Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Rachel Morgan lives in Cincinnati, or, more specifically, “The Hollows”: the area of the city inhabited mostly by the non-human parts of society. It is now forty years since a genetically modified tomatoes transmitted a virus around the world, bringing death to most of the human population, plus the Elves. However, the other Inderland species were unaffected and their previous infiltration of human society proved invaluable in maintaining some form of normalcy. Not long after the ‘Turn’, when humans had to accept that they were not alone on the Earth, two new Security Services were formed: the Federal Inderland Bureau, run by humans, and Inderland Security, staffed by a wide assortment of Witches, Vampires, Pixies and other species. Rachel is a Witch and works for the IS as a runner, bringing in those Inderlanders who persist in pushing brimstone, using black magic or eating the human population too publically.

Unfortunately, Rachel has been having a streak of bad luck, with felons escaping and spells back-firing, and her boss is gunning for her. So, when she captures a leprechaun who offers her three wishes as a bribe, she decides that it is time to quit the IS and strike out on her own. Well, not quite on her own: she has Ivy, her Vampire runner friend and Jenks, her Pixie backup, to help out. They all move to Ivy’s rented home, a converted church, and Rachel tries to dodge the attempts on her life whilst trying to prove that city councilman, Trent Kalamack, is not only responsible for the sudden death of his secretary, but also for other illegal activity, because there is something very mysterious about Trent: no one knows what he is . . . As she investigates him she uncovers evidence that he supplies highly illegal biomedical drugs, outlawed since the Turn. Along the way she disguises herself as a mink, dodges more hit men and encounters a very scary demon.

Amazon suggested this book to me not long after I bought some of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse titles, and there are some similarities. Both series deal with a human world coming to terms with the other species living amongst them and both have a strong, feisty heroine. However, Ms Harrison’s Vampires are even further removed from the traditional garlic-fearing undead: Ivy is a living Vampire, born that way and destined to rise again after her death. Humans can be bitten and infected with the virus, but they must depend upon an undead vampire to raise them to undeath. One other significant difference is the exploration of the magic that Rachel wields. This is an interestingly practical form of magic that involves a lot of preparation to cook up potions that can be impregnated into wooden charms and which must be activated by a drop of blood. It makes a very nice change for magic to be slightly more than just shouting and pointing. But perhaps the greatest addition to the supernatural universe is that of the Pixies. Jenks and his family are amazingly well drawn and amongst my favorite characters of all time, and it seems that Shara at Calico Reaction fell in love with him as well. Jenks may be only four inches tall, but his personality is massive and his hyperactivity fills any scene that he is in. He is funny, witty, sarcastic, brave, protective . . . and looks like a blond sex-god: no wonder he has so many children! 

Rachel is a strong character and given some depth, which is fortunate as the book is written in the first person from her perspective. She is fully realized and stands out against the backdrop of world building that is always necessary in the first book in a series. Not that the exposition is overt and distracting: Ms Harrison deals with the differences between our world and hers in such a subtle way that I was never jarred out of the story. I agree with Sparky at Fangs For The Fantasy: this is a wonderfully detailed world, which has an interesting, and believable, history. This makes it so much easier to make the leap of faith needed to accept the presence of the supernatural in ‘normal’ human society. However, I have to agree with Chelsea at Vampire Book Club, that the first two-thirds of the book are a little slow, though the action kicks off after that and the last third moves at a more satisfying pace.

One thing I especially like about Rachel is that she is not perfect: she worries about her looks, sometimes makes dumb decisions and is often clumsy. As Thea at The Book Smugglers notes, it is nice to have a strong woman who isn’t a total bitch or jaded and who needs to be rescued by her friends now and then. Rachel is always her own person and is willing to stand by her poor choices without too much whining. Also, she values her relationships and the friends that support her, although this can make life uncomfortable for her. The biggest example of this is Ivy, who is obviously very attracted to Rachel and who has a great deal of difficulty controlling her desire to take their relationship further. For Harrison’s Vampires, sexual relationships are closely tied to feeding because they produce a neurotoxin in their saliva that turns the pain of their bite into erotic pleasure. Ivy is a real threat to Rachel’s safety, but there is such a deep trust between them that they both struggle to make their relationship work. It is also encouraging to see a LGBT character treated as perfectly normal.

The bad guy, Trent, is nicely ambiguous: is he really evil, or not? There is a twist right at the end of the book that shakes Rachel’s belief that he is rotten to the core, so who knows? He is certainly capable of great cruelty, and has little regard for the lives of the humans and Witches that he manipulates ruthlessly. Even some the supporting characters are ambiguous: only Rachel and Jenks’ family to seem to be totally good. Ivy is more than capable of killing or enslaving Rachel, whilst Nick, the nominal love interest, seems to have a dodgy past, because he is known to the FIB, and knows how to handle demons. As Kristen points out in her guest review for The Book Smugglers, the book does tie up the plot quite neatly at the end, but we are left with many questions about secrets and motivations that I hope will be explored later in the series. 

I do have one criticism, though this is more of a personal reaction than one that will be shared by many other readers: it certainly made the NYOBG members laugh. I’m sorry, Ms Harrison, but I have to stay true to my training as a Biology graduate: mink are NOT rodents . . . check the Wikipedia entries here and here, if you don’t believe me!



  1. This was one of the first books chosen by our NYOBG members, and the only book to date to be voted in twice, as we had a whole new group of ladies who wanted to read it. I love this series, the characters, and the unique situations Rachel always seems to find herself in. Every book has been an entertaining read.

    And, I want my own family of pixies in my garden!

  2. A family of pixies tending the garden would be great . . . and they'd keep the mangy fairies out! :)

  3. I thought of you when I got to the part about ferrets in Wicked Appetite this week....
    AND you did, completely and utterly, sell me on Harrison's series. I actually find the main character much more satisfying and developed than Sookie in Harris's first of the series. Perhaps I need to read further on that one? But it will have to wait until I finish the next two in Harrison's series that are waiting on my shelf!

  4. I understand what you mean about Rachel vs Sookie. On the whole, Rachel is somewhat more independent than Sookie when we first meet her, though they both get rescued quite a lot . . . a think the fact that Rachel is protected by a pixie and a female, rather than brooding alpha males, is what makes it feel so different. I really like Harris' series, and once you get past Bill and onto Eric, Alcide and Quinn she becomes more feisty and sensible, which helps a lot. Bill's OK as your first boyfriend, but he's not a keeper . . . :D


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