Review: A Wasteful Death by Sylvain St-Pierre
A Wasteful Death is a cross between a murder mystery and a love story set in a city populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals. While the main characters are two Registered Investigators, sort of like police, this story is nothing like Zootopia. Instincts remain, and everyone in this world is acutely aware of the distinction between predator and prey.
The main characters are Marlot Blackclaw, a wolf, and Trembor Goldenmane, a lion. Both are Registered Investigators who, unusually for their territorial profession, work together. What exactly is a Registered Investigator? Their job is to investigate unclaimed kills and track down the person responsible. Unclaimed being the key word here.
In the world of A Wasteful Death, predation is legal and, with a few exceptions such as students or anyone in a hospital, everyone is a potential target. Once someone is killed, there is a tax that the hunter must pay which is scaled according the value the kill had to society. The tax on a homeless drunk would be low but the tax on a wealthy CEO like Aiden Spottedfur is massive, and it falls on Marlot and Trembor to find out who killed her.
Most of the investigation is fairly routine and would be familiar to anyone that has watched an episode of CSI or any of the many similar series. Parts of the investigation are interesting—though as it's a mystery I will not reveal anything here—but I found it was let down by Marlot and Trembor not being particularly good at their job. There were many clues that they should’ve paid attention to and many people that they should’ve focused on more. Luckily, there is also a subplot.
Marlot and Trembor are not only partners in investigating unclaimed kills, but they are also romantic partners. The only problem is that Marlot has issues with his sexuality. Homosexuality is legal in their world, but that is a fairly recent development and homophobia still exists. There is a lot of tension, both internal and interpersonal, as Marlot wrestles with trying to reconcile his love for Trembor and his fear of people knowing the real him.
The romance and fear of discovery allow Sylvain a lot of room to explore the characters, something he does really well. During their investigation, time spent together and time alone, we get to understand the way they think and what drives them. Because of all this, their romance and insecurities came to the fore for me, and the investigation faded into the background.
Beyond the storylines, there is something else I want to mention: world building. Honestly, I would recommend this book for that alone. Sylvain does it perfectly. Nothing felt forced as, bit-by-bit, he introduced us to the world. We learn a bit of its history, some of its politics, day-to-day life and catch glimpses of the way technology is adapted for anthros, all of which makes you want to know more. The way it is introduced, usually without explicit explanation, could be confusing, but he manages to put in enough information that you can come to the conclusions yourself and then get the confirmation later.
A key feature of the world is the reality of predation. This could’ve perhaps been explored more philosophically, but instead we are shown the world as it is and left to ponder it at our leisure. We know there is a political movement to end predation and that fake meat is available, but they are mentioned only in passing, teasing the expanse of the world. The reality of predation means that species matters here in a way that is often neglected in furry fiction. Scents matter. Body size matters. The taste of flesh matters. A Wasteful Death moves beyond just using ear and tail movements to emphasise emotion to truly using the animal aspect of the characters in a meaningful way.
A Wasteful Death is a novella, only lasting about 100 pages, but it will leave a long-lasting impression. The murder mystery aspect of it is average, but Sylvain St-Pierre’s ability to take us into the minds of his characters in their romantic struggles is engrossing, and the way he built the world and used the animal aspects of his characters should probably set the standard for future furry fiction.