Amber Benson, best known for her role as Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has been making a name for herself as a writer for several years, starting with comic book collaborations with Buffyverse author Christopher Golden and continuing with several film projects (Chance, Drones). Now, she takes her first stab at an original urban fantasy novel with Death’s Daughter, published by Ace and available in both printed and digital formats.
Calliope Reaper-Jones is an average girl living in New York City, trying to make a glamorous career for herself filled with designer fashion and hot guys… or so she thinks. Suddenly one day, a faun shows up in her workplace bathroom to bring her out of a spell she’d cast on herself — a forgetting charm, so she could get away from her old life as the middle daughter of Death himself. The family had allowed her to use the charm and move off to NYC, but the faun (Jarvis, her father’s Executive Assistant) de-charms her to let her know her father and older sister have been kidnapped and she needs to come home right away. Turns out she’s in line to take over for Dad… if she can pass some tests to prove her worth to the Board.
The book is written in first person, which allows for an intimate and very informal voice for the protagonist. Calliope (or, as her family calls her, Callie) doesn’t really want anything to do with the position of Death, but if she doesn’t accept the challenge and someone else takes over instead, her father and sister (along with the rest of the family) will lose their immortality and die. As is evident from her having left to live in New York, she isn’t particularly close to her family (except for little sis Clio, who aids Callie along her journey), but clearly loves them enough to risk her life to save theirs. The first-person viewpoint gives us access to her emotional state throughout, including some very amusing thoughts and asides she has about her situation and surroundings as she somewhat begrudgingly labors through the necessary tasks. Even after the forgetting charm is broken, she still daydreams about those designer shoes and drools over attractive men, including the Devil’s Protégé, who’s one of several entities trying to keep her from accomplishing her goal.
Because of the subject of the book, it’s not surprising that some of the other characters include the Devil and God. But what I found particularly interesting was how many other deities and mythological figures appear as players in the story: Kali, Indra, Persephone, Wodin, Cerberus, and Anubis, to name a few. What I liked most about their inclusion was the fearlessness with which Benson characterizes them: Kali, for instance, is a smart and capable goddess, but throughout the book she and Callie bicker like rival schoolgirls, with Kali even calling Callie a dipwad once or twice. And God, whose only presence is an auditory one, has a voice like RuPaul. It would have been easy for Benson to go with traditional, conservative descriptions of these religious figures, but instead she makes them more accessible, and it serves the story well.
I also enjoyed Benson’s portrayal of Death as not just a person, but the CEO of an executive board (comprised of some of the deities mentioned above). The analogy works well in a modern novel like this, with Calliope and her family living in an enormous estate in Rhode Island and attending a prestigious boarding school, their friends aware only that her father is the CEO of a “multinational conglomerate.” It’s not just a funny way to look at the “job” of Death; Callie’s upbringing as a wealthy yet mostly normal kid makes her a far more identifiable character for us to follow, even with her bizarre family and the even more bizarre chain of events in the book.
Death’s Daughter is the first of Benson’s three-book deal with Penguin, and with such a rich cast of characters and universe to work with, the next two books are sure to delight as well.