Friday, June 27, 2014

Series Review: "The Hollows" by Kim Harrison (plus bonus remarks on "The Dresden Files" by Jim Butcher)

Rachel Morgan lives on the edge. Keeping her magical kindred from breaking too many human laws in the slums of supernaturally-integrated Cincinnati is a full-time job. Being a white witch herself means that she will always be taking the job home with her, too.

Chafing under the restrictions of the Inderland Security--plus a little harassment from her vampire boss--Rachel strikes it out on her own as an independent bounty hunter. The odds of her lasting long enough to file for self-employment aren't good, though. Her former employers have put out a hit on her for breaking her contract. And that's not including the everyday dangers from werewolves, demons, gang lords, insurance agents, and her own bloodthirsty roommate.

What's the good news? Rachel lives for danger.

  3.5 out of 5 stars
I can't talk about Kim Harrion's The Hollows series unless I contrast it with my other urban fantasy fallback, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The two series are markedly similar, which makes it easy to define them by their few differences.
  • Harry (The Dresden Files) is a private investigator/wizard in downtown Chicago, in a world where the supernatural is real and hides in the midst of ordinary, unaware humanity. 
  • Rachel (The Hollows) is a bounty hunter/witch in downtown Cincinnati, in a world where the supernatural lives openly in an uneasy truce with ordinary humanity. 
  • Each boasts a narrator with a truly impressive sense of tackiness and a remarkable talent for making their problems worse.
I would dearly love--just once--to see these two fictional white hats meet at a party. Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, who once wore a dollar-store Dracula cape and fake fangs to an actual vampire masquerade, hanging out with Rachel Mariana Morgan, who believes that halter tops, kinky boots, and skintight leather pants are acceptable attire for formal parties among the city's elite? The world cringes at the thought of so much poor taste concentrated in one place.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I was talking about The Hollows.

You can't fool me, classy-looking
alternative cover! Rachel Mariana Morgan
is NEVER that suave.
The first book of the series is Dead Witch Walking, which is--frankly speaking--a hot mess, in a less winsome fashion than its narrator. In theory, Rachel is under a death threat. Readers are likely to forget that particular ticking clock, since Rachel herself rarely worries about the danger she is supposedly facing. The plot is haphazard and poorly planned.

Fortunately, the characters--Rachel and her business partners/roommates, the living vampire Ivy Tamwood and the pixy Jenks--are engaging, the prose snappy and sharp if not particularly elevated, and the worldbuilding of a supernaturally-integrated modern world is fascinating. They kept me engaged even when the plot itself failed to compel.

If you can make it through the first book, dear reader, you'll find your patience paying off in the second. The Good, The Bad, and The Undead gets its sea legs, plotwise, and Rachel grows up a little and takes her life a little more seriously.) I have no quibbles with the plot of the rest of the books I've read (up until the sixth.)

Therein lies another, more insidious difference between The Hollows and The Dresden Files.

The latter are masterfully plotted. I am deeply impressed with Jim Butcher's ability to introduce and maintain an average of three plot threads per book, all of which spell inevitable ruin for his characters, and have them all come crashing down at Harry at once. I read The Dresden Files on the edge of my seat, convinced there is no way for the wizard detective to get out of this one! And when he manages, usually by revealing the backup plans he has been laying all along without drawing the reader's overt attention, I am doubly impressed.

But Butcher's characters aren't half as engaging as those written by Harrison. His characters are stock crime fiction stereotypes with a supernatural twist, described with the same catchphrases every time they appear. While there is meaningful development in store for many of Butcher's cast, it takes a good five or six books before it appears.

On the other hand, Harrison's cast had my heart by the end of the very first book. I agonize over Ivy's struggle to contain her vampiric bloodlust and retain her soul; I shudder with Rachel at the mention of the demon hunting her; I seethe at the continued existence of vamp kingpin Piscary and eagerly await the day that dashing crime lord Trent Kalamack is brought low. More of my affection than I expected goes to Jenks, who "though he be but little, he is fierce." Jenks is regularly dismissed for his diminutive stature and pixy eccentricities, but he is also a husband and father whose tiny children regularly died in the cold of winter before he found shelter in Rachel and Ivy's church-home. It's hard to be a four-inch-tall man in a six-foot-tall world, and the empathetic reader will cringe when his frailty comes into conflict with his courage.

