March 15, 2012

(++++) SOMETHING SARDONIC, SOMETHING DEMONIC

Pale Demon. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $26.99.

A Perfect Blood. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $26.99.

The Hollows Insider. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $25.99.

     Some authors are almost too good: readers cannot help but wonder how they can top themselves in their next book, or even stay at the same level they have attained. That’s about the only problem that Kim Harrison has in her novels of the Hollows, of which she has produced 10 in less than five years – a remarkable achievement in itself. Harrison is the nom de plume (or better, in this context, the nom de guerre) of Dawn Cook, who also writes under her own name; it is Cook’s Harrison alter ego who produces urban fantasy novels that are remarkable for their depth of characterization, their believability, their psychological astuteness, and the fact that every one of them is a thrill ride and hard-to-put-down roller-coaster of a read.

     Harrison has a thing for Clint Eastwood, which makes sense in light of the action orientation and rather lurid settings of the Hollows novels. The two most recent books have, as usual, titles recalling Eastwood films: Pale Demon reflects the 1985 movie Pale Rider, while A Perfect Blood recalls the 1993 film A Perfect World. Eastwood is a preacher in the first of these movies and a Texas Ranger in the second, and there are some parallels between those roles and the ones that Harrison’s central character, Rachel Morgan, assumes in the novels. But it would be a mistake to take those parallels – or any parallels – too far, because Harrison creates characters and situations that are quite unlike those in films (Eastwood’s or anyone else’s) or other novels.

     The linchpin of all the Hollows stories is Rachel, who starts out as a witch and bounty hunter in a world where humans and supernatural beings live side by side (often uneasily), and who steadily becomes something more as the stories progress. What is a bit unsettling about the two latest novels in the series is that Rachel, who narrates all the books, is often not the most interesting character – and that is quite something to discover in her narration, considering how self-involved and petulant (sometimes to the point of childishness) she has shown herself capable of being. Harrison does a wonderful job of derailing expectations and turning apparently ordinary plot elements into things new and different. Pale Rider is a road-trip book, with Rachel heading west from Cincinnati for a trial by the Coven of Moral and Ethical Standards for her use of black magic. With her are the pixy Jenks and living vampire Ivy, Rachel’s partners and backups and some of Harrison’s most intricate and interesting creations – and Trent Kalamack, a tremendously wealthy elf whose ties to Rachel date back to their mutual childhood and whose unscrupulous, even murderous business methods have disgusted Rachel from the start, even when she has been forced to admire their effectiveness. The love-hate relationship between Rachel and Trent has been bubbling for some time, and in Pale Demon it tilts at last toward love, although Harrison does not go for the easy or obvious in these books and it is by no means assured that they will ever become a traditional couple. More than that: they may become a couple, but certainly not a traditional one. Trent is traveling with Rachel, Ivy and Jenks for reasons of his own – mysterious ones, as usual – and the first part of the book has a fair amount of banter, some of it rather juvenile. In truth, the mystery here is unnecessary and somewhat overdone: one consistent niggling flaw in Harrison’s generally excellent plotting is its dependence on characters not telling each other things that become a big deal but would be much less of one if they were revealed earlier. In any case, things get super-serious in the latter part of the work, as usual in Hollows novels, and eventually Rachel is fully in touch with the demonic part of herself (which we have watched emerging in earlier series entries) and makes a decision that fits her personality but is also rather odd: she dies, or rather accepts being thought dead by the demon collective, thereby taking some huge risks while distancing herself from a whole series of events and other characters, and from her own power. A few things in the book do not ring true, such as the revelation of just how much of a killer Trent is – and Rachel not seeming to care much, even though she herself will not kill unless in mortal danger. And there is a split, or maybe not a split, between Rachel and Ivy, that is pretty much left hanging: it is certainly true that Ivy and Jenks are moving on with their lives in ways that Rachel cannot seem to, for all the fact that she has, in terms of her powers and awareness, changed far more than has anyone else in the Hollows series. Still, there are bound to be loose ends in the middle books of an extended series (Harrison plans to write 12 or 13 Hollows novels in all), and Rachel’s consistent voice and sometimes-irritating but very genuine-seeming personality are as clearly foundational in Pale Demon as in earlier books.

     They carry through to A Perfect Blood as well. Here something new and nasty has been added: a distinctly unpleasant group of human fanatics called HAPA (the rather awkwardly named Humans Against Paranormals Association). These characters are doing grisly murders in an attempt to create demons of their own, which they can then use to destroy all Inderlanders (paranormal species) and return humans to the preeminence that they had before the paranormals emerged from the shadows. Shades of J.K. Rowling’s Death Eaters and their determination to extirpate Mudbloods! The HAPA element drives the plot here but is really not the most interesting element of it. The early part of A Perfect Blood is rather too focused on establishing what is going on: the novel picks up five months after the cliffhanger ending of Pale Demon, and it turns out that Rachel has avoided Trent for all that time (why?), and Harrison uses the first couple of hundred pages to introduce new characters and create the foundation for the balance of the novel. The usual headlong pacing of Hollows books slows down here, but once this section is over, A Perfect Blood quickly becomes just as exciting as the earlier series entries. The blood referred to in the title is Rachel’s, which HAPA needs for its fiendish plans and which is important because Rachel in her childhood had a disease called Rosewood Syndrome, which did not kill her only because Trent’s father found a way to save her life (this is all part of the backstory of Rachel and Trent – whose relationship continues to progress here, which makes their five months of non-contact even more puzzling).

