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Dead Witch Walking
Harper Voyager paperback £6.99
review by Alasdair Stuart
Rachel Morgan has a problem; in fact, she has a whole clutch of problems. As an Inderland Security runner, she's spent the last few months getting the worst jobs going and somehow, never quite bringing them in properly. Rachel's good at her job but her bad luck is catching and when she's given an opportunity to turn that around, she takes it. But quitting IS is far harder than anyone's ever told her and Rachel finds herself dodging IS hitmen even as she struggles to pay off her contract. She's good at her job but to survive she'll need to be great at it.
The supernatural thriller genre is absolutely stacked these days. What was once a fresh and interesting take on both the supernatural and the police procedural has become at best familiar and at worst, an excuse to write vampiric bodice rippers. However, there's still some great work being done in the field, with series like Jim Butcher's excellent Dresden Files, Mike Carey's Felix Castor books and now, Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan books.
Like Butcher and Carey, Harrison quickly establishes a unique take on the established tropes of the genre. Here, it's the other races (Inderlanders) that have always been here, living quietly next to us, and they only came to public knowledge when an epidemic wiped out a measurable proportion of the population. Now, the Inderlanders live in the city centres, everyone else lives as far away from them as possible, and IS (Inderland Security) are responsible for making sure no one goes off the reservation and does something they might regret. To make matters worse, the discovery that the plague was a mutation of a man-made virus has led to a backlash against medical research in general. Now, the only thing worse than a drug dealer is an illegal bioresearch chemist.
Into this unique world, one part science fiction, one part fairy tale, Harrison drops Rachel. An endearingly cynical and well-realised witch, Rachel narrates the novel in first person. She's damaged goods, cautious of whom to trust, and completely unsure of everything other than that she wants her life to change. Her attempts to do this, of course, only lead to more trouble and it's here that Rachel really joins the esteemed ranks of her gumshoe ancestors. She's in trouble from the start and the entire novel is spent dealing with her attempts to get out of a situation she's effectively put herself in.
Her partners, Ivy and Jenks, back her up, in a way. Ivy is a neat contrast to Rachel, a living vampire (the first stage in evolution) of old money and blood who leaves the IS at the same time as Rachel and in doing so inadvertently lands her in even more trouble. She's graceful where Rachel is clumsy, calm where Rachel is paranoid and is quite definitively not human. Some of the book's best scenes deal with Ivy's problems with her lifestyle and the tension between her and Rachel. These scenes combine comedy with horror and a sensual element that comes dangerously close to the vampiric bodice rippers mentioned above. However, the book is rescued from this by Rachel's genuine ignorance of vampiric culture, landing them firmly on the side of horror instead of erotica. There's also a fantastic running joke, with Ivy giving Rachel a 'how to' book on seducing vampires and instructing her to do the exact opposite of what the book suggests that is both funny and horrifying by turns.
Jenks, a pixie and reconnaissance specialist completes the trio of main characters. Again, Harrison neatly subverts the standard tropes of the genre by playing up the persecution complex pixies operate under. Like Rachel, Jenks leaves IS because he feels under appreciated and, like Rachel, Jenks quickly proves his worth outside the organisation. One of the book's standout moments sees Rachel tending her garden, where Jenks and his family now live, whilst his children play catch around her. It's only when she finishes that she sees a large pyramid of 'splat balls' (the paintball derivative used to deliver spells from range) that the pixies were catching. The IS want Rachel dead and they're not fussy how they go about doing it.
With such a strong background in place, the onus is on the plot and it doesn't disappoint. Rachel's increasingly inventive means of getting the information she needs leads to some great set pieces, and her investigation of a prominent city councillor does a great job of introducing the world. There's genuine inventiveness here mixed with a nicely handled practicality. Rachel has to make everything she uses and this marks her out as both more human and fragile than either Ivy or Jenks.
Another strong entry in what was looking like an increasingly tired genre, Dead Witch Walking is a must for anyone interested in fantasy, detective fiction or anything that falls between the two. Smart, inventive and refreshingly dark, Rachel Morgan's world may not be pleasant but its one you'll enjoy visiting.
Other novels in
The Good The Bad
And The Undead
Way But Dead
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