Posts Tagged ‘pixie’

Book Review – Dead Witch Walking

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, #1)Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up the audio book of #4 in the Hollows series on a whim, and the writing and cosmology was intriguing enough that I’ve decided to start from the beginning and read the full way through.

Harrison’s urban fantasy, so far, is an entertaining, breezy read, but the character development, world-building, and plotting is far superior to other urban fantasies I could name, which also feature plucky heroines with supernatural abilities and a weakness for fashion. Maybe I just appreciate Harrison’s Rachel Morgan most because she’s into combat boots and leather pants instead of pink dresses and clip-on hair bows.

Harrison creates a believable, alternative Cincinnati, on an earth where a world-wide plague (somehow spread by genetically modified tomatoes? That part I’m a little fuzzy on) wiped out 10% of the human population. After “the Turn,” as everyone in the book refers to it, supernaturals stopped hiding their existence from humans. This includes vampires, Weres (as in -wolves, but other types of shapeshifters too), witches, pixies, and fairies. A couple generations later, modern day Cincinnati has an uneasily mixed population, and two agencies are tasked with keeping the peace (really, keeping the supernaturals from victimizing humans too much): the human-run FIB, and the supernatural IS. Rachel is a mid-twenties witch working as an agent for the IS, a “runner” as they’re called here. Chronically bored with her job and fed up with her asshole of a boss, she decides to quit, and takes two of her co-workers with her: Ivy, a vampire, and Jenks, a pixie, to open their own private firm. This doesn’t sit well with her boss; apparently, the IS is not the type of job you can just quit. The last runner who tried it wound up dead, and sure enough, Rachel immediately faces a variety of cleverly designed supernatural assassination attempts. Gotta love a story where the feds are the bad guys — or at least the very, very morally ambiguous guys.

The plot revolves around Rachel avoiding these threats, finding a way to pay off her IS contract, and her developing relationships with Ivy, Jenks, and a human named Nick, who’s probably more than the mild-mannered librarian he claims to be.

The narration is first-person from Rachel’s POV. I was concerned when her first order of business was describing her outfit, which led to a lame joke about guys assuming she was a hooker. However… if you can make it past the first section, Rachel becomes more likable as her problems mount and humanize her. There’s not only the physical threat of IS assassins, but more practical problems like moving in with new roommates. The fact that the roommates in question are a vampire and a pixie adds layers of charm and intrigue. Ivy’s character has lots of possibilities for future storylines, and Jenks is often hilarious — and poignant. The problems (and advantages) of being four inches in a world designed for six-footers are written with a lovely plausibility — as are most supernatural elements of the world. It’s a complex and layered place, with varying types of vampires (living high-born, living low-born, undead), and differing branches of magic. Harrison is skilled at giving just enough exposition that the plot can move forward, without making things too convenient or too complicated for readers to follow.

There’s some interesting thematic debate about good and evil, vis-a-vis White magic versus Black. In keeping true to trope, Black magic is more aggressive and damaging — killing its target, for instance, rather than sending them off to a nice sleep. But the doing of Black magic also has a higher cost: in earth magic, that means the sacrifice of a living animal; in Ley line magic, some damage to the doer’s soul that must be repaid at a later date. Rachel, who uses earth magic, firmly places herself in the White camp, telling us she’s never killed anyone or any animal for or with her magic. It’s interesting the way this conflation of evil with killing animals works its way through the story. Later, when Rachel is placed in the position of killing a rat or probably dying herself, she rejects the idea of killing “even a rat.” There’s no pro-vegan statement here (given the good guy characters’ penchant for wearing leather and eating bacon on their pizza, described with nary a pause), and yet there’s a latent, undeveloped concept of animal rights. The strong distaste for destroying another life is central to Rachel’s morality — a morality which is challenged, to be sure, and probably shall be again in later books.

Most of the other urban fantasy stories I’ve read in the plucky-girl-narrator genre fall into a depressing cycle, with a few strong male personalities who control the heroine’s life and choices, and (when presented as a love interest) get disturbingly rapey. Dead Witch Walking avoids those missteps. Rachel does need a lot of saving and protecting in the story, but it’s as often Jenks or Ivy who come to her aid (or her elderly neighbor Keasley, as far as I can tell the only person of color in the story) as it is her love interest Nick. Rachel is self-aware enough to criticize her “damsel-in-distress” attraction to Nick, who, refreshingly, isn’t physically domineering and, in Ivy’s estimation, “a geek.” He and Rachel actually meet by joining forces to save themselves together, not through him saving her.

Fundamentally, it’s Rachel who is responsible for her own fate. Her decisions drive the plot forward: first in leaving her job, second in investigating a local councilman and CEO. Her voice is also smart, if headstrong, and she matures over the course of the story, learning from her mistakes and improving her working and living relationship with Ivy and Jenks. Ivy is a planner; Rachel is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants doer. By the end of the story, Rachel’s come around to appreciate Ivy’s point of view and talents, and Ivy stops insisting that Rachel stay home and be safe.

If there is a character who’s trying to control Rachel’s life, it’s Ivy, not Nick. Their character dynamic is reminiscent of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, or Sookie Stackhouse and Vampire Bill: vampire attracted to young woman, wants both blood and sex, tries to make decisions for her while professing selfless concern for her well-being, skirts (and often crosses the line) between lover/friend and stalker/rapist. That Ivy is female creates an interesting question for readers: will we respond to Ivy more positively than a male vampire, and will we think Rachel is less of an idiot for sticking around? Ivy challenges the easy woman=victim, man=attacker mindset that feminists and non-feminists alike are socialized to accept. That Ivy is presented as absolutely terrifying to Rachel (in moments) and also genuinely a good friend and a trustworthy ally, for me achieves the moral ambiguity of the “good vampire” much more effectively than Edward Cullen or Bill. I suspect it’s because I don’t also automatically see her relationship with Rachel as emblematic of the patriarchy. That isn’t to say, however, that Ivy isn’t morally ambiguous: her attempts to control the object of her affection are still bad and her motives in supporting Rachel aren’t all unselfish. It’s just easier to admit that the good qualities mixed in are, indeed, good, without feeling like a sexism apologist.

I am so looking forward to reading the rest of the series. More Jenks! More Ivy! More Ivy’s mom! There’s promising stuff there. So put down that Charlaine Harris! Pick up Kim Harrison!

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