In the world of The Deathsniffer’s Assistant everybody is categorized once they’re 19. That means their magical powers get awakened. These powers can appear in a wide variety of forms: Lifeknitters can find injuries and know what they have to do to heal them. Truthsniffers know when they’re being lied to. Worldcatchers are skilled painters. Heartreaders can read other people’s emotions…
It’s logical logical, yet also has creepy dystopian touch that your category (and how strong your power is) limits what you can work as. Lifeknitters always end up in hospitals, the stronger ones as doctor, the weaker as nurses. Truthsniffers mostly end up working for the police. Either directly as cop or indirectly as a type of private detective (though they still have to answer to the real cops because of reasons. The worldbuilding is overall well done but does leave some questions).
Chris, the main character is a Wordweaver. He can make words appear on a page at a high speed. This skill is considered the lowest of all the talents and he has a hard time finding a job that pays enough to feed him and his sister Rosemary after their parents died. Rosemary is a twice special child.
First she is a wizard. That means her magical powers don’t need to be awakened. At a young age she’s already a Spiritbinder – she can control the spirits and magical creatures that used in this world to power machines, create light and much more. Second she’s an incredibly powerful Spiritbinder who has powers greater than most trained adults.
If those powers ever came to public knowledge it would mean that two rivalling political fractions (the ‘our magical system needs to be reformed’-one and the ‘everything is fine as it is’-one) would be very interested in using her for their aims. So Chris has to do everything to keep others from finding out about Rosemary’s powers. (Something that’s hard considering Rosemary is bloody stupid).
The only job Chris can find that pays enough is as the assistant of Olivia Faraday, a Deathsniffer. That’s just a fancy term for one of the semi-freelance Truthsniffers who have specialised in solving murders.
So this is basically a whodunit set in a fantasy-world. This is a genre-crossover I always wanted but never found. I should be jumping up and down ecstatically and doing cartwheels. But I’m not and that’s not only because I can’t do proper cartwheels.
The problem is Olivia. The author was clearly going for a Holmes-like character here but missed two important facts. The first is that Holmes – despite what some adaptations of the stories might make you think – was not a complete jerk who was rude all all the time. Yes he could be sometimes and he didn’t care for social norms much but he also could be a caring person. The second is that Holmes could afford to be eccentric and affront Victorian sensibilities now and then because he was the last hope of the people that came to him. They had to put up with him or lose all hope of getting a solution for their problem.
Olivia is not the only Deathsniffer. At no point is it suggested that she has a reputation of solving cases faster than others or being able to solve cases nobody else could. People could just go to somebody else if they are not happy with her. Inexplicably they don’t do that despite that fact that Olivia is one of the most horrible characters I came across in a long time. She doesn’t give a shit about other people’s feeling. She doesn’t only constantly insult the suspects, she’s also horrible to her police-colleagues and to Chris. Chris is the only one who has a reason to suffer through her abuse since he needs the money. But why the police doesn’t simply refuse to work with her and the victim’s relatives never slam the door in her face remains a mystery.
It really is that bad. I hated her. Hated how she was so convinced of a person’s guilt that she refused to treat her with even a minimum amount of basic decency. Hated how she treated the tragic revelations about Chris like amusing anecdotes and how she barely acknowledged that Chris was a human being who has a life outside work.
I honestly don’t care if she is just a horrible person or if there is something more behind her behaviour (it is hinted that perhaps there might be). I simply don’t enjoy reading a book where the main character’s behaviour makes me so furious that I had to put the book down more than once because I could not stomach reading any more about her.
All that is a shame because the author can write and she can write emotions. Because while Chris also annoyed me at first, it soon became clear that he’s trying to deal with much more than he can cope with. At the age of 14 he lost both parents under horrible circumstances. Since then he’s been trying to care for and protect his little sister without much outside help.
About halfway through the book he reminisces about how the death of his parents affected him. It takes him several pages but I almost want to quote every single line because it’s just written so beautiful and heartwrenching. It especially stands out compared to so many of the conveniently-an-orphan protagonists who sometimes stop, think about how their mother used to hug them, cry a single tear and then cheerfully continue on their journey. Chris’ grief is a part of him and one of the reasons that he is how he is. Yes that means that he’s flawed but I can understand his flaws unlike Olivia’s. And they are balanced out by other facets of his character. Unlike Olivia who is just horrible (I mentioned that already didn’t I?)
The other characters are interesting as well and even the minor ones have depth. Sadly the only exceptions is Rosemary. Too often she seems just like a plot-device that is there to cause Chris the most amount of trouble at the worst possible moment. And also when it comes to how much Chris loves her I would have wished for less telling and more showing.
The mystery-plot itself is…decent. There were things I was not happy about. One character made the police’s life difficult for no other reason than to fill pages. A vital bit of information about the world was withheld so there was no way for the reader to guess along. And the solution made me not very happy for some spoilery reasons. But those were only minor issues. If those were the only gripes I’d had with this book I still would have picked up the next book in the series because the world is fascinating. It is also hinted at that there was more behind the death of Chris’ parents and that there is a connection with the magical politics. All this would interest me and I would love to learn more about it…but that also means meeting Olivia again and this is something I am reluctant to do.
The bottom line is that I have rarely been so torn about a book. Usually I love some things in a book and am indifferent about others or I hate some and am indifferent about others. Here I love one character, like the worldbuilding and hate another character. As she is one of the main-characters it is hard to ignore that and just say that the rest was much better.