The Deathsniffer’s Assistant by Kate McIntyre. ★★★1/2
The Deathsniffer’s Assistant is a very promising start to a series by a debut author. It’s a fantasy mystery story set in a semi-Victorian world with a fairly unique magical system. I’m docking it half a star for a spoiler near the end, but other wise it easily would have gotten four.
Chris Buckley’s a nineteen year old orphan trying to raise his sister among the decaying remnants of the family estate. With the country’s ongoing economic problems, he has difficulty finding a job until he goes to work for Olivia Faraday, a deathsniffer. Deathsniffer’s are the in universe equivalent of homicide detectives, and the pair quickly have their first case, investigating the death of the Duchess val Daren’s husband. Meanwhile, Chris is trying to protect his magically gifted sister from those in the country who’d use her talents to support their own political agenda without any regard for her health or safety.
The magic system is currently two fold, although there are hints of more complexities to come. The first is that much of the technology of the country is based around enslaved spirits (sort of like in the Bartimeaus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud). Chris’s sister Rosemary is a wizard, someone who has a natural talent for summoning and binding spirits. Secondly, each citizen undergoes a process called categorization when they are nineteen which usually gives them a magical talent of some sort. Chris is a wordweaver, someone who can enspell words to paper by thought alone. Deathsniffers are another sort of category, and they have an affinity for figuring out when a piece of information is important or when someone is lying. The reliance on bound spirits and categorization is an ongoing political issue and the main divide between the traditionalists and the reformists. Rosemary’s extreme magical gifts could thus make her into a political tool for either side.
While I thought the ideas behind the world of The Deathsniffer’s Assistant were imaginative, the world never quite breathed for me. The best settings are those that you feel could exist beyond the page of the novel, and The Deathsniffer’s Assistant never reached that height. This is possibly related to it being a debut book. Maybe as the series progresses the world will grow more vivid.
The Deathsniffer’s Assistant does very well by its female characters, of whom there are a number. While the setting seems to be based on a Victorian setting, women seem to have greater freedom of movement, evidenced by the professions of Olivia and her supervisor at the police station, another female character. However sexism (and homophobia) are still present. When applying for a job with “O. Faraday,” Chris automatically assumes that the deathsniffer is a man. Olivia initially came off as a bit flat, the eccentric detective who sees murders as puzzles to be solved, but by the end she and many of the other supporting characters had gained a lot more depth. Additionally, there was never a romance between Chris and Olivia. I think I’ve been trained with the expectation that the two characters of opposite gender on the cover must get together or have sexual tension or something, so it was nice to see that subverted!
Chris was undoubtedly the most well developed character in the novel. He is a rather innocent young man who cares very much about good manners and propriety, which can put him at odds with Olivia. The narrative also suggests that Chris’s obsession with propriety is his biggest flaw, one that can have personal repercussions for him. Particularly… I think there’s evidence that Chris is bisexual.
“He smelled like heather and sunlight. Chris buried his nose in the young man’s hair and felt his lips on his neck.”
The above quotation comes from a dream sequence where Chris is dancing with the female love interest who suddenly transforms into the potential male love interest. That’s the point where I went from thinking I was probably deluding myself to thinking that this might actually be canonical. Still, nothing goes farther than the above quote. But I checked over the other reviews and nobody else has mentioned Chris possibly being bisexual? I did find a post by the author where she talks about writing bisexual and queer characters, which makes me think maybe I’m not imagining things after all. I’m still wary about this, since there’s been times before I thought maybe a character could be gay or bisexual only to have the narrative go on to expunge any suggestion that the character is other than heterosexual.
There are also some major issues with the one undoubtedly canonical gay character in the text. The rest of this paragraph will contain major spoilers, so please skip it if you don’t want to know. Are you still here? Yes? All right, so there is only one character that is explicitly said to be other than straight. He’s a gay man who’s dating the daughter of the duchess. As it turns out, he was in love with the duke and tried to shape shift into the shape of the duke’s mistress to have a liaison with him. This didn’t work out, and he killed the duke (and did a number of other violent things to cover this up). In a lot of ways, he fits into the trope of the predatory gay man. This is a trope that results in violence against queer people in the real world! I think the author intended for him to be a tragic figure, but having your only canonical queer character die because of tragic gay reasons is also not good! Even if Chris is bisexual, it is nowhere near as explicitly stated as it is with this character. Needless to say, this is some problematic content.
Despite the above mentioned issues, I did like The Deathsniffer’s Assistant and want to read the sequel (in part to find out if I’m at all right about Chris). I found the book very engaging and mostly an enjoyable read. I’d recommend it for those looking for a fantasy murder mystery with strong female supporting characters.
I received an ARC copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.