Harrison's plots may not tickle my brain as well as Butcher's do, but the heart of her books is much more warm and compelling. Harry Dresden survives by becoming an ever-more powerful wizard; Rachel Morgan stays alive by making connections with powerful people who are interested in her well-being. It's a more communally-focused series, for all that its cast is smaller.

And the larger question of The Hollows arrests my interest: is there really such a thing as grey in a world of black and white? Or is grey "a cowardly excuse to mix our wants with our needs?"
A group came in [to the bar], their loud chatter telling me the rain had picked up. I looked them over, a faint tightening of my gut telling me that at least one in their party was a dead vamp. It was hard to tell whom under the goth paraphernalia.

My guess was the quiet young man in the back. He was the most normal-looking in the tattooed, body-pierced group. He must have been doing well to have such a bevy of humans with him, their necks scarred and their bodies thin and anemic. But they seemed happy enough, content in their close-knit, almost familylike group. They were being especially nice to a pretty blonde, supporting her and working together to coax her to eat some peanuts. She looked tired as she smiled. Must have been his breakfast.

As if pulled by my thoughts, the attractive man turned. He shifted his sunglasses down, and my face went slack as he met my eyes over them. I took a breath, seeing from across the room the rain on his eyelashes. A sudden need to brush them free filled me. I could almost feel the dampness of the rain on my fingers, how soft it would feel. His lips moved as he whispered, and it seemed I could hear but not understand his words swirling behind me to push me forward.

Heart pounding, I gave him a knowing look and shook my head. A faint smile tugged the corners of his mouth, and he looked away.

My held breath slipped from me as I forced my eyes away. Yeah. He was a dead vamp. A living vamp couldn't have bespelled me even that little bit. If he had been really trying, I wouldn't have had a chance. 
But that's what the laws were for, right? Dead vamps were only supposed to take willing initiates, and only after release papers were signed, but who was to say if the papers were signed before or after?
I am not generally a fan of vampire fiction. Bloodsuckers aren't my thing. Nevertheless, the culture and interpersonal complexities that Harrison has built for a race of enthralling predators is one of my favorite developments in The Hollows. Rachel warns the reader that "the nicer and more civilized an undead vampire seemed, the more depraved he or she generally was."

Meanwhile, we see young vampires mortified over "caps" on their teeth to protect themselves and others until they get their hormones under control. Vampires turn out to be good doctors and nurses, following a strange instinct to protect the weak (rather than eliminate their food source by culling too aggressively). And Ivy has good insurance--when she dies the first of a vampire's death, an ambulance will arrive within five minutes to whisk her away to a safe dark place until she reemerges as an undead.

Of course, the long-running question of the series is whether Ivy will eventually bite Rachel--and whether Rachel will welcome it. (Settling how to live with a vampire without triggering their predator instincts is the focus of the first book, far more than the theoretical death threat from Rachel's former boss.)

A sidenote about the phenomenon of the male gaze: I was not consciously aware of Harry-as-a-narrator remarking on the size and shape of the breasts of every single female character in The Dresden Files until I noticed that Rachel-as-a-narrator helpfully informs the reader about the shoulder breadth, musculature, and trouser snugness of all the men she has ever come across in The Hollows. It is embarrassingly over-the-top in both cases. I just have to laugh.

A second sidenote, as I'm going through my page flags: unfortunately, Harrison occasionally skips researching some very basic things. As a former pet store employee, I see red every time Harrison posits that bathwater would suffice to keep a koi fish alive for weeks, or depicts Rachel eating carrots in her mink transformation, never mind that minks are carnivores.

Although it intensifies as the series go on, I consider The Hollows a fun, speedy read--great for summers and vacations. Give the first book a little slack, as I mentioned, and expect Harrison--and Rachel Morgan--to step it up in the second. I'm grateful to Quincy for bringing this series to my attention!

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  pass
Content Warning: witchcraft, sexual content, sexual assault, animal abuse, character deaths

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