I don’t read nearly enough urban fantasy. I’m a little prejudiced against it, since so much of it seems to tend towards paranormal romance. That, and I’m getting mighty tired of every urban fantasy book also having to be a mystery as well. When authors really break the mould of urban fantasy—either by doing something different in our universe, or creating an entirely different universe that happens to be urban—I get excited. While Kim Harrison doesn’t quite break the mould with Dead Witch Walking, she gives it a good crack. In an alternative universe, an intense plague wiped out a significant portion of humanity. Its aftermath revealed that humans have been living alongside “Inderlanders”, Harrison’s inexplicable name for supernatural beings. Now, in the present day, Inderlanders and humans live cheek-and-jowl—not that everyone likes it.
Rachel Morgan is a bounty hunter. A runner for Inderlander Security, or IS, she decides to quit her job, because her boss is out to get her. This puts a price on her head, and she has to rely on her wits and the help from a “living vampire” (aka a vampire with a soul) and a pixie assistant in order to stay alive long enough to get IS off her back. It sounds like an intense adventure that promises thrill after high-stakes thrill, and Harrison succeeds in some respects. Yet I have a few reservations right out of the gate.
Rachel spends the first chapter denying that IS will put a hit on her if she quits. Ivy tells her. Jenks tells her. The leprechaun she catches and then decides to let go if it gives her three wishes, to help her in this escape plan, tells her. Everyone except Rachel believes her life is forfeit if she goes through with this. I just find it hard to believe that a hardened hunter like Rachel would be so naive as to believe that she could escape the IS so easily. This credulousness on her part made me more sceptical as a reader, which is never good.
Fortunately, Harrison manages to win me back. She keeps the plot going at an acceptable pace, and she manages to immerse me in the world of the Hollows without bludgeoning me with too much exposition. Gradually, I learn about the difference between a warlock and a witch (degree, not gender), a “living vampire” and a “dead vampire” (souls and sunlight), and a pixie and a fairy (well, kind of). Rachel is rather proactive—if a little foolhardy—in her plan to get the IS death threat lifted. Harrison also cooks up some pretty impressive consequences related to this death threat, which forces Rachel to use some ingenuity now that she can no longer just buy the charms and amulets that she needs.
The magic in Dead Witch Watching is rather low-key, but it suffuses the entire novel. In the wider world, but especially in the Hollows, magic is simply another part of life. It’s possible to bespell objects so that they will react violently to a certain person. Vampires, werewolves, pixies, etc., are all creatures with some kind of natural command of various magicks—while witches and warlocks appear human, but are able to create powerful charms and perform spells using ingredients one might find in a garden (or blood, or ley lines, or … well, Rachel explains it all). Harrison clearly has her magical world thought out; I appreciate that she doesn’t shove it down my throat all at once.
Dead Witch Walking also doesn’t suffer too much from the “smartass wizard” syndrome that creeps into most urban fantasy. Unfortunately, this affects even my beloved Dresden Files books. As with the mystery element I complained about earlier, there seems to be a contractual obligation to make one’s urban fantasy protagonist sassy. Not that I have anything against sass, mind you. I just want some variety in my protagonists. True, Rachel has a sharp tongue—but she gets as good as she gives from others, like Jenks.
I remain ambivalent only because, for all the action that Harrison packs into this relatively slim volume, the depth of the plot remains pretty shallow. I’ve read other books that have done much more with their characters in a first novel in the series. Rachel spends this entire novel spying on and trying to catch Trent Kalamack. I just find myself wishing Harrison had managed to accomplish more in the same number of pages.
The way Harrison ends the story leaves me wanting more, for sure. But it also doesn’t leave me wanting to rush out and buy the sequel, like some first books do. That pretty well describes my feelings about Dead Witch Walking: it’s fun, entertaining, and definitely not forgettable—but it didn’t quite excite or dazzle. (No jazz hands to be hand while reading here.)