Black Magic Sanction. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $25.99.
Since the 1987 Nancy Price novel Sleeping with the Enemy and the 1991 Julia Roberts film made from it, the notion of intimacy with someone who intends to do you harm has had an easy-to-remember catchphrase. Rachel Morgan, the wonderful central character of Kim Harrison’s novels of the Hollows – the supernatural part of Cincinnati – has this sleeping-with-the-enemy problem to a more devastating degree in Black Magic Sanction, the series’ eighth book, than in earlier ones. Not that the first seven were all unicorns and rainbows.
Harrison’s books are so much better than others in her genre – a genre that is actually rather hard to pin down in her case – that picking one up is a breath of mental fresh air, despite the fetid nature of much of what occurs. Harrison, unlike many other authors of paranormal/supernatural thrillers, knows that people are what ultimately matter in extended stories, the events themselves becoming more important to the extent that they broaden our understanding of and empathy with the characters. This is how Harrison pushes boundaries: her books have romance elements, horror elements and otherworldly elements galore, but they are ultimately about character – what determines it, what undermines it, what suffuses it, what twists it. And there is a sly “adventure for its own sake” thread running through the Hollows novels as well, subtly shown through their titles’ tie-ins to Clint Eastwood movies; the latest book’s was presumably inspired by The Eiger Sanction.
But no matter what adventures Rachel has, and no matter how horribly she is abused, misused and mishandled, what ultimately matters most to her is who has her back – who her true friends are. And that is what gives Black Magic Sanction its particular strength, for in this book, it is very hard to tell where the line between friendship and opportunism lies – and especially difficult for Rachel to consider the possibility that people she knows are evil…may not be.
Rachel is a white witch who keeps getting pulled perilously close to the black side of things by circumstances that are almost (but not quite) beyond her control. You would think that other witches would help her, but not in Harrison’s world: Rachel is shunned, captured and tortured by fellow witches precisely because of the sort of magic she has done and the sort of characters – notably the demon Algaliarept – with whom she has done it. In fact, Rachel escapes being lobotomized by her own kind only because of a quirk of convenience.
Do her ex-boyfriends help? Far from it: her great love, the vampire Kisten, is twice dead, the equivalent of a single death for others (Rachel learned the ugly, mundane reasons for his murder in the last Hollows book, White Witch, Black Curse). A previous boyfriend, the human Nick – whom she disposed of, and good riddance to him, after his thievery of a potent magical object nearly led to war among the various supernatural beings in these novels – is directly responsible for entrapping Rachel in Black Magic Sanction, and comes across as an even more venal and slimy character than before. Unless there is the hint of something slightly redeeming about him…
And this is where things – emotional things – get complex. Harrison’s special talent lies in making multiple characters, not just her primary protagonist, seem real, deep and complicated, with believable (if often scarcely admirable) motivations. Rachel is in fact now apprenticed to that demon, whom she calls Al, for good and sufficient reason that others in her world cannot possibly understand. In fact, she may need Al to bail her out of her latest predicament – but would that make Al a friend, or at least someone on whom she can count? Not an easy question, and there is no easy answer here. Nor are there easy answers about Trent Kalamack, one of the most fascinating and complicated characters in the Hollows novels. First introduced as the embodiment of evil, a conscienceless and unscrupulous murderer and master of an empire built on addictive drugs, Trent has been emerging with greater and greater nuance as the reasons behind his activities become clearer and his importance in Rachel’s early and imperfectly remembered childhood looms larger. In Black Magic Sanction, Trent too may be a necessary ingredient in keeping Rachel alive and free – but what is his motivation to do so, and again, is there some sort of twisted friendship developing between him and Rachel, despite her horror at the notion?
To be sure, Rachel does have steadfast friends, and they too are pushed to the limit in this book. Her business partners in her bounty-hunting work, who are also her roommates, can always be counted on. The vampire Ivy is as sleek and slick as ever here, but she has her own demons to fight (although not literally, as Rachel does); and the pixy Jenks is as steadfast, strong, surprising and sly as always – but facing his own realization of mortality (pixy-tality?) and looking toward the future of his family. “Damn, I had good friends,” Rachel comments at one point, and she repeats the sentiment in similar words many times. And that is really what all the plot complexities of this book – and there are many – revolve around. The greatest complexity of all, it turns out, is figuring out just who those friends are…and, beyond that, how to define friendship in a world as dark and convoluted as Rachel’s. Black Magic Sanction can be read as just another supernatural thrill ride, but that would be a mistake – and a disservice to Rachel and her creator. This is a book that raises – or, in the context of its series, continues to raise – some genuinely important issues in a genuinely thoughtful way. And it’s a smashing tour de force of intrigue, betrayal and the paranormal as well.