Death's Daughter, by Amber Benson (Ace, 2009)

Calliope Reaper-Jones’ goals are simple: get promoted out of her boring job so she can lead the glamorous New York life she has always dreamed about, have a decent blind date, and find the good sales every now and again. Unfortunately, she’s dragged kicking and screaming back into the family business when she gets the urgent and disturbing news that her father, older sister, and the rest of the company’s top executives are missing, presumed kidnapped. Worse yet, the only one even remotely qualified to take over daily operations is Calliope herself, something which doesn’t fit in at all with her personal five year plan. For if she accepts this heady responsibility, she’ll be stepping into the role of Death.

Naturally, taking on that mantle isn’t as easy as agreeing to do the job. No, Calliope has to complete three tasks, while dealing with some unexpected competition for the role in the form of Daniel, the Devil’s hunky protĂ©eacute;gĂ©eacute;. Worse still, whoever kidnapped her feather seems to have it out for her as well. But who — or what — is behind this rash of problems, and how will Calliope ever survive the dangers at hand? From hellhounds to angry goddesses, ancient demons to supernatural cops, it seems like everyone’s out to make her life a living Hell. Good thing Calliope’s got a few tricks up her sleeve.

Death’s Daughter awkwardly fuses various urban fantasy elements with a chick-lit tone, making for a somewhat uneven, though rather entertaining story. There’s a lot to like about this book, but those things are overshadowed by some fairly unavoidable flaws. Unfortunately, it seemed as though Amber Benson was trying too hard to give her protagonist that hip, clever, young New York professional vibe that’s so prevalent in the chick-lit field, the end result being a rather self-absorbed, shallow character in love with her own mental voice. It’s hard to sympathize with Calliope after we’ve been introduced to her shopping fetish, naked professional ambition, sly asides and knowing winks at the reader, though luckily she cuts back on those elements a little as the story progresses. Given that events are filtered through her perceptions, it doesn’t make for the most elegant of storytelling. It also grants the narrative a somewhat superficial air just when we’re supposed to be drawn in. I almost didn’t make it past the first few chapters, to be honest.

That said, there’s a whole lot of promise here. The premise itself is what kept me pushing forward, as I wanted to see just how Benson worked out the idea of the wayward daughter being dragged back into the family business. I was pleased to see that she drew from multiple mythologies, and tied them together into a functional framework; Norse, Greco-Roman, and Hindu elements are all present and essential to the plot. I have a strange, special fondness for the snarky, teen version of Kali who acts as friend and foil to Calliope throughout the course of things, as she really sparked things up in her own way. Jarvis, the prissy faun who acts as her assistant and confidante, also has a dubious appeal. Once our heroine leaves New York behind and begins her adventures in the supernatural realms, the story seems to pick up speed and take a life of its own. It was interesting seeing just how Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, are balanced out with Death smack in the middle, and we get some tantalizing glimpses at how it all works, even if some details are left to the imagination.

Ultimately, Death’s Daughter is flawed but enjoyable, and I daresay that if Benson gets the chance to develop the series some more and smooth out the rough edges in her character’s voice, she could really have something here. As far as I know, this is her first solo outing after collaborating with Christopher Golden on a number of projects, so it’s interesting to see what she’ll do with this series. Hopefully, she’ll manage to find that perfect balance between the chick-lit tone evoked in the first few chapters and the urban fantasy trappings the book quickly dons. Perhaps it’s the premise, or maybe the goofy-yet-catchy name of the protagonist, but I want to like this book, so I’m willing to wait and see what comes next.

Originally reviewed for SF Site, 2009

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