Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
DISCLAIMER: Lorraine Cormack is a judge for the Aurealis Awards. This review is the personal opinion of the writer, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any judging panel, the judging coordinator or the Aurealis Awards management team.
The Business of Death is the title of an omnibus edition of the Death Works Trilogy. It includes the three books Death Most Definite, Managing Death, and The Business of Death. It is particularly useful to get all three books in one volume because they work best when read together. Read individually, they’re pretty good, but read together they have additional depth which makes for a much stronger story.
Steven de Selby has a massive hangover and wants to avoid going anywhere near his workplace. That shouldn’t be too hard, it’s his day off. But then in the space of just a few minutes, his day goes to hell. Someone starts shooting at him in the food court, and even worse, a dead girl warns him to run. A very attractive dead girl who definitely shouldn’t be hanging around. Steven knows this for sure because he works for Death; it’s his job to help usher souls on to the Underworld. He knows there shouldn’t be a dead girl there, and he doesn’t think anyone would want to kill him.
In a matter of hours, things get worse; all his workmates, which include essentially all his friends and family, are also targeted by whoever wants him dead. A lot of people are dying. The dead are rising – which isn’t a new thing, but is a bad thing – and it looks like Brisbane is on the way to a Regional Apocalypse. Steven realises that someone wants promotion to the top job – Death itself – and that kind of promotion only comes after a lot of blood is shed. So Steven needs to find the “applicant”, stop him or her from tipping the region into chaos, save his own life, and do something about the dead girl who hasn’t crossed over. And he needs to do it fast.
Not surprisingly, the first volume, Death Most Definite, is the one that works best as a standalone volume. Volumes two and three, if read by themselves, would be enjoyable and would largely make sense. However, a number of important concepts which are explained in volume one are not rehashed in the following volumes, so readers of either volume two or three alone would likely find parts of the story a little hard to follow. For example, in the first book the concept of “Stirrers” is clearly explained; the third book just assumes readers will know what it means.
However, if you read the three books together as I did (and as this edition facilitates) then it’s likely you’ll have a very enjoyable experience. Although Jamieson starts with an idea that others have used before – that of making Death a job, and indeed personifying Death himself – he brings a lot of originality to the approach. Some of this is due to his characters, but a large part of it is also due to his carefully worked out bureaucratic approach to death.
The characters are one of the things that will drag most readers into this book and keep them reading. The central character, Steven de Selby, is a very real narrator and he’ll quickly win the empathy of most readers. His strengths and flaws are perhaps a little predictable, but they’re so very believable too. Jamieson gives him some unusual problems to solve, and he approaches them with a mixture of practicality and haphazardness which frankly seemed very much the way most people would approach that set of problems if they were thrown at them. Importantly too, Steven changes over the course of the three books; by volume three you understand what has changed him and why, and you sympathise mightily with him. It’s a particularly strong character arc, done better than many writers manage.
Other characters are a little less well rounded, partially perhaps due to the fact that we see them all through Steven’s eyes and he isn’t necessarily the most perceptive of people. However, I still found most of them believable and interesting. And the story moved at such a cracking pace that this weakness wasn’t all that obvious while I was actually reading the story, only when reflecting on it. Jamieson provides a plot which charges forward with little let up, with well written action scenes, and doesn’t neglect the emotional reactions and behaviours of his characters. The whole comes together to make a story that is very easy to read. I had a real sense of satisfaction at the end of this trilogy; it climaxed at a point that emerged quite naturally from the earlier books and the ending seemed almost inevitable.
Read together, the three books have fewer weaknesses than if you read them separately. Read individually, volumes two and three, as mentioned, wouldn’t stand well alone. Concepts aren’t always explained, and some of the characterisation would probably seem rushed. I suspect too, that some of Steven’s decisions and actions in volume three would seem rather strange if you hadn’t been privy to all the events and emotional development in the earlier novels.
This is a fairly Australian trilogy. Jamieson doesn’t set out to rub readers’ face in the fact it’s set in Australia, but the Brisbane setting will ring bells for many; even people who know the city only casually will likely recognise some of the settings. More important are the subtle touches, such as the houses built for the Queensland weather. The setting feels very natural, unforced, and there’s a convincing reality to it that works as a good backdrop for the more fantastic elements of plot and setting.
Read together, this trilogy provides a really satisfying story that grows and resolves well over the course of the three books. The character development is particularly good. I strongly recommend the trilogy; and while the books are considerably better when read together, the individual volumes would still be worth reading.