BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Dying Is My Business is the story of Trent, underling to a Brooklyn crime boss, who just can’t stay dead. His invulnerability to death makes him an asset in the New York underworld until a job gone wrong lands him in the middle of a secret, magical war.
PROS: Fast paced story; solid world building; interesting utilization of underused magical creatures; an atmospheric, violent and all-out-fun time.
CONS: Felt a touch too short and ended without resolution to some plot points.
BOTTOM LINE: A frenetic, breakneck paced novel that’s half hardboiled New York City crime story and half spectacularly realized fantasy novel. Both sides mix well together, resulting in a very satisfying story with enough twists and turns to keep even the most jaded of urban fantasy readers on the edge of their seat.
What would you do if you couldn’t die and your memory only went back a year? If your answer is grab a gun and work for a Brooklyn crime boss named Underwood, then you’re most likely Trent, the anti-hero in Dying Is My Business. Blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with the inability to die, Trent uses his odd ability to do small jobs and petty theft for his boss. He’s kept on a short leash with the promise that Underwood is searching for answers into Trent’s past. Everything comes tumbling down when he accidentally gets himself caught up in the middle of an ancient battle between good and evil.
I was incredibly excited for Dying Is My Business. I love gritty urban fantasy novels but I especially love that this one took place in New York City. I was born and raised there so descriptions of NYC traffic and a climax that happens at one of the biggest landmarks in the city made my heart all aflutter. Kaufmann uses the city to its fullest potential as well, exploring what lurks beneath the subway lines and what could be hidden in those locked, private gardens you see in some neighborhoods. There’s even a slow car chase that happens through Time Square that was especially funny. You can tell that Kaufmann has that same love/hate relationship with the city that most New Yorkers do and the city becomes an extra character in the novel.
Trent is a fantastic voice. He’s clearly tormented by not being able to remember his past and it colors a lot of the choices he makes. He’s initially wary about becoming a part of the Brooklyn underworld and does his jobs with apathy and without asking any questions. The jobs are just a means to an end, a way to kill time. He can’t sleep so he spends his nights watching old black and white movies and reading from a ludicrously bad fantasy novel he found abandoned on the street. Underwood finally gives him an important job: steal a box out of an abandoned warehouse and kill any witnesses. He dangles the prize of information about Trent’s past in his face. Reluctantly, Trent steels himself and goes to retrieve the box. That’s when things start to get crazy.
He walks into the warehouse and finds a petite woman and a werewolf trying to fight off a whole flock of bizarre, gray winged creatures. The creatures are gargoyles (no relation to the statues on buildings) and they’re after this very special box as well. Soon, Trent is hurled into a world of magic, necromancy, dragons, vampires and an ancient fight that he’s suddenly become an integral part of.
The characters in Dying Is My Business are fantastic. Trent is sarcastic, suspicious yet surprisingly hopeful about somehow finding answers to the forgotten past that looms over him. He’s shaken by the idea that magic exists and he reflects the readers own disbelief very well. Bethany and Thornton are the first magic users he meets and he sticks with them through most of the story. Bethany reminds me of Buffy Summers. She’s small yet strong, she’s sure of her abilities and doesn’t let anything get in her way. She also matches Trent for snark and doesn’t let him get away with anything. Thornton, the werewolf, dies in the first fight with the gargoyles and is brought back to a semblance of life with a special amulet. He’s basically a zombie and he has to quickly come to terms with his mortality. He became one of my favorite characters even though his situation was heartbreaking. He was “living” on borrowed time since the dead can’t come back to life. Trent’s pain at keeping his own special ability to himself as he watches Thornton decay was palpable.
One of the coolest parts of the book were the gargoyles. They are definitely an underutilized fantasy creature and they were just as nasty and violent as one could hope for. They even have a king, a headless horseman-type knight in black armor who rides a black steed and can turn into a flock of ravens. Trent finds himself on the wrong side of both and scrambles to ace the crash course in magic he’s suddenly living through. He knows they can’t kill him but there are so many other things much worse than death.
As Trent, Bethany and Thornton encounter an ancient kleptomaniac dragon and a seriously insane necromancer, there’s still the problem of Underwood. He doesn’t like being double crossed and he wants that box come Hell or high water. Trent often finds himself torn between his loyalty to Underwood and these strange new people who he is beginning to view as friends. Underwood and his thugs sweep in like characters from a Martin Scorsese gangster movie and make Trent an offer he can’t refuse. It’s deliriously fun to have the crime boss thrown in with the fantasy elements. The juxtaposition between the two is a wonderful new urban fantasy flavor. Which is worse, a gargoyle who will eat your face or a gangster who will shoot you in it?
Dying Is My Business was a thrilling story but it wasn’t perfect. The breakneck pace of the story (everything takes place in about two days) leaves a few plot points being handwaved away or completely unresolved. We’re teased through the entire book with the answer to Trent’s unkillable condition or what lays in his past but there’s never any payoff. I kept expecting answers but they never came even though we’re left with some very tantalizing possibilities. I have my fingers crossed that the next book tackles those mysteries head on. I’ve already mentally pre-ordered the next volume even though there’s no release date yet.
The other thing that bothered me was the slightly forced romance between Trent and Bethany. They didn’t have much in common and were only together for forty-eight hours or so which made the blossoming romance feel a little unconvincing. I loved Bethany and Trent but I couldn’t see them together at all and the book didn’t give much reason for their almost spontaneous fondness for each other. It wasn’t a giant part of the book, maybe a few pages at most, so this isn’t a huge deal breaker. I have the feeling their romance might grow more organically in future volumes if given enough time.
There are, however, still many more things that Kaufmann has done right. Despite the short amount of time in the novel, there are no infodumps or useless explanations. Everything is on a need to know basis and it keeps the book flying along. The dialog is sarcastic, dark and often very funny. The plot is a well-worn one (“guy saves a world he didn’t know existed from all out war”) but told in such a damn fun and unique way that you just can’t help but love it to pieces. There’s spectacular acts of violence and a few explosions, as well as zombie ninjas (how can you say no to zombie ninjas?)! It was just an astonishingly good time and the book came to end so fast it almost left me breathless.
Dying Is My Business is the start of an all new urban fantasy series and I for one am completely on board. The mix of gritty crime drama and epic fantasy was a heady concoction and I can’t wait to see the answers buried in Trent’s past. This book should fly like a gargoyle to the top of your “to read” pile. You do not want to miss this one.