It is a brave author who will take on the personification of Death after Terry Pratchett. Claire North almost sidesteps the issue by instead focussing on the Harbinger of Death, the one who goes before as a courtesy or a warning, currently an ordinary Englishman called Charlie.
Charlie is a bit of a cipher. A non-threatening English everyman who seems to be able to relate to (and communicate with) practically everyone he meets and tends to look at the bright side of life (and death). It seems a bit limiting for Death to only have one, human, harbinger in a world of seven billion people but while there is a backoffice to support him, there is no suggestion that Charlie is part of a bigger team of harbingers fanning out around the world.
As with earlier North novels, The End of the Day is a bit of a travelogue. Charlie finds himself in Greenland, Mexico, Russia, Syria, Nigeria… to name a few. Charlie is sent to these places carrying particular meaningful gifts for those he visits. Not all of those people die. Some of them can take the visit and the message behind the gift as a warning and change their lives. And not all visits are about the end of a life, in North’s world Death also comes to witness the end of an idea or an era.
But this is also a bit of an issue-logue. There is little in the way of plot as the novel is essentially a series of vignettes, bookended with pointed anonymous conversation snippets, covering a shopping list of causes. Climate change, rampant development, nationalism, populism, same sex relationships, religious tolerance, sectarian wars, to name a few. It is absolutely valid for novels to deal with current social issues. But this heavy handed, preachy approach over such a wide range of issues, wears quickly.
There is plenty to think about in The End of the Day. When Death is one of your main characters, questions about, life and its meaning are going to work their way into the plot. But in the end, these deeper questions, and the book as a whole, are weighed down by the sheer number of issues that North has tried to tackle.
This review first appeared in Aurealis #100, Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, www.aurealis.com.au