King of the Dead, Joseph Nassise's second novel in the Jeremiah Hunt series, is a fun and fast-paced read that never lacks plot or action. Instead of creating a separate world, Nassise instead uses the familiarity of our own world and imposes the supernatural on that familiarity. What results is an imaginative and gripping work of fiction that may just keep you up at night.
Broadly, the action follows Jeremiah Hunt, who is on the run from law enforcement for murders he didn't commit. Along for the ride are friends Denise Clearwater, a witch, and Dmitri Alexandrov, a man who can shape-shift into a huge polar bear in dicey situations. Despite being comfortably holed up at a beach house in New Jersey under assumed identities—where Jeremiah, or Hunt, as he's called, is learning to use and control his "ghostsight," which allows him to see the dead—Denise's visions of New Orleans being destroyed forces the trio out of hiding and on the road to prevent a catastrophe in the Big Easy. What the three, along with a variety of magical comrades, will discover upon arrival and investigation will end up testing their emotional and magical connection.
I had not read the first book in the series, so I was concerned that I would be at a total loss as to the characters, the world and the action. But Nassise successfully, and not too intrusively, references and summarizes the basics of what occurs in the first book. For example, when summing up his situation, Hunt says: "We'd left Boston in early September, just a half-step ahead of an FBI agent named Robertson. Mr. FBI is convinced I was the serial killer known as the Reaper, a particularly vicious monster he'd been hunting for more than a decade." And in discussing the main plot of the first book, Hunt tells us: "It all started with the kidnapping of my daughter, Elizabeth, five years before. I didn't know it then, but she'd been snatched by the supernatural equivalent of the man with a thousand faces: a doppelganger, or fetch, as they were sometimes called, that could take the form of any creature it came into contact with."
Because the book is mostly written in the first person, from Hunt's point of view, Nassise solves the problem of how to educate the reader about how the magical world functions by making a neophyte such as Hunt the narrator. Thus, the reader is just as in the dark as Hunt, and it's through Hunt's questions to others that the reader learns along with Hunt. The explanations of the magical phenomena remain rather simple and terse, and in the context of the dialogue of the novel, the explanations feel unforced and believable; they never stray into overly arcane and boring lectures. Hunt's voice throughout is sardonic and humorous, and although at times the book feels like many other things I've read, Hunt overall serves as a pleasant guide through this strange world. He also has the admirable trait of never taking himself too seriously.
What's problematic, or at least slows down the pace of the novel, are the interludes during which the narrative focus shifts to either Denise or Agent Robertson. While Robertson's point of view is also in the first person, he comes off as a stereotypical, gung-ho, asshole law-enforcement officer, and a foe not really up to taking on Hunt and his friends. His sections do form another strand of the plot, though, and help to build tension. It's just a shame his character isn't more original or deeply drawn.
On the other hand, Denise's character—and what we learn about her connections to New Orleans throughout—are interesting and help make her feel like a real, flesh-and-blood person. Yet the choice to put her sections in the third person instead of the first person is jolting and unconvincing. Perhaps the author wasn't comfortable writing from the female POV. It's clear that these sorts of sections are needed when Hunt goes off-screen, but their execution was rather inelegant and off-putting, and slowed the breakneck pace of the narrative.
Overall, the novel is sleek and contemporary, and readers of all stripes, not just fans of supernatural thrillers, will probably find something to like about it. In any case, it's a quick and well-plotted read.