‘Death’s Daughter’ by Amber Benson (2009)


I’ll start by admitting that Death’s Daughter isn’t something that I would usually read. I have and do read science fiction/fantasy novels but the stories, written by authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Octavia Butler, have had a pretty blatant second-wave feminist social commentary element to them. In fact, I would say that the feminism part supersedes the fantasy part of these novels.

In contrast, Amber Benson’s first novel written all by her lonesome, rather than with sometime writing partner Christopher Golden, is very much a novel based in mythology with the fantasy elements at the forefront. Benson has called it a combination of fantasy and chicklit, and that description is fairly apt. Death’s Daughter is intended as a fluffy, quick, entertaining read, and it does work on that level to an extent. However, the novel lacks what most engages me in the fluffy novels I usually read: an appealing main character.

Even though Calliope is supposedly in her twenties, her narrative voice sounds more like that of a teenager, which causes the book to read like a young adult novel with too much sex and too much violence. Callie is shallow, whiny, and self-involved, and Benson’s choice to give a fashionista slant to her character disappoints because it’s unoriginal. The literary world has no need of yet another Carrie Bradshaw or Rebecca Bloomwood, and perhaps because in real life Benson seems to have little concern for designers and labels, all of the name dropping of high-fashion heavyweights felt very artificial. I gritted my teeth and plowed through the first part of the book because I had to believe that Benson was writing Callie as so superficial and selfish so that she could be changed by the experiences that lay ahead. While Callie did show some evidence of character development, she never did transform into someone I liked. However, Benson does beat the crap out of her for 300 or so pages, so that’s something to consider.

Eventually I started tuning out Calliope, but I didn’t get bored. The story clips along at a good pace, and I enjoyed Benson’s take on how Hell works and on Hindu mythology, with a little bit of Greek and Norse thrown in. I liked that she explored how immortality works in regards to the not getting killed. Something I’ve always been curious about: how do immortal people age? But Benson’s version of Kali differs quite a bit from my imagining. I envision her as more wrathful rather than just peevish. I also really liked Runt and Clio, who seems much more mature than her supposedly older sister. Plus, Clio is the “Willow character,” and I always have a soft spot for smart, nerdy girls, especially if they wear Buddy Holly glasses.

The chicklit portion of the novel is fairly light. The romance subplot does not conclude as is expected of the genre, and I was pleased that the story’s main trajectory was not about Callie getting the guy. Instead, the plot focuses principally on Callie’s hero’s journey, completing her tasks to become Death and rescuing her father. While Callie certainly becomes more confident as the book progresses, I was disappointed that she never found complete autonomy. I wish that she could have completed one of her tasks by herself.

The male characters, at least the supernatural ones, seem to fall into two categories: diabolical or sacrificial. Vritra, the Devil, Marcel, and Indra all scheme and manipulate women, while Daniel and Jarvis sacrifice themselves to assure that Callie completes her journey. Callie’s father is probably the only exception to this dichotomy, but he appears very little in the novel. The human men are decidedly less assertive and heroic with Callie’s blind date failing to catch her eye physically speaking and her vegan co-worker fainting after seeing Jarvis. The women in the novel, with perhaps the exception of Clio, are all ball-busters of a sort but that does not necessarily translate to their seeming empowered. Though none come across as helpless, most become victims of men’s manipulation.

Benson narrates the novel in a very conversational tone that’s a little too familiar for my taste. There were several times that Benson repeated herself, conveying the same information through both Callie’s thoughts and subsequent dialogue. For example:

How the hell am I supposed to know what I’m doing? I thought to myself. It’s not like there’s a book on the subject.

“Hey, you don’t have to yell at me. It’s not like anyone gave me an instruction manual—”

Just the dialogue would have sufficed. I also disliked Benson’s use of the word “bitch” but more on a feminist level. Callie chastises Clio for referring to the Gopi as “bitches” but Callie herself uses the word several times throughout the novel. The sisters use the word differently – Clio refers to women being a man’s “bitches,” and Callie uses it as a derogatory term for a disagreeable woman – but I personally fail to see the word as anything but oppressive in any context. I vote that women leave “bitch” unclaimed.

But I do not wish to seem too negative. Death’s Daughter is Benson’s first solo novel, and I’m sure that she will grow as a novelist just as she has grown as a screenwriter. This novel is supposedly the first of a trilogy, and at this point I would be willing to read a sequel. The prose may not be perfect, but Death’s Daughter is very readable and, like I said, I enjoyed Benson’s take on mythology. My favorite bit: “…you, and the other Evangelical Christian sinners, would spend your days of punishment sewing sequins on all the gaffs for the Devil’s favorite cabaret, The Gay Minority Demons’ Drag Show.”

Hmmm…but should I be overly sensitive and take that sentence to imply that gay people are demons? Eh, I’ll give Benson a pass on that one because I know what an awesome ally she is to the queer community. She has said that she doesn’t have any gay characters in this series yet, and of the characters in this novel I would guess that Clio has the most queer potential. I mean, short hair, dorky glasses, owns a white tank top, likes animals? Stereotypes, yes, but sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason. That list describes at least six lesbians that I know. OK, so Clio seems to have a thing for Indra in this book, but I would attribute that to whatever mojo he seems to work on the ladies. Or it would be fine if she were bisexual as long as she didn’t turn evil or become an assassin. There’s been enough of that already.


One Response to “‘Death’s Daughter’ by Amber Benson (2009)”

  1. 1 Skylarr

    Your analysis was incredible and I 100% agree with you. I too think she will advance as a novellist. I really hope she leaves out more fluff in upcoming books… it seemed to be too dragged out, especially in the beginning. Great over view and I hope you continue to analyze more Willow and Tara interactions in the future!

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