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Managing Death

 

Some spoilers for Death Most Definite. (By Trent Jamieson)


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.

Death Most Definite

(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).