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Friday, April 20, 2007

“This Witch For Hire” omnibus by Kim Harrison

(Disclaimer: Image given permission by & copyrighted © Chris McGrath)

A guilty pleasure of mine, pardon the pun, was reading the Anita Blake series by author Laurell K. Hamilton. Unfortunately, like many readers, I was turned off by the direction that the series was heading with later novels, and eventually stopped reading the books altogether with 2003’s “Cerulean Sins”. A few years later, and I find myself missing the fun little adventures that I spent with Anita Blake, and in search of a somewhat similar series, I discover not one, but several including such veterans as Glen Cook’s well-known Garrett P.I. adventures, Tanya Huff’sBlood” books and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum as well as a number of newer, post-2000 series consisting of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan escapades, The Sookie Stackhouse (Southern Vampire) books by Charlaine Harris, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville novels, Sherrilyn Kenyon’sHunter-Legends, Keri Arthur's Riley Jensen and the Mercedes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, just to name a few. After much debate, and since the Science Fiction Book Club conveniently provides the first four Rachel Morgan novels in a couple of 2-in-1 omnibuses, I decided to try out Kim Harrison.

Since the Anita Blake novels are the only similarly-themed books that I’ve read relative to Rachel Morgan, there will be a lot of comparisons between the two series. So, let’s look at the similarities. First off, both series could be described as urban/contemporary fantasy, set in an alternate present-day world where supernatural creatures such as vampires, weres and witches, not only exist, but are part of society, with the main difference being that in Rachel’s world, “Inderlanders” had lived in secret, until a virus caused by genetically modified tomatoes nearly wiped out humankind in what is known as the Turn. Secondly, both series are led by strong female protagonists, who possess paranormal abilities, become involved in crime investigations, and whose narratives are told from the first-person point-of-view. In the case of Rachel, Ms. Morgan is a former Inderland Security (I.S.) runner who quits, branching out as an independent bounty hunter and who also happens to be a witch. Finally, both series not only deal with matters of the occult and police procedures, but also possess familiar elements of horror, mystery and romance.

Still, despite the likenesses, there are enough variations between the two series that Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan novels do stand on their own. The best way that I can describe the differences, is that if there were ratings Anita Blake would be rated-R and Rachel Morgan PG-13. So, where Anita is a more angst-ridden, gothic character living in a darker, more violent world, Rachel is the more charming, down-on-her luck, do-gooder, whose adventures are lighter and much more playful in tone. Looking specifically at “Dead Witch Walking”, the first in the series, what we basically have is a set-up piece, where not only are we introduced to Rachel Morgan, but also the living pure-blood vampire Ivy and the pixie Jenks, who both quit the I.S. to join forces with Rachel in starting their own private firm. Other supporting characters include potential boyfriend Nick Sparagmos, Captain Edden of the Federal Inderland Bureau (FIB) – the human equivalent of the I.S. – and antagonist Trