Friday, January 16, 2015

Dying for a Living (Jesse Sullivan #1) by Kory M Shrum

Jesse is a Necronite – one of those few people capable of returning from the dead. And, as a Death Replacement Agent, her job is to die often so others do not – all for a hefty fee.

But not everyone is happy with the revelation of the Necronites, especially not the military who used to control them or the united church that condemns them. Both of which have considerable power

So when she is murdered by someone who is trying to kill her for real – and it’s clear that there’s some severe problems with the agency she works for (and who is doing the investigating) – Jesse has to find the truth behind the attempted murder herself. Or her next death could be her last.

The concept of this book is excellently original and drew me right in; we have people who, if their heads are intact, come back from the dead. More, they can prevent other people from dying, working with predictions, if they’re on hand at the time of death they can save that person – at the cost of dying (and returning) themselves. That’s already a fascinating concept but it’s also built into the world building in some really interesting ways – like the idea that having a death replacement appointment can reduce your health insurance. Or that Necronites have become  Death Replacement Agents - a whole profession but with added concerns from the military that studied them and controlled them to the church that hates them.

The church is a major element in this society - and it is “the church” because the various Christian sects have united, preserving their unique elements while at the same time being unified in purpose and leadership. This has a lot of great world building elements of part of it – with Christians often praising the unified church as proof of co-operation, love and hope as these long warring factions have come together. On the flip side we have non-Christians and minorities who have been frequently persecuted by Christians duly wary of a now much more powerful and influential church flexing its muscles and expanding its influence. The church also came together, apparently, in opposition to the Necronites which has some interesting parallels with the real world where we’ve seen disparate, and often antagonistic, religious groups unite in opposition to, for example, LGBT rights.

The oppression, persecution and fear of the Necronites is well maintained and presented in many parts of the story and Jesse’s life as well as the wider world building. Unlike a lot of supernatural prejudice tropes, this one works better because (at this stage in the series – I suspect it will change) Jesse and her fellow Necronites don’t have a great deal of power. They have no super powers beyond their ability to come back from the dead – it’s not a typical story of predatory, hyper-able monsters filling in for marginalised people. It’s generally well done but there are someunfortunate comparisons and appropriation of actual marginalised groups

The world building has a lot of nice touches in fitting the Necronites into greater society – including expanded roles for coroners, new government agents and even the description of coming back from the dead – which is really unpleasant with such horrible things to deal with like rigor mortis. 

Jesse’s character is an interesting one – in some ways she’s a very frustrating rebel-without-a-clue. She wisecracks all the time, she has no patience, she’s scathing without cause, harsh without provocation and generally makes me want to smack her with some social skills. But as the book progresses there’s some more reasons provided behind her character for her behaviour – including attitudes from her boss, her clients and the sheer enormity of what she does – dying for other people. It also works really well with the way this book explores oppression: with more and more legal and public opposition to the Necronites, including physical attack and murder, her boss wants her to play nice for good PR. This also involves going to educational seminars to explain Necronites to an often hostile and prejudiced crowd. In other words, Jesse has a whole lot to be pissed off about and is being fed the line of “you have to play nice if you don’t want to be brutally murdered” which is not a game anyone wants to play. It doesn’t make her more likeable, but it does make her behaviour more understandable.

The plot line is decent but it’s also full of mysteries and introductions. We have a whole new rich world to introduce which takes a lot of time. There’s someone killing off Necronites which turns into a grand conspiracy with lots of questions and introduction to yet more world building points. And there’s Necronites apparenmtly developing different woo-woo which raises more mystery. And Jessee starts hallucinating an angel which she heard another Necronite did before being committed into an asylum. And there’s some family drama. And there’s relationship drama.

Each individual plot line and element is really well done but when you put them all together, combined with the world building and combined with the huge amounts of mystery that is a plot hook for the rest of the series (there’s very little resolve to ANY of these issues in this book) and I’m both swamped and left hanging.

So the overstuffed and over-mysterious plot did let it down – less is more and that definitely needed to apply here.

I’m torn on the depiction of mental illness. On the one hand, it is there looming as a terrible fate which is something we’ve seen a lot. The flip side is that it isn’t depicted as violent or dangerous – but as a natural consequence of facing so much severe, repeated trauma which is very realistic and understandable. I also like that the mental hospital was actually presented as a hospital rather than a prison – and even while Jesse is panicky and grossly horrible in her assumptions of people with mental illnesses this is challenged and debunked over and over again

Jesse is bisexual and is generally a great character. She is caught between a male and female love interests which could be a trope – but it is explained more by her worry that she cannot possibly have a long term relationship because she assumes she’s going to implode very soon. Her best friend Ally is a lesbian and provides order and sensibility to Jesse’s confused and disordered life and Jesse makes it clear how much she cares and values her; including risking everything for her. I want to see more from her and see how she goes from here in the series (and her being more active in the actual mystical side of the story since that’s clearly going to take over).

Gloria is a Black woman and an AMP (which is a psychic in this series – but with more complexity) who is pretty heavily involved in the plot being one of Jesse’s friends and guides with her powers. I want to see her more involved beyond providing woo-woo assistance. If she and Ally could get a balance right (Ally less of a victim to protect, less of a resource to be tapped) it would be perfect. We have some minor characters – Kirk her mortician and Umbri one of her wider circle of friends who are both POC – they don’t play major roles but I suspect they will be a recurring presence in Jesse’s life. There’s also a number of background POC characters, ensuring the named characters aren’t the only

There's also a completely awful depiction of slurs in this book - I mean we go full on for appropriation of marginalised groups, slurs, prejudice and bigotry. We have direct comparisons of supernatural and actual real life slurs. To the point of openly equating the n-word with words for the undead. There's just... no excuse for this. No justification fr this and really really needs to stop. I look at the actual diverse characters but it all sits awfully on the eyes when put along side this really gross useble of bigotry and real world prejudices as a short cut for actual development

I love a lot about this book. I love the world building, I love the concept, I love the mysteries that intrigue me. I am pretty impressed with how it managed to step carefully with the depiction of mental illness and we definitely have some strong diversity here as well. The plot, however, is swamped – but I hope after this initial book we have got past the introduction phase the whole series can now be more focused and less bloated. We also seriously seriously seriously need to back off the way marginalised people are used and exploited. Include marginalised people without using them to make equations of racial slurs