stirrers – that ancient foe of the Psychopomps (employees of Mortmax, responsible for ensuring souls get to the Underworld) – are awaiting the imminent arrival of their god, meaning that they are ‘stirring’, or breaking through into our world via the recently deceased, with increasing frequency. To help him cope with this, he’s changed several people into Pomps, most of them Black Sheep – those with family connections to the Death business but who had themselves not chosen it. Oh, and he’d also brought back to life the woman with whom he’d fallen in love when she was already dead, and turned her (back) into a Pomp, too.
It’s not really a surprise that Managing Death opens with Steve having a nightmare.
The first few chapters deal largely with Steve being his normal whingy, drinking-too-much self, despite his greatly enlarged powers and the fact that he now actually gets to hold Lissa without fear of sending her to Hell. Through him we get to meet a few new characters – my personal favourite being Aunt Neti, an eight-armed and totally intimidating character who helps guard Hell, usually with a batch of scones served on some awfully nice bone china (heh). Also newly introduced, and getting a significant amount of page-time, is Suzanne, the Regional Manager for America. She’s a fairly standard cutthroat business/vixen type, but she gets some pretty good lines. I think her 2IC (or Ankou, in Jamieson’s terminology), Cerbo, is more interesting, although he gets less space to himself. There are also a number of characters from the first book who reappear, of course, including Lissa, who sadly doesn’t get quite as much of an increased role as I had hoped. While she is important, and is never just a damsel in distress or bed-warmer, I was disappointed by the short shrift I think she got particularly towards the end. Steve’s cousin Tim, now his Ankou, has a fairly significant role, and we also get more Wal. Ah, Wal: the fat cherub tattoo Steve got when drunk one night, who pops off his arm and bad-mouths Steve whenever he’s in Hell. Even more than the fact the story is set in Brisbane, Wal is a sign that this is a very Australian book. That, and a burnt-sausage Christmas lunch.
The plot of Managing Death, on the face of it, is simple. It revolves around Steve (well, Tim) having to organise the Death Moot – a get-together for all the Regional Managers – and Steve trying to convince them that the approaching Stirrer god is a problem they all need to deal with. Along the way there are also business issues that must be resolved: particularly how to recruit more Pomps so that they don’t get overworked (can you imagine trying to write that job advertisement? Or answering it?). Jamieson complicates matters with someone attempting to kill Steve. Although there are several lulls where little seems to actually happen – Steve is a bit too whiny and introspective in this novel for my tastes – it is nonetheless exceptionally page-turn-y. Something always seems to be going wrong.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. The characters are generally likeable or disagreeable, depending on their relationship with Our Hero; they have just enough depth so as to not be completely transparent. The plot largely kept my interest, although I do think Jamieson wrapped everything up a bit too quickly towards the end, and there was one particular solution to a problem that I thought came from far too far out of left-field to be entirely comfortable with. It’s definitely a “Book Two”: Jamieson does a fairly good previously-in-Death-Works wrap-up, but nonetheless I don’t think it would work well without having read Death Most Definite. Similarly, although some problems are tidied up, there are numerous issues left hanging to be resolved (I hope!) in the third book, The Business of Death, which I believe is due in 2011. Despite niggling issues with the book, I am definitely looking forward to the third book. Call me sadistic, but I am looking forward to just what Jamieson does to Steve next. And given the original way in which he has dealt with the idea of Death and the Underworld, I expect that the ultimate resolution will also be appropriately original.