Dying is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann is the first book in an urban fantasy detective series (available October 8, 2013).
The Urban Fantasy story with its blend of the Sword and Sorcery and Crime/Detective genres has proven to be a potent and fun literary cocktail. That doesn't mean though that the mix can't be improved upon or revitalized by adding in new elements to spice things up. Nicholas Kaufmann proves that in his new novel Dying is My Business by throwing in some ideas and elements from an entirely different medium, comic books, specifically Marvel ones. These simple story-telling ideas pioneered by creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are just as effective in prose and blend together nicely with the Crime and Sword and Sorcery conventions to make Dying is My Business a fun and unique story.
The first Marvel Comics style element I noticed in Kaufmann's novel is the idea that super powers are not always a blessing. In fact they can ruin your life and the lives of others around you. You see that in Spider-Man, who's always wrestling with his responsibilities to his costumed and personal lives, or in members of the X-Men, like Rogue whose ability to absorb powers and memories rendered her unable to touch another human being for fear of leaving them comatose or worse. That makes these characters' heroic actions extra poignant and powerful.
In Dying is My Business, Kaufmann's amnesiac protagonist, Trent, is a thief working for a local crime boss, who has the mysterious ability to come back from any fatal injury. Unfortunately for Trent, there are nasty and horrific side effects:
“This one’s head drooped toward its shoulder, its jaw hanging slack. Its skin was as brown and paper-dry as a mummy’s, as if it’d been sitting there undiscovered for centuries, but the black silk shirt hanging off its withered frame and the cheap gold chain around its neck told a different story. He’d once been a beefy psychopath named Maddock, Bennett’s bodyguard. Now he was more like beef jerky, emaciated and dried out, as if he’d been dug out of an ancient pyramid in Egypt. Only he’d just died a few moments ago, and this wasn’t Egypt, this was Queens.”
That's a description of what happens to a person who has the misfortune of being near or stumbling upon Trent's lifeless body. Their life force is drained and used to resurrect and heal him.
Trent's power isn't the only fantastic ability with nasty side effects in Dying is my Business. As to be expected in an Urban Fantasy story, magic is a very real force. In the world that Kaufmann has created, though, magic has been tainted and also has nasty side effects. Only a few people are capable of internalizing magical energy. Others who do this will find their personalities or physical forms changed and corrupted, like Ingrid, a kindly old woman with lots of magical knowledge:
“She unrolled the white glove slowly, grimacing as she pulled it up from her elbow to her fingers. Finally, she pulled it free. The extent of what the infection had done to her hand and forearm was astonishing. Aside from the five fingerlike appendages at the end, the misshapen, squamous limb didn’t look like anything human.”
Ingrid is just one of the mystical and supernatural characters Trent meets in Dying is My Business. His encounters with these eclectic and strange characters come about thanks to his boss, Underwood, assigning him to retrieve a mysterious Macguffin. Trent's quest for this object, a case, leads to an encounter with a strange group of mystically-empowered do-gooders that would frighten society if they knew this group existed.
This, of course, reminded me of Marvel Comics' X-Men, a team of weird and powerful mutant heroes put together by Charles Xavier to protect a world that fears and hates them. That idea of a team of misfits find acceptance together as they work for a larger purpose is a fun one and is something Kaufmann uses quite well. Here, Trent describes his feelings about the group after spending some time with them and enduring some harrowing experiences:
“These people were freaks like me. I felt like I belonged with them, like I was a part of something in a way I never felt before. On the other hand, there were answers out there I needed to find, and I had unfinished business with Underwood.”
The other major Marvel Comics element I recognized was a love for New York City. When Stan Lee and his fellow creators began developing the Marvel Universe, they decided to use the real world locales of New York instead of a fictional city. So places like Central Park and locations in Manhattan and other boroughs were often the back drops for fantastic battles. The idea that you can go and visit the site where a super-powered clash took place makes those scenes much more exciting and feel more real. In fact, the book's final climatic battle takes place at one of of New York's most interesting attractions:
“We heard Isaac’s fingers on the keyboard again. “This might be some- thing. It’s from a Web site of New York City walking tours. Listen to this. ‘Throughout the grounds, visitors will find the authentic hall- ways, chapels, and gardens that once stood in such famous French cathedrals and abbeys as Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, and Bonnefont-en-Comminges. Each structure was disassembled brick by brick before being shipped to New York and reassembled in the 1930s as a public museum.’ ”
“Where is this?” Bethany asked.
“Fort Tryon Park, up in Washington Heights,” Isaac said. “It’s the Cloisters.”
So if you like your Urban Fantasy spiced up with elements that have made the adventures of Marvel Comics' heroes so exciting, powerful, and poignant, pick up Dying is My Business. You'll be glad you did. Oh and there's one more element that the novel has in common with Marvel Comics, the idea of leaving your readers wanting more. The final page of the novel sets things up for a very interesting sequel.
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