Ever After. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $27.99.
The Undead Pool. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $27.99.
Reconciliation and forgiveness, it turns out, together make up the overarching theme of the marvelous series of novels of “The Hollows” by Kim Harrison, the pen name used for this sequence by Dawn Cook. Whether Harrison intended this theme from the beginning or evolved it as the books went on is an open question and, this far into the series, a moot point. What is going on now as the planned 13-book grouping nears its conclusion with its 11th and 12th entries is that the increasingly complicated and elegant structure of the books is beginning to wind tightly toward an eventual form of gathering-together that is sure to have its unhappy, even tragic moments, but that will prove fully satisfying to readers who have followed the adventures of Rachel Morgan since the first Hollows novel, Dead Witch Walking, appeared a decade ago.
Foreshadowings of where this outstanding fantasy series are going now appear everywhere, although they do not indicate precisely where things will end up or, equally important, how they will get to whatever that place is – Harrison is far too skilled a writer for that, and is becoming better with almost every book despite a touch of backsliding here and there. For example, in the 11th novel, Ever After, Ceri, a subsidiary but important character, tells Rachel – who narrates all the books – that Trent Kalamack, a decidedly non-subsidiary character who is becoming ever more central to the narrative, is “more than he ever was, more than just himself.” And readers will immediately connect this statement to Rachel, whom we initially meet as a witch but who, in various books, has assumed an important intermediary role among the weres (werewolves) and vampires as well, who is connected with such disparate species as pixies and gargoyles, and who is now known to be a day-walking demon – a role that makes her existence crucial to the survival of the entire demon species.
If the names of these various species seem unclear or too clear, you are not familiar with Harrison’s series, in which the supernatural beings are not at all what they are elsewhere in popular culture – or are what they are expected to be but are, at the same time, more. This is one thing that gives the Hollows novels their depth and staying power. Another is the sheer intricacy of the plots of each novel and of the series as a whole. New readers should not try to jump into the Hollows with Ever After or the 12th book, The Undead Pool, because they will quickly find themselves in over their heads (speaking of pools!) through the most apparently casual of references, which in fact are quite deep and are crucial to the ever-developing plot – such as Rachel’s throwaway lines in Ever After, “I’ve had four relationships in two years. One was a thief, one died as a political gift, one walked away because I was shunned, and the last is a slave in the ever-after.” This is absolutely true and, in a sense, recapitulates the plots of several lengthy and dense novels in a couple of sentences, while reminding readers of how much has happened in a very short time span. In fact, to fans of this series, the statement will be tremendously resonant as well as predictive, or at least potentially predictive, of where things are going. To anyone trying to get into the series now, however, it will make little if any sense – with the result that any newcomers will get less than they could from it and from the events that follow.
Those events, in both these books, not only expand but also tighten the “reconciliation” theme that underlies so much here. Rachel’s need to reconcile the different elements of her own personality – witch and demon – is only one part of it. The greater part involves reconciliation of the entire world, or rather worlds, of magic and non-magic. The overt plot of Ever After involves the shrinking of “the ever-after,” the world parallel to reality in which the demons live – and the place responsible for the existence of all magic, which will disappear if the ever-after does. Rachel, who is responsible (more or less) for the shrinkage in the first place, has to find a way to arrest and reverse it for the sake of all magic-wielding species. There is much, much more to the plot that that – Harrison’s plots are complex to the point of convolution – but readers who focus on the “save the ever-after” elements of the book will readily see how they fit into the theme of reconciling opposites.
And that theme is inexorably moving toward a reconciliation of the two races whose genocidal war, long in the past, set in motion all the events of the entire Hollows series: demons and elves. Rachel’s inborn demon nature makes an eventual relationship between her and Trent, who is not only an elf but also the elves’ greatest hope of rebounding from the near-extinction that they face because of their long-ago war with the demons, inevitable; and there have been many, many hints of it in previous books, dating back to the childhood that Rachel and Trent shared in fraught and complicated ways. However, this is not a straightforward Romeo-and-Juliet story and is far from a simple “opposites attract” plot – it is a tale not of two enmity-filled families but of two species that have almost succeeded in destroying each other and that can be reconciled only at great mutual peril, through a series of near-disasters with Rachel at the center of pretty much all of them. The fact that the posed cover of The Undead Pool includes, for the first time in the series, a model portraying Trent as well as one portraying Rachel, is scarcely an accident. By the time of this 12th book, there is a deeply felt and entirely believable relationship not only between Rachel and Trent but also between the forms of magic they represent: here, Trent’s elven magic, which is as unreliable as it is potent, is the only way of stopping a kind of “magical misfiring” of the forms of magic with which Rachel is familiar – and “misfiring” is too mild a word, since the events of the book (which, like almost all the Hollows novels, takes place in and around Cincinnati, of all places) involve what could become an all-out war among the supernatural species.
Looking at Rachel as the ultimate reconciler, in this book and throughout the series, is important, but is scarcely necessary to enjoy the novels as pure entertainment, which they manage to be (through elements such as their titles’ references to Clint Eastwood movies) even as they are something more. Using far deeper characterization than is offered in the vast majority of fantasy novels – indeed, far more than most mainstream novels provide – Harrison allows Rachel to be a highly flawed character (whiny, unsure of herself, romantically and sexually confused, impulsive, frequently indecisive until the last possible instant and sometimes just a shade afterwards) while still making her centrality to the individual books’ stories and the sequence as a whole abundantly clear. Trent is himself no angel – far, far from it, having proved at various points in the series to be a drug lord, killer and torturer, and a businessman who is ruthless almost to the point of parody (although Harrison handles his story so well that even the worst of his crimes turn out to be only apparent crimes – a fact that is not always clear, however, within the specific novels in which they occur). But the reality of the Hollows series is that Rachel and Trent, who needed each other (or whose families needed each other) in childhood, need each other as adults, too, for purposes that go far beyond their individual lives. This is becoming clearer and clearer as the books progress, but Harrison is so good at managing the story (and her readers) that it remains tantalizingly uncertain, even at this late stage in the Hollows series, exactly where things are going to end up and exactly how this very complex tapestry will eventually be completed and displayed.
It will be, though. Any reader who doubts it has missed one of the most important reconciliation elements in the books to date: Jenks, Rachel’s pixy partner and one of Harrison’s most wonderful creations, has accepted into his family and become dependent on a now-wingless fairy named Belle – who in turn has become surrogate mother to Jenks’ many children after the heartbreaking death of Jenks’ wife, Matalina, for which Belle’s clan was responsible. Pixies and fairies are sworn mortal enemies, have been from time immemorial, and fight to the death at every opportunity. If this sounds like the situation involving elves and demons, it should, because the parallel is very clear to anyone who wants to see it. Thanks to Rachel, there has been a breakthrough – not a universal or perfect one, but a major one nonetheless – in the relationship between two species that have long sought nothing less than to exterminate each other. Inept and uncertain of herself and her powers Rachel may be, but she has proved, again and again, to be an (imperfect) peacemaker against impossible odds. She proves it again in Ever After and The Undead Pool, as Harrison inexorably moves the Hollows series closer to a conclusion in which the reconciling of opposites is sure to be the major theme – but with enough complications and uncertainties remaining to keep fans of the Hollows novels talking about them long after the sequence comes to an end.