So, Trent. No last name, just Trent. He’s just this guy, you know? A guy who can’t remember anything from more than a year ago, when he woke up in New York City. He knows how to do everyday things, and can keep his newly created memories, but everything else is gone, vanished, non-existent. Or so he thinks. Even worse, Trent can’t die. Well, he can die, but he can also come back by stealing the lifeforce of the nearest living thing. Given that his chosen profession requires associating with various ne’erdowells and ruffians, he dies a lot, and the list of souls he’s stolen grows longer and longer.
Trent is “rescued” by Underwood, a crime boss who tortures people because he doesn’t have anything better to do. He convinces Trent he can help him find answers to his situation, but only if he works for him as a Collector—a fancy name for “thief.” Underwood sends him on a routine job to retrieve a mysterious box, and instead Trent walks into the middle of an attack by a pack of gargoyles on a werewolf and a witch, two more sets of competitors for that frakking box. Trouble is, someone else is waiting in the wings to get their corpse-y hands on the box, too. Trent soon finds himself wrapped up in a war between a necromancer and her army of zombies, a gargoyle battalion and their seemingly invincible king, and a pack of magic-enhanced thieves, with nothing less than the fate of New York City at stake.
That line at the jump cut, (“It’s not as easy as it looks to come back from the dead.”) that’s the first sentence of Dying Is My Business. It is also the moment when I realized I was really going to like this book. I’m already predisposed to revel in many of its aspects. Zombies, check. Werewolves, check. Vampires, check. Wizards and witches, check. Gargoyles, check. Crime/murder mystery, check. Gritty urban fantasy, check. Add to that snarky dialogue, intense action set pieces, gray morality, and a female Big Bad who isn’t doing all this because some dude broke up with her, and I’m sold.
Normally, I get through whatever book is next in my To Review pile by reading a few chapters at a time during my lunch at work. With Dying, I gave up that method early on. I kept getting so absorbed in the story that I’d forget to clock back in, and my 30 minute breaks grew into hour-long reading sessions. There’s a blurb for you: Dying Is My Business, so good it’ll make you late for work!
There are some detractions to Dying. The story plays on the well-worn Chosen One theme (that trope can’t be retired soon enough), and the romance seems to exist solely because every other urban fantasy on the market has romance in it as well. Most of the characters are white and cishet, which would be boring if it wasn’t so exclusionary. It’s also pretty easy to figure out the end game. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see the plot twists of the final act coming from miles away. That being said, for what it is and what it does, Dying is awfully damn entertaining. It’s much easier to forgive a less than fresh story idea if the take is unique and the characters engaging. Kaufmann is aces on both fronts. He also doesn’t fall into the dreaded infodump trap. Large swaths of heavy exposition is a huge pet peeve of mine, and fortunately Kaufmann’s had enough experience as an author to know how to work around that.
The storytelling is fairly simplistic—no, straightforward. But it’s also dark and funny, with horror and grotesqueness sprinkled liberally throughout. The writing is crisp and sharp. Sometimes he gets a bit purple, but it’s generally to the point. There are really only two speeds to the novel: frenetic and pondering. When the characters are on the move, they’re racing on all cylinders, and when they finally take a break they do so by discussing problems, mulling things over, and bandaging wounds. I could see how some might find the constant shifting between dramatic highs and slow-moving lows jarring, but for me it works.
You could easily compare Dying to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, but I’d argue it’s genetically closer to the television show Criminal Minds. One of the reasons CM works as well as it does—and has lasted as long as it has—isn’t because of the serial killer stories. Those are fine enough but always fall apart in the harsh light of day. No, what makes it a popular show are the characters and their relationships with each other. Same goes for Dying. I care about Trent, Bethany, and Thornton, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the good guys. I’m even intrigued by the Big Bads. One of them in particular reminds me of a magical version of the Governor from The Walking Dead. Such a psychotic badass. I liked spending time with Kaufmann’s characters. At the end of the day, I don’t so much care what they do, but how they do it and why. I like watching them work together or against each other to solve a problem, watching them grow and change and devolve and bicker and flirt.
Dying Is My Business is a solid entry in Nicholas Kaufmann’s new urban fantasy detective series. Wherever he takes the next books, I’ll be there, front and center.
Dying Is My Business is available now from St Martin’s Griffin
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.