Dead Witch Walking

by Kim Harrison

Cover image

Series: The Hollows #1
Publisher: HarperTorch
Copyright: December 2003
Printing: May 2004
ISBN: 0-06-057296-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 416

Buy at Powell's Books

Rachel Morgan is a police officer of sorts in a world divided between humans and the Inderlanders, the creatures of fantasy and myth who had been sharing the world quietly with people. Quietly, that is, until a plague spread by genetically modified tomatoes wiped out a huge portion of the human population but didn't touch the Inderlanders (except for the elves, which it wiped out completely). Rachel is herself an Inderlander; she's a witch, an earth witch who tries very hard to stay on the white side of magic. She's a runner for Inderland Security, who are responsible for policing Inderlanders and have a strong rivalry with the human Federal Inderland Bureau.

This is all typical for urban fantasy: a scrappy heroine somewhere on the edges of law enforcement, a pile of magical creatures with some mostly unbelievable justification for why they're all in the world, a snarky tone, and of course danger. In this case, the danger comes from Rachel being on the bad side of her boss and then making a large and dangerous decision that turns her into hunted prey. Throw in a mystery (investigation of a possibly corrupt politician, which is more typical police fare than the average urban fantasy), vampires, some unlikely allies, some politics, and a lot of magic, and the first question is whether this stands out from the pack. The answer: yes, but for mixed reasons, not all of them good.

First off, this is a remarkably violent book, even by the standards of urban fantasy. Harrison is not subtle about having nasty things happen to her characters, and Rachel spends nearly the entire book in serious danger. It's not violent to the point of horror, nor does it attempt to gross out the reader, but it's the sort of book that makes me cringe to read in places. Harrison makes sure that you know the danger is real, but this also has an off-putting effect. Reading about someone being mauled is not high on my list of enjoyable pastimes.

Second, due to that danger, Rachel also lives the entire book in constant fear. This is both exhausting and frustrating. Harrison isn't kidding with the title — no one thinks Rachel has a chance of surviving the week, and I lost track of how many different people tried to kill her. That part is understandable within the plot; what's less understandable is that Rachel also has constant panic reactions to one of her allies.

Harrison takes a lot of risks in Rachel's relationship with Ivy, and some of them work. Ivy is by far the most interesting character in the book, and I got the impression this was intentional. Having the most interesting character not be the protagonist is a huge gamble and I think it partly pays off. Harrison can keep a lot of things about Ivy mysterious because the reader isn't in her head, and Rachel can serve as a stand-in for the reader's curiosity. It's also an opportunity to make Ivy more complex by emphasizing her dangerous aspects as well as her appealing ones.

However, despite that and despite heroic efforts to justify Rachel's ongoing fear reaction to her, it only worked for the first couple of times. By Rachel's fifth panic attack, I was getting annoyed. It's completely obvious to the reader that not only does Rachel have nothing to fear from Ivy but also her fear is making things worse. Rachel seems to have no self-awareness on either front. As a result, the primary protagonist comes across as both stupid and paranoid, which does not help draw the reader into the book. It also means that the reader rarely gets a break from Rachel's fear.

Mixed into the same book as those flaws, though, are some lovely bits of world-building and a few great scenes. Ivy, as mentioned, is a fascinating character about whom I want to read more. Harrison's pixies and fairies and their attitudes towards territory are surprisingly deep, complex, and engaging. And there are some excellent bits of (non-were) form changing that I think were handled about as well as I've seen in urban fantasy, including a refreshing lack of projecting animal instincts onto shapechanged humans. Harrison also does a good job with an earth witch, a power set that's rather rare in urban fantasy.

And then, just when I'm managing to ignore Rachel's stupidity about Ivy and some of the exhausting nastiness of the book in favor of enjoying the world and the neat magical bits, Harrison introduces a new supporting character about two-thirds of the way through, and I spent the rest of the book asking why he's in this story and when he'll go away. Nick is one of the most annoyingly extraneous characters that I can recall seeing in a book like this. He serves, so far as I can tell, essentially no plot purpose whatsoever, despite being a major supporting character.

Oh, and there's the obnoxious minor villain who Harrison apparently borrowed from Leisure Suit Larry. This is not nearly as funny or entertaining as that might sound.

I'm at a bit of a loss on what to make of this book, and on whether I want to read more of the series. It does stand out from the pack: there are moments of brilliance in the world-building and characterization and at least four supporting characters I want to read more about. It also stands out from the pack in frustrating, exhausting, and downright annoying ways, and at least some of those seem destined to continue far longer in the series than they should.

This could have been an excellent book if it were less exasperating. As is, I think it's still worth reading, but maybe not worth seeking out. I've still not decided if I'm buying the second volume.

Followed by The Good, the Bad, and the Undead.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-09-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21