Once Dead, Twice Shy. By Kim Harrison. Harper. $8.99.
Early to Death, Early to Rise. By Kim Harrison. Harper. $16.99.
When academic studies are written about Kim Harrison’s novels – and they will be at some point – they will surely highlight certain similarities between her Rachel Morgan “Hollows” series for adults and her new Madison Avery series for teenagers. In both, Harrison creates a strong female central character who is inevitably caught between two worlds and does not quite fit into either, but is determined to change both. She is attractive, but not as attractive as one of the supernaturally powered friends with whom she interacts. The protagonist also has a small flying companion and helper with a snarky attitude, who does things that others of his or her kind have not done before. And the central character impresses others – even enemies, or apparent enemies – through the sheer force of her desire to do the right thing even when everyone thinks it is wrong. In addition, the whole question of enemies is a complicated one: Harrison’s books are full of betrayals and, of equal if not greater interest, of alliances with characters who appear to be unalterably opposed to the protagonist but somehow find themselves, at least to an extent, on her side.
Harrison brings a sense of reality to stories that are inherently unbelievable by creating characters whose motivations are understandable, if not always admirable. In Early to Death, Early to Rise, for example, another character tells Madison, “‘The mistakes don’t matter. It’s what you do when you mess up that does.’” This is the sort of comment that makes a reader think – and Harrison is good at that. Elsewhere in the same book, a different character tells Madison, “‘You’re not what I thought you’d be.’” Harrison’s central characters never are. And Madison herself says – to someone who is supposed to be on the opposite side, but who gives her grudging respect as he gets to know her (another trait of Harrison’s heroines) – “‘I’m trying to find a way to do my job in a way that doesn’t go against all I believe in. …It’s hard to wake up and see the sun if the blinds are pulled. I’m a blind puller, Paul. Stop trying to yank me from the window.’” Later, Madison comments to yet another character, “‘I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, either. I just do what feels right.’”
And just what is Madison trying to do? Well, that is a complicated story – or rather, so far, two complicated stories. The universe of the Madison Avery novels is one in which divine intervention in earthly affairs is constant, with unending jockeying for heavenly position involving “light reapers” (who are not necessarily good) and “dark reapers” (who are not necessarily bad), plus guardian angels (who are not at all what a reader will expect), seraphs and other celestial types. The reapers, who are angels of a sort, are controlled – or at least managed – by humans called “timekeepers.” The “light timekeeper” is Chronos, or as Madison calls him, Ron. The “dark timekeeper” is Madison herself – but instead of being a living human (with age artificially preserved through eons), she is, not to put too fine a point on it, dead. She only looks alive. The reasons for all this are laid out piecemeal in Once Dead, Twice Shy, wherein it turns out that the previous “dark timekeeper” tried what seemed like a good political move by eliminating Madison as his replacement…but it didn’t work out as he wished. But “light timekeeper” Ron turns out not to be the trustworthy friend and guide that Madison thought he was – and again, this is typical in Harrison’s books, where at least one of the protagonist’s supposed teachers and helpers turns out to have a hostile agenda, so the heroine must instead learn things on her own or with the aid of characters that neither she nor readers would expect, at least initially, to be helpful.
Once Dead, Twice Shy, which is now available in paperback, is a substantially better book than its brand-new sequel, but both are worth (++++) ratings because they function so well at creating the world – call it the mythos – that Harrison is developing in this series. It is a thinner, less complex and, in truth, less interesting world than is the world of her “Hollows” novels, which are peopled (if that’s the right word) with a bewildering assortment of supernatural beings, all of them relentlessly pursuing their own completely understandable agendas and intersecting with Rachel Morgan in surprising if not entirely unpredictable ways. The Madison Avery books are tremendously simplified and toned down by comparison – maybe a bit too much. For example, it may make sense in books for teen readers to reduce the steamy sexuality of the “Hollows” novels, but really, asking today’s teens to believe that a chaste kiss between 17-year-olds is a big deal is more than a touch silly. The reality is that, although the quality of Harrison’s plotting and character creation still stands out in the Madison Avery books, Harrison seems less comfortable writing for younger readers than for adults. This is especially true in Early to Death, Early to Rise, in which Madison embarks on her first full-fledged attempt to do things her own way – working with both a “light” and a “dark” reaper. The problem with the book is not the concept, but the fact that the working out of “fate” vs. “choice” (which is, at the core, what the whole dark-and-light theme is about) involves dealing with two teenage boys whose computer hacking may cause several deaths – but the boys themselves are completely uninteresting types, not the sort of fully formed characters in whom Harrison specializes. It’s hard for readers to care about what one or the other of these boys may do when it’s hard to care about either boy himself.
Nevertheless, the Madison Avery books are several cuts above most supernatural teen literature, and that fact is entirely due to Harrison’s skill in world creation and development of a fascinating protagonist and excellent core of central characters surrounding her. Toward the end of Early to Death, Early to Rise, a subsidiary character neatly sums up the appeal of Madison in one of those comments that Harrison seems to toss off easily but that are inevitably highly thought-provoking: “‘I like you. …You use your love to see the world. It makes everything harder for you, but if it were easy, then everyone could do it.’” But everyone can’t do it – not what Madison does and not what Harrison does. And therein lies what makes Madison’s activities, and Harrison’s books about them, so interesting to read – and so worthy, at some time, of academic analyses.