Death Works Trilogy
A review by Nalini Haynes
The Business of Death is the Death Works trilogy re-released in one volume.
Steven de Selby is a thirty-ish guy living in Brisbane, Queensland, drifting through his life. Years ago he broke up with a girlfriend, Robyn, and is still pining over that relationship. Steven’s friends and family care about him but despair of him, with his drinking and drifting through life. Morrigan, a business associate of Steven’s father, is like a favourite uncle to Steven. Steven has an unusual job – he ‘pomps’ or kind of exorcises the dead, sending them to the Underworld, and returning Stirrers (intelligent zombies) there as well. (Pomp is a verb but also a noun: the name of the job or a description of the person who does the job.)
One day Steven is skiving off when he sees a ghost who tells him to run. Lissa was a pomp living in Melbourne, but she’s travelled to Brisbane in her efforts to save pomps after all her friends and family in the Melbourne office were massacred. Unsure of who is behind this behaviour, Steve tries to make contact with survivors. Lissa tries to resist the call to the Underworld in order to help Steve, which requires a rather comical scene that could re-interpret some inappropriate public behaviour.
By the second novel, Steve has been promoted in the family business. He’s also desperately in love with a real, live girl, drinking to the point of an intervention and trying to juggle too much without any innate ambition for fuel. Suzanne, another regional manager in the business, wants ten hours of his time unconditionally. I was surprised when she started using that time to mentor Steve, I expected something much more sinister. There was never any doubt, however, that Steve was being played by Suzanne and the other regional managers who were obsessed with office politics while someone was killing people and the Stirrer god approached Earth. I was taken by surprise with the twist at the end, that set the tone for the third book. By the end of the second book, the scene is set for the third book; not so much in the way of surprises here, but the journey was enjoyable.
I saw many similarities between this trilogy and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Steve is similar to Harry Dresden in that he has a supernatural power and is trying to stay alive while fighting to protect others. Steve is as good as Harry at his very best romantically – I disliked the sense that Harry had a choice of Karen or Suzanne in the early books; this to me was the misogynistic dream and rather off-putting. When Steve falls in love it’s total, he’s besotted but not to the point of being annoying like Bella in Twilight. A temptress flirts with Steve, who’s a bit of an idiot, so he’s tempted for a few seconds (like any guy would be) but he’s loyal and loving. And he pays for his slip-up.
In the best of the Dresden Files series, Harry has a team working with him even if he’s the guy in charge. Likewise with Steve; he’s the guy who’s still alive in the first book, then he’s promoted in the second book so he’s the guy in charge locally, but he has a team. Steve’s love interest supports him, loves him, and laughs at him, grounding him and correcting him when it’s needed. This is a very healthy but imperfect relationship. Steve’s love interest is a strong woman and yet Steve doesn’t feel threatened by her strength or her authority, even when he knows she’s the better part of him. Kudos to any male writer who writes such an interesting female character as a protagonist, but even more so when she’s in a great relationship that is a focal point for the narrative.
Steve’s relationship with Tim, one of his few surviving family members, is realistic in that Tim is family and a close friend while also being a rival. Tim and Steve diss each other in typical male (or Australian male?) fashion. Tim emerges as a potential threat later in the story, which provides a good twist without cheating.
Alcoholism is almost a character of this trilogy. Steve is a heavy drinker in the beginning, then in the second book he falls into a bottle as a means of coping with his new responsibilities and trying to avoid impending doom. An intervention gives Steve a wake-up call, and yet this leads to a form of ‘harm minimisation’ rather than a cure. Steve’s alcoholism is then challenged by – well, you have to read the third book to see how that turns out. It was an entertaining twist.
Brisbane is a character in The Business of Death as well. There is a stunning sense of place, where the city is superimposed upon the Underworld. Charon works the river Styx which is somehow symbiotic with the rivers in Brisbane. Although I’ve never been to Brisbane, I’ve lived in 3 capital cities in Australia, which have similar relationships with their rivers. Jamieson has captured the cultural relationship of the rivers and entwined it with his fantasy beautifully. Many hills in Australia are called ‘One Tree Hill’ but in this trilogy this name is given new context – the hill formerly known as ‘One Tree Hill’ is Mount Coot-tha where the cemetery is located, which is symbiotically linked to the One Tree (a Morton Bay fig tree!) of the Underworld. Throughout the story Steve hears the creaking of the One Tree, especially in his inner-city office where one window looks out onto Earth’s Brisbane and another looks onto the Brisbane of the Underworld. At some stages in the story, characters head into the countryside; even here you get a strong sense of the Australian bush or outback – I’m reminded of Banjo Patterson’s Clancy of the Overflow ‘he’s gone to Queensland droving and we don’t know where he are.’ Jamieson captures that sense of Queensland being where you go to get lost, you venture into the unknown, isolated in the bush facing down feral dogs…
The Business of Death is an urban fantasy with romantic overtones. It’s as good as the best of the Dresden Files, complete with humorous moments to offset the impending doom, but it doesn’t have as many overt pop-culture references as many of the books in the Dresden Files. In his acknowledgements, Jamieson recognises the influence of Fritz Lieber, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Charon from Clash of the Titans, and Piers Anthony’s On a pale horse. Furthermore, Jamieson is one of the award-winning group of authors, wRiters on the Rise. This writing group meets regularly to critique each other’s books (see previous interviews with Marianne de Pierres and Rowena Cory Daniells). While The Business of Death is very different in feel and tone of Marianne’s and Rowena’s books, the quality of the writing and the benefit of RoR’s influence shine through. I highly recommend this for fans of urban fantasy with horror, romance, comedy and cultural themes.
Originally published in Dark Matter 7