October 2004

Lara Apps

fiction

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

You have to like a book that includes killer tomatoes. Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking is set in an alternate-reality, modern-day world in which the human population has been devastated by a mutated virus contained in bioengineered tomatoes (Harrison has stated that this is, indeed, a reference to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes). The virus left most of the supernatural creatures unaffected, which allowed them to achieve population parity with humans. Now, humans and non-humans live side by side, although not without some inter-species tension.

Rachel Morgan, the witch of the title, earns her living as a "runner" -- a kind of supernatural marshal/bounty hunter. As the book opens, Rachel and her pixie backup are out to collar a leprechaun for rainbow fraud. Seriously. Rachel may bear some superficial resemblance to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake -- "sassy," smartass, hunter of the supernatural, and so forth -- but this is far more clever, and more fun, than Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter series. For starters, our heroine is decidedly down on her luck. After a series of screw-ups, her career is in a tailspin and she’s looking for a way to make a new start. She decides to quit her job and set up as a private runner with her vampire friend and fellow runner Ivy. Unfortunately, the boss takes their departure badly and puts out a contract on Rachel’s life.

The book’s blurb suggests that this is a witch versus hungry vampires story, but it’s pretty misleading. Ignore the blurb. If you want kinky vampire sex, look elsewhere. Harrison’s vampires are beautiful, sexy and dangerous, just like they’re supposed to be, but she plays with this convention, subverting it to the cause of humor instead of relying on it for cheap thrills. For example, in Harrison’s world, vampires are driven by their sense of smell. Rachel, unknowingly, sends come-hither signals to her partner and room-mate Ivy, who is a recent convert to blood abstinence. A classic misunderstanding ensues, with the result that Rachel must study vampire turn-ons in order to avoid them. The scenes of Rachel reading her dating guide on the bus are hilarious.

Dead Witch Walking isn’t all about wry humor. Rachel must deal with the price on her head and the various supernatural hit men out to collect it; in order to escape the situation, she uses magic and guile to investigate the powerful and mysterious Trent Kalamack in the hopes of bringing him to justice and paying off the contract on her life. Harrison has a sure hand with the magic scenes, never allowing them to become overly dramatic or silly, and an excellent sense of pacing. The plot moves along briskly, but Harrison balances high action with quieter, character-focused scenes that draw us into Rachel’s life and make us want to see more of her.

In addition to being an entertaining and imaginative read, Dead Witch Walking is also well-written. It’s not deathless prose, but Harrison has a good ear for dialogue and knows how to convey emotion and information without overdoing things. Considering that she puts a vampire and a witch under the same roof, she shows remarkable restraint in their scenes together. A lot of character development happens over such simple activities as cooking dinner and cleaning the kitchen. Anyone who has lived with a room-mate can identify with Rachel and Ivy as they negotiate their roles and boundaries.
In short, Dead Witch Walking is inventive and sophisticated fantasy fun. If you’re tired of Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton, give Harrison a try. And if you enjoy it, the sequel, The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, is coming out in February.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison
HarperTorch
ISBN 0060572965
416 pages