For this month: The urban fantasy Dying Is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann.
The story: Trent is muscle for Underwood, a sinister, sadistic collector of sinister artifacts. Trent’s amnesiac, with no recollections past a year ago. Oh, and he can’t be killed: Every time he bites the dust, he comes back to life, draining whoever happens to be close.
Underwood has promised that if he retrieves just one more item (and we all know that’s never a good phrase in a crime thriller) and kills the people who have it, Underwood will reveal his past and his real name. However when Trent arrives at the scene, he discovers instead of the usual low-lifes he kills for his boss, two apparent good guys under attack by gargoyles. First he fights to keep them alive so he can find the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s turn for whatever item everyone in the story wants to possess), then he just wants to keep them alive. Which is a problem because of on top of Underwood and his psycho assistants, there are the gargoyles, an army of teleporting undead assassins, and a few revenants. It turns out the person who wants the McGuffin most is a necromancer who wants to amp up her power to the point she can kill all of New York.
What I learned: First, I definitely prefer urban fantasies where the hero has no idea what’s really going on (as I noticed with Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guide to New York City). Despite his resurrection powers, Trent has no idea that vampires, werewolves, mages and so forth exist. This may be a good sign for me since Maria in Southern Discomforts is definitely an outsider to the weirdness of Candleston.
Having a clueless protagonist also helps a lot on exposition, which is overall well done here (except for one point early on where I thought the backstory was gratuitous for the characters, as opposed to the readers).
•Characterization isn’t the core of every story. Not that I object to characterization or complex characters, but I’ve never thought it was the only standard for judging whether a book works (you can probably tell this by looking at the books I’ve reviewed here).
Not that Kaufmann’s characterization is bad or that the cast’s personalities don’t affect the plot, but they’re definitely not the focus. Even Trent doesn’t change that much over the course of the book. Sure, he comes down on the good guys’ side but even from the first it’s obvious he’s not very stone-cold as a killer.
But that’s okay (at least for me) because the book’s focus is the story. Trent gets thrown into a dangerous world, tries saving people, then finds he has to fight harder to save even more people.
•Heroes are, as they say, known by the villains they attract. And here’s one point where the book falls down. The low-level thugs are great: Nasty, bullying, sneering, fictional brutes of the worst kind. But the necromancer Big Bad has no personality other than evil. She’s slavering to see New York’s streets fill with blood and its buildings become tombs (to paraphrase one speech) and that’s not much personality at all. And keep in mind, I’ve been reading comics my entire life so I know from personality-free villains (not a general indictment of comics of course, but some super-villains just suck).
That said, the sheer power of the villains makes up for a lot, so the book still didn’t disappoint me. I’m looking forward to the next one.
(Cover image rights to current holder. Don’t know the artist).