IN THE HOLLOWS, THE VAMPIRES COME OUT TO PLAY… AND IT’S ALWAYS WITCHING HOUR.
Are you ready for the Urban Fantasy gem that put Kim Harrison on the map, and kickstarted the epic Hollows series?
Dead Witch Walking
(The Hollows, Book 1)
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Format: Paperback, 432 Pages
Date: 5th January 2012 (First Published 2004)
This book was given to me as a gift in the spring of 2005, introducing me to the Urban Fantasy genre for the first time, and making me a staunch admirer and fan of author, Kim Harrison, in the process. I’ve read it several times since then, and it’s still as good now as it was then. Dead Witch Walking, is the first book of the acclaimed Hollows series, throwing its readers into the city of Cincinnati in an alternate history Earth where humans coexist uneasily with the world’s supernatural population of vampires, witches, werewolves and more; collectively known as Inderlanders.
Protagonist Rachel Morgan is a witch by blood, and a Runner for the I.S. by occupation. As an employee of the Inderlander Security service, the law enforcement agency that polices the country’s supernatural citizens, Rachel’s duties entail apprehending and bringing to justice Inderlanders who are unable to abide by societies rules. As much as she enjoys being a Runner, Rachel has no job satisfaction on account of her pain-in-the-ass boss, Denon, who constantly assigns her tasks which she deems beneath someone of her capabilities.
After one such assignment, Rachel is persuaded by her mark, (a wish granting leprechaun) that she should quit the I.S. and become an independent Runner with her pixie sidekick, Jenks. The only snag with starting her own business is that nobody is permitted to break their I.S. contract. While no one is certain about the fate of the one and only person to have broken his contract, the rumours of his demise are enough to convince others not to risk a gruesome, untimely death.
Undeterred, Rachel decides that in her case the risk is minimal as Denon has made no secret of wanting to be rid of her, so would welcome her resignation; and he’d have no issue with taking Jenks with her, right? If only it were that simple. Rachel does indeed quit, but she failed to foresee that her colleague Ivy Tamwood, the last living vampire of the influential Tamwood family would also resign to become a partner in her new business venture. Unfortunately, for Rachel, Ivy just happens to be the I.S.’s very best Runner, so Denon is royally pissed and places a death sentence over her head.
The death sentence makes Rachel persona non grata, so she finds herself being evicted from her apartment and made homeless. To the rescue comes Ivy who gets Rachel to agree to be housemates in an old church that can double as their place of work. While having a Tamwood vampire living and working with her offers her a small measure of protection, Rachel knows she’s in for the fight of her life, to do the one and only thing that will compel the I.S. to rescind its death sentence.
So the race is on to find the proof needed to take down Cincinnati councilman, Trenton Kalamack, who the I.S. believes is running the Brimstone narcotics trade. Taking down the enigmatic Trent would be the greatest challenge and accomplishment of Rachel’s short career, as very little is known about him; even his species; human or Inderlander, is uncertain.
And so begins a roller-coaster ride as Rachel juggles starting a new business; resisting the amorous advances of her new housemate and business partner, Ivy; and bringing Trent Kalamack to justice, all the while fending off I.S. assassins, and a demon from the Ever-After, who may or may not have been summoned by her former boss.
Readers who enjoy world building will surely appreciate the alternative history world that Kim Harrison has created. This world came into being forty years prior to the events of the novel, when mankind’s bioengineering endeavours inadvertently resulted in the release of a deadly virus contained within genetically modified tomatoes. While the virus decimated most of the human population, it also brought to light the existence of the world’s supernatural population who had long ago migrated to our world from a parallel world referred to as the Ever-After. This devastating period became known as The Turn.
As the author presumably invested a significant amount of time shaping her alternate world, there is a lot of information that needed to be conveyed to readers. For example, the culture and customs of various inderlander species like the pixies, the difference in the abilities of witches and warlocks, or the difference between living and undead vampires.
For the most part these details are presented to the reader appropriately, although Kim does come perilously close to information dumping on occasion. This was perhaps unavoidable as the story is narrated in the first person from Rachel’s point of view, and there was no obvious logical and natural way to impart certain things. Such as the fact that the moon landings didn’t occur.
Speaking of Rachel Morgan, Dead Witch Walking’s protagonist is perhaps the weakest element and biggest liability; potentially diminishing some readers’ enjoyment of the book. There is a tendency in Urban Fantasy for a female protagonist to be this perfect, feisty, independent, ass-kicking babe, able to accomplish anything and everything without needing anyone’s help; Rachel is almost the polar opposite.
Rachel is annoyingly indecisive, and constantly second guessing herself. She bemoans the crappy jobs she is assigned, yet she displays an ineptitude bordering on complete incompetence; her successes tend to be the result of blind luck or the intervention of others, and she is clueless when it comes to determining whom she should or shouldn’t trust. (Hello Rachel! The human demonology enthusiast, Nick, who knows far too much about Inderlander society, is clearly untrustworthy.)
While these flaws may endear Rachel to some readers, chances are that some readers will be put off continuing to read.
It’s entirely possible that my negative reaction to some of Rachel’s quirks are the by-product of the fact that I’m invariably more interested in secondary characters. Which brings us to the best aspect of the novel; Kim Harrison’s wonderful supporting cast. It would take too much time give every character who made an impression their due, like Jenks the trash talking, smart-ass pixie; it’s enough to state that all the secondary characters introduced by the author are fully realised individuals with distinct traits and personalities, whom readers can invest in and want to learn more about.
Perhaps the most intriguing character of the novel, and certainly my favourite, is Ivy Tamwood who is both complicated and mysterious in equal measure. At first glance Ivy is ostensibly a confident and powerful woman, but just beneath the surface is an insecurity and vulnerability that will endear her to readers in a way that Rachel fails to do. She demonstrates a fierce loyalty and over-protectiveness towards Rachel, which when coupled with her mysterious nature and demeanour will have readers constantly questioning Ivy’s motives; is she secretly in love with Rachel? Or is there a more sinister reason that readers aren’t privy to?
Kim Harrison can rightfully feel proud at having created such a compelling and complex character in Ivy, though sadly she doesn’t get nearly as much “page time” as I would have liked. One can only wonder at how different a proposition Dead Witch Walking would have been had Ivy been the protagonist.
While the lack of Ivy was the only real disappointment of the book for me, I suspect that for some of the female readership (who are presumably the target demographic), the absence of any “romance” will be the main source of grievance. To soften the blow, the author does introduce a number of potential future love interests for Rachel in the forms of antagonist Trent Kalamack; the dubious Nick Sparagmos; Ivy’s vampire ex-boyfriend Kisten; and of course Ivy herself.
When all is said and done, Dead Witch Walking is a fast moving and action packed opening instalment to The Hollows. The popular literary clichés such as it’s a “page turner” and “unputdownable” are both very much applicable. If you can look past the annoying character traits of protagonist Rachel Morgan, there is much to like about the book; the alternate history world constructed by Kim Harrison and the diverse array of memorable characters she has populated it with.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.