     What Rachel does in A Perfect Blood is interesting because she acts, for a time, virtually without powers – most have been stripped from her (with her agreement, thanks to a bracelet made by Trent). Having officially died, Rachel has practical problems to handle (such as being unable to get a car registration and driver’s license) as well as HAPA-related murders to confront. What she does, and it is an interesting twist in the plot, is to get the competing law-enforcement groups (Inderlander Security and the human-run Federal Inderlander Bureau) to work together, which is no small feat, even if the agencies continue to have independent and often conflicting agendas. Once Harrison gets the developmental material out of the way, A Perfect Blood picks up tremendously, although it has to be said that Rachel’s unremitting stupidity in her constant refusal to listen to anyone’s reasonable suggestions to protect her and those around her really goes too far this time – while her determination not to kill anyone, which became idiotic in Pale Demon in her final confrontation with a viciously murderous creature that ate people alive and destroyed their souls, reaches a point of pathology in A Perfect Blood. It is getting much harder for readers to sympathize with Rachel as she leaves a fast-growing trail of bodies in her wake while indulging in self-praise because she is not directly responsible for the deaths – only indirectly. Still, Harrison manages once again to build to a climax that is satisfying in itself while also leaving a number of questions unanswered – and pointing the way toward the next novel. Apart from the matter of Rachel’s behavior, it is certainly possible to pick elements of these books’ narratives and plot structures apart, and A Perfect Blood has more plot holes than most of the Hollows novels. But even when Harrison’s Hollows books are flawed, they remain gripping in their depiction of a consistent, believable alternative world whose characters, human and supernatural alike, are motivated by identifiable adult emotions (including lust, which is an ever-present part of Rachel’s makeup even when she does not act on it) and are just as mixed-up, uncertain, occasionally misdirected, na├»ve and even stupid as humans are in the world we know. Harrison has a lot of plot lines to pull together in the final two or three books of this series – and hopefully will do so with the narrative skill that rarely seems to desert her.

     And speaking of narrative skill, Harrison uses it in a different and distinctly entertaining way in The Hollows Insider, a sort of concordance to the series in which she presents, as the book’s subtitle says, “New Fiction, Facts, Maps, Murders, and More in the World of Rachel Morgan.” This book is an adjunct to the Hollows sequence itself, and is for existing fans who want to delve a little more deeply (or at least a little more clearly) into elements of the world of the Hollows than they are able to during the complex and frenetically paced novels. The packaging is a big part of the charm here: the book contains pages that look hand-written, newspaper stories and columns that look as if they were cut from newspapers, interoffice memos, copies of arrest warrants, photos that look like mug shots, song lyrics, even a cookbook section (Betty Bob’s Everyday Recipes for the Stovetop Idiot), excerpts from the magazines Witch Weekly and JOLLS: The Journal of Ley Line Studies, and a short book of charms (101 Earth Charms for Home and Office). The way this is all pulled together is very clever: a blogger and journalist named Devin Crossman is accidentally caught in one of Rachel’s spells during her days working for Inderlander Security. Readers may have wondered about collateral damage from all the Hollows mayhem – and now they meet someone who was collateral damage. There is no permanent harm done, but when Crossman, who is human, tries to find out who spelled him, and gets stonewalled, his journalistic instincts kick in, and he is soon looking into the whole paranormal world, including the different types of nonhumans in it and a number of specific characters from the Hollows series. The format of the book makes reading it a great deal of fun, and it is packed with information that readers of the Hollows novels have been able to glean only a bit at a time. It is not, however, for novices in Harrison’s world, because the many events to which Crossman refers in his increasingly wide-ranging investigation are central to the novels but not fully explained in The Hollows Insider. Of course, they cannot be explained in this context – that would require far too much space and would not gibe with this book’s “investigative” format. But this means, for example, that the wrenching story of the final death of Kisten Felps, who was the vampire lover of both Ivy and Rachel, is here reduced to a short newspaper obituary notice, a few comments by Crossman, and a copy of the “certificate of second death.” The Hollows Insider may have some readers rushing back to early books in the sequence to refresh their memories about the events that Crossman explores. And by the way, Crossman is not always a reliable narrator or an unbiased one – that is one thing that makes this book interesting. Another is that Crossman catches the attention of none other than Trent, who tries to figure out a way to stop him from digging into certain matters too deeply – even if that means hiring him away from the newspaper so as to silence him. This is one angle that did not appear in the main series of novels, and there are others as well. The result is that The Hollows Insider is packed with information that elucidates Harrison’s created world while also being a lot of fun to read in its own right – provided that you understand the many references it makes to the novels in the main sequence of Rachel Morgan stories.

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