Wednesday 15 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 25: "Dead Witch Walking" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Rachel Morgan is an earth witch (which means she uses wooden charms activated with drops of her own blood to do magic, as opposed to layline witches who draw their power from laylines) and works for the IS (Inderland Security), a police force consisting of supernaturals like witches, living vampires, werewolves, fairies and pixies. They police the supernatural crimes, while the FIB (Federal Inderland Bureau) is its mundane, human counterpart. For the last year, Rachel has had a run of truly awful assignments and what seems like very bad luck on top of things.

She's sick and tired of being jerked around and after being sent to reclaim a leprechaun for tax fraud, she decides that enough is enough. She's going to quit the IS and go into business for herself. For the leprechaun's three wishes, she makes it seem as if she had the wrong paperwork, so the little barmaid can go free, and Rachel can use her first wish to make sure she doesn't get caught. However, she promises her other two wishes to another IS runner, Ivy Tamwood, and Jenks, her pixy backup, to make sure they don't report her.

Unfortunately, although Rachel's boss tells her to her face that he's been trying to make her quit for the best end of a year, she's still under a death threat until she can pay off what remains of her contract. The IS seriously try to discourage people from defecting from their ranks. She is further surprised when Ivy, an incredibly talented and experienced IS runner, announces that she's going to buy her way out of her own contract and offers to go into business with Rachel instead. She claims to already have an office space they can share, which turns out to be an old converted church, where Ivy is currently living.

Because news travels fast, and everyone in supernatural Cincinnati knows Rachel is under the IS death threat, she's already been evicted from her apartment and all her possessions have been cursed. Until she gets them doused in salt water, they could kill her. So when Ivy claims Rachel can rent the extra bedroom, she doesn't really have any other choice. Nevertheless, she has reservations, as Ivy is a living vampire (she has the vampire virus in her system from birth which gives her quicker reflexes, enhanced senses, but she can choose whether to drink blood or not - although most do, but she won't be forced to stay out of the sun and subsist on only blood until she dies and becomes a full vampire). Ivy reassures her that she's not drunk blood for three years, and that Rachel will be safe in the church.

Until Rachel's able to find enough money to pay off the threat against her, she's in danger every time she sets foot outside her door. She decides that the way to make the money is by proving that the city's golden son, wealthy, charming, handsome and somewhat mysterious councilman Trent Kalamack has a double life as a large scale manufacturer and dealer in illegal bio-engineered drugs. When she tries to question him, she's shocked to find that he wants to hire her to work for him, offering a very lucrative salary, which would certainly make sure she was safe from the IS forever. She flatly refuses his offer and tries to sneak into his estate to find evidence while transformed into a mink. Trent is a very resourceful man, however, and Rachel ends up caught and put into a cage in his office. Even after she manages to escape and turn herself human again (after Trent took her to fight in the city's rat fights), she can't really act on the things she discovered about the ruthless businessman unless she gets proof.

To complicate matters further, it seems that the IS may not be the only ones who want Rachel dead. While working on a way to prove that Trent's a crook, Rachel is attacked by a demon, sent to kill her and only barely survives, after being forced to make a deal with it. Being an independent contractor turns out to be much more dangerous than Rachel ever imagined.

Looking back, I think Kim Harrison's books about Rachel Morgan and the Hollows was the first paranormal fantasy series I got into, way back in 2005, long before I started my meticulous logs recording everything I read and re-read. Even in 2007, I had no access to LibraryThing or Goodreads and just wrote everything down in a dedicated notebook (which I still keep, as backup. No chance of me losing my book records if the apocalypse hits and the internet fails). Hence I don't know exactly when I first read my now rather well-worn paperback copy of Dead Witch Walking, but I bought it in March 2005, so chances are it was shortly after that. All the other paranormal authors and series I now enjoy came later, probably at least in part because I liked these books so much. Patricia Briggs, Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Nalini Singh, Meljean Brook, Anne Bishop and my beloved Ilona Andrews - all years after my first encounters with Rachel, Ivy, Jenks and Trent.

