October 02, 2014
(++++) FINALLY, THE FINALE
The Witch with No Name. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $26.99.
“In my beginning is my end. …In my end is my beginning.” The words are those of T.S. Eliot in the second of his Four Quartets, and they appear on a wall plaque in the Somerset village of East Coker, whose name is also the name of the poem. It is to a church in East Coker that Eliot’s ashes were taken, in accordance with his wishes. And it is to Eliot that readers’ thoughts may drift in the stunning conclusion of the Hollows novels by Kim Harrison, the pen name that Dawn Cook has used for this series since its inception, Dead Witch Walking, a decade ago. A far-fetched connection? “To be restored, our sickness must grow worse,” writes Eliot in East Coker. And: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” And, in the following poem, The Dry Salvages: “The past and future/ Are conquered, and reconciled.”
Reading Harrison’s conclusion through an Eliot lens is far less obvious than reading it through the continuing in-your-face Clint Eastwood connection: The Witch with No Name recalls the famous Sergio Leone “spaghetti Western” film trilogy in which Eastwood starred (which has retained its overarching The Man with No Name designation despite the fact that Eastwood’s character is spoken to by name in all three movies). Certainly it is more comfortable to regard Harrison’s books as just another urban fantasy, albeit an unusually well-wrought, character-driven one, than to think that she is somehow reaching beyond the genre even while operating so skillfully within it. And certainly there is nothing wrong with reading the final book, and the ones before it, simply as adventures. Indeed, they started simply as adventures, and whether Harrison intended from the beginning for them to become broader and deeper is arguable; perhaps she herself does not know and just went where her well-limned characters took her.
Here is where they have gone, where they have taken Harrison or she has taken them: back to one of the earliest concerns of the series, the question of what happens to vampires’ souls when they die and arise – an inquiry that helped drive and deepen Rachel Morgan’s relationship with her vampire roommate, Ivy Tamwood, but that soon lost urgency as Rachel coped with crisis after crisis involving herself, Ivy, multiple other characters, and the various species inhabiting Harrison’s wonderfully realized world. The vampire-soul issue started to reemerge in the 12th book, The Undead Pool, and is back as a prime plot mover for the finale – but not as sole plot mover, for at this point there are so many strands, so many characters, so many concerns, that no single thread can be called the most important in Harrison’s wonderfully woven tapestry. None, that is, except Rachel herself: ever-neurotic, somewhat whiny, unable to see certain things that stare her (and other characters, and readers) in the face, Rachel is the linchpin not only of this 13-book series and its finale but also of multiple intersecting themes and species within it. Rachel is the uniter, the unifier, the solver of age-old puzzles and dissolver of age-old enmities – far, very far, from a holy figure, even when she appears in a book that resonates with some of Eliot’s distinctly Christian mysticism, but nevertheless the possessor of the ability to bring together what others have torn and kept asunder for millennia. Not a witch, despite the book’s title – or, more accurately, not only a witch – Rachel, steeped in an almost-always-fulfilled determination not to kill anyone or anything and not to allow anyone or anything to be killed because of her, consistently makes her personal well-being an afterthought (although she thinks a lot about it) while trying, in this final series book, to save the vampire race and end the unremitting enmity between demons and elves.
Are Rachel’s worries and self-doubts too repetitious, her successes too pat? Is there too much of a feel-good tone to some of the events and connections in The Witch with No Name? Some readers may feel so, and the reaction is reasonable in some ways: the book certainly has flaws, such as the buildup of Landon, the primary evil character from this and the prior book, only to have him literally disappear from the story after doing his worst (which is very bad indeed) – he simply fades from the narrative, his fate never known. Still, the notion that things have been put together too neatly is at least uncharitable, at most ill-considered. What else could happen in this book, given Rachel’s so-well-developed personality and the numerous intimate relationships between her and other characters? How, other than in the way she has wrapped things up, could Harrison satisfactorily end the series? The consistency of Rachel’s behavior – even when it makes her seem immature and self-pitying at times – dictates her reactive stance to events large and small. And her ability to find (although only under extreme duress) the right puzzle pieces to complete Harrison’s complex jigsaw puzzle of a series is what guides readers through events that lurch here and there, back and forth, world without end, or rather worlds without end, since what is at stake in The Witch with No Name is not only the workaday world but also the ever-after and the entire existence of magic and the species that employ and are to a large extent defined by it.
Rachel has to find a way to save everything here, not just vampires and not just her it-took-you-long-enough relationship with the powerful elf Trent Kalamack, which was finally consummated in the 12th book after being nudged forward for thousands of previous pages. But just as the vampire-soul issue is not simple – reuniting the undead with their souls is as likely to destroy as to save them – so Rachel’s love for Trent is not straightforward. To experience it fully, to grow fully into herself, Rachel must accept all the implications of Trent having a child with Ellasbeth Withon, one of the more unpleasant characters in the series, and must grope her way toward a multi-species blended family. And Rachel must confront the depth of her feelings for and involvement with the demon Algaliarept (Al), her onetime mentor, frequent tormentor and equally frequent savior. Indeed, Rachel must come to terms with her own dual nature, or rather her multifaceted one, which Harrison has so adeptly developed and plumbed throughout the books. For although we first met Rachel as a witch, and although the final book’s title asserts that she is one, readers know that she can do witchcraft but is not defined by it: she is also a demon, but one not bound to walk in reality only at night; and she is a were, having led a pack and given up her alpha status voluntarily; and she is, in a way, a vampire, too, through her deep and complex relationship with Ivy and through her emotionally and physically intense love for the now-twice-dead vampire Kisten. Rachel may not be all things to all people (or, rather, beings), but she has connections to every species in the Hollows books – yes, even to pixies (through her unshakable friendship with Jenks, who owes her his life in more ways than one) and fairies (pixies’ mortal enemies, brought to a state of uneasy truce through Rachel – a state that she must find a way to bring to elves and demons in the series finale).
Friendship of a distinctly non-maudlin sort is the glue that binds Rachel to characters of all types and all species in the Hollows novels, and it is very much to Harrison’s credit that she is able to show extremely strong friendships, including ones between heterosexual women and men, that do not involve sex – even if a frisson of it often smolders and sometimes is on the verge of catching fire. One message of The Witch with No Name and the series it concludes is that the ties that bind are far stronger than those of blood relationship (whether defined as family or as vampire-related), far stronger than those of infatuation and sexual intensity (as strong as those are), and ultimately come down to the reality that people – including the human-shaped but nonhuman characters in these books – have no real choice but to accept their admittedly profound differences and find a way to coexist, even if not comfortably or easily. The events in this series are not comfortable or easy for the participants or, in many cases, for readers. Rachel and those around her all grow as characters, as people, from series start to series conclusion. Yet they are quite demonstrably still the people they were at the very beginning of the 13-book sequence – just strengthened, annealed by the fires of battle and passion through which Harrison has taken them. The themes set forth at the opening of the Hollows series, and carefully marshaled throughout, are still there in the final book, and they are used to bring this extraordinary exercise in tale-spinning to a wholly logical and very-well-thought-through conclusion. “In my beginning is my end. …In my end is my beginning.”