Every Which Way but Dead. By Kim Harrison. HarperTorch. $7.99.
A Fistful of Charms. By Kim Harrison. HarperTorch. $7.99.
For a Few Demons More. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $21.95.
She’s smart and clever, savvy and sassy, quick to turn a phrase and unravel a plot strand, able to juggle multiple lives with surprising aplomb, and possessed of a wicked sense of humor. That’s the author, Kim Harrison – although the description fits her central character, Rachel Mariana Morgan, just as well.
Harrison is creator of one of the most interesting, offbeat and well-put-together fantasy series around, in which male macho is transformed into what might be called female “macha” in both good and bad ways. Lest that seem far-fetched, note the books’ titles: except for the first, Dead Witch Walking, every one is a takeoff on the title of a Clint Eastwood movie – The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, plus the three newer titles here considered. These are sexy books as well as violent ones – and Harrison does the buildup to sex, as well as the buildup to violence, as well as she handles the performance. That is the sign of a classy writer.
“Classy” seems an odd adjective for someone creating a series of novels about witches, werewolves, vampires, elves, demons and other otherworldly creatures, but Harrison simply refuses to play by the rules of any stereotypes of the characters she portrays. Her vampires, for example, like line dancing and shop at Home Depot. And her tales are not set in an exotic European locale but in, of all places, Cincinnati.
Nor are these simple stories of good and evil. The best thing Harrison does is give her characters – even the minor ones – a level of complexity rarely seen in fantasy. There is genuine, often terrifying evil in Harrison’s world, but there is real human connection as well; and if Rachel, her heroine, is smart and bold and able to hold her own in a fight as well as a bedroom tussle, she is also significantly flawed and very, very vulnerable. Rachel is an “earth witch” who gains significant new power – and puts herself and those around her in significant peril – when she learns additional ways of tapping magical forces. She cares deeply about the dangers she creates for others. Yet again and again, Rachel – whose primary issue is trust – does something that has unforeseen negative consequences (usually from the best of motives; occasionally for self-preservation); and again and again, when she must tell someone she is close to about the mess she has made, she wonders not how to tell but what to tell. She is truthful, ultimately, to everyone except herself. The result is an endlessly fascinating series of adventures that are worth far more of a reader’s time than the typical detective or horror-fantasy novel (this series crosses those boundaries, and others).
It is best to enter the series at the beginning, but Harrison is a good enough writer to provide background and recap in each book – so a new reader can understand most of what is going on, if not all the nuances. The distinction between living and undead vampires is important, for example, and Harrison repeatedly shows why and finds ways to make the explanation part of the story. She also gives Rachel enough self-awareness to pull some of the books’ more extreme complexities back from soap opera – usually with a touch of wry humor. In Every Which Way but Dead, for example, a woman nicknamed Skimmer, the former roommate and lover of Rachel’s current roommate – a powerful living vampire who is not Rachel’s lover – unexpectedly turns up. A scene of high tension and high comedy ensues, leading Rachel to remark: “Skimmer forced a smile. Her crisp mien was wearing thin, but she was holding up well considering she had left her home and master to rekindle a relationship with her high school girlfriend who was rooming with the woman who had put her new boss behind bars. Join us next time for Days of the Undead when Rachel learns her long lost brother is really a crown prince from outer space. My life was so screwed up.”
In EWWBD, the screwups revolve around the departure of Rachel’s human boyfriend, Nick, whom she genuinely loves but whom she has unintentionally turned into her familiar – a painful, potentially deadly process. And Rachel is trying to avoid “Big Al,” as she calls the demon Algaliarept (a truly terrifying presence), to whom she has ended up owing herself but not her soul. In A Fistful of Charms, Nick returns, and some mysteries involving him are cleared up even as new ones emerge, and Rachel must try to protect Nick from those who are determined to destroy him and possess his knowledge – but she must also keep a low profile to stay out of the demon’s clutches. And speaking of demons, Harrison’s new hardcover in this series, For a Few Demons More, gives Algaliarept powers that even the demon never had before – and brings back from prison a monstrous master vampire whose viciousness had made Rachel so determined to get him off the streets that she had bound herself to the demon in the first place. All this occurs while a serial killer is running loose – and while Rachel holds what may be the key to stopping the murderer or may be an item that unleashes even worse violence.
Every one of these stories of the Hollows – the area of Cincinnati where Rachel and her cohorts live – is well paced, well written and exciting in the extreme. Rachel is a marvelous character, but so are many others: Harrison even makes four-inch-tall winged pixies seem solid, believable and very far from frail. It is remarkable how much Harrison makes readers care about these characters – their fears, foibles, insecurities, power trips, struggles and genuinely human emotions (even when the characters themselves are not, or not quite, human). These characters are far more than types; these books are far more than standard adventure tales. If Harrison keeps writing at the level she has attained in her first five novels about the Hollows, she will have created a classic series. Indeed, maybe she already has.