One of the things that hooked me into this world is the world-building. An alternate universe, where there are paranormal races living alongside humans, generally without conflicts or incident. Until the disastrous event in the 1960s, where a virus was spread through a genetically modified tomato, and a quarter of the world's humans died in a very short space of time, all the various supernatural creatures - witches, weres, vampires, elves, pixies, fairies, gargoyles, trolls (you get the picture) existed alongside humanity, but had to keep their otherness hidden. The humanoid ones were able to blend in pretty well, and some could even have children with humans, but the more unusual creatures had to stay out of sight and neared extinction when the Turn, as it became known, occurred. While the humans were in the majority, it was unsafe for the supernaturals (or Inderlanders) to come forward, but when so many died, the power balance was shifted and fronted by a very charismatic vampire politician, Rynn Cormel, they publicly announced their existence. Since the Turn, most humans completely shun tomatoes and tomato-based products, while Inderlanders happily still consume them.

While Rachel is a witch, she's never really needed to practise her arts all that much before she quit the IS. With the death threat hanging over her, she needs to craft her own spells, as anything she gets from a magic shop may be marked with a curse targeted to her. The IS actually has teams of magic users on retainer out looking for her, and can legally assassinate her if she doesn't pay off her contract. Rachel, who is normally both rather impulsive and headstrong, needs to learn to become more cautious and think before she acts. Because Ivy is from a very powerful and prominent family, Rachel is considered under her protection while they live together. She's fair game whenever she leaves the church, however. If she accepted Kalamack's job offer, she could end her predicament in a second, but she's convinced he is crooked (even before she witnesses the extent of it while trapped as a mink in his office) and unwilling to sell out her principles.

Before quitting the IS, Rachel partnered with Ivy for a while, but they didn't really know each other well, Suddenly finding themselves not only business partners, but roommates, requires adjustment from both sides. As Rachel discovers, while living vamps can choose whether they drink blood or not, voluntarily abstaining for three years has put Ivy rather on edge, and there are a number of behavioural patterns and unconscious signals Rachel needs to alter, to lessen the chance that Ivy loses control. By offering Jenks, a pixie, an equal share in their business and full access to the church garden, they secure the full gratitude and loyalty of the little winged warrior, who provides perfect backup and surveillance aid for them when they are out on missions. While all three have really been loners before (although Jenks has a wife and a massive family - pixies have a LOT of children), the three establish both a solid working relationship and develop a firm friendship.

The readers are also introduced to two of the more antagonistic characters in the series in this book. Trent Kalamack may be one of the most eligible bachelors in the country, a wealthy, charming and very powerful councilman, but strangely, no one knows if he's witch or human and even Jenks, with his uncanny sense of smell, can't determine it. As Rachel discovers, to her dismay, he has unparallelled security at his compound and is quite ruthless to protect his secrets. Trent is willing to pay generously to make sure he has the best working for him, and has watched Rachel's career with interest. If she won't come to work for him willingly, perhaps he can make her suffer long enough while trapped as a mink that she gives in and submits. I can promise that in the early books, even when he seems quite villainous, he has a lot of good reasons for acting the way he does, and his redemption arc over the course of the series is one of my favourite things about them.

In addition to Trent, there is the demon sent to kill Rachel, who remains nameless in his first appearances here. Able to shapeshift seemingly at will, he appears to his victims as one of their worst fears, usually killing them in horrible, yet creative ways. Demons have to be summoned by someone and controlled, however, and there is someone pulling his strings. Suffice to say, the demon becomes an important secondary character throughout the series, and while he too is utterly villainous and really very scary to begin with (leaving Rachel bleeding to death from a gushing neck wound), he too develops a lot throughout the series.

While, in my experience, a lot of paranormal series can take a while to really draw the reader in (for instance, the first Kate Daniels book by Ilona Andrews is not great, I had to struggle through the first THREE Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, and even then, the series doesn't get really decent until book 5), Kim Harrison has a really strong introduction to her universe and her characters. While there are absolutely some books that are less enjoyable than others, and Rachel occasionally annoys the crap out of me (I will address this in later reviews), I can see why I was so instantly engaged and why this was my first proper introduction to paranormal/urban fantasy.

Since the series is now not only complete, but even has a prequel, there is no reason not to give it a chance if you're looking for something new in the paranormal genre.

Judging a book by its cover: I must admit, that fond as I am of Kim Harrison's books, the covers are NOT the draw here. It's quite clear to me which scene this is supposed to represent, but at no point is Rachel wearing only a small red bra, showing that much exposed skin on her upper body. The leather pants and the handcuffs with charms are a very nice detail, as is her no-nonsense stance and telltale red hair. But the glorified bikini top annoys me, and always has done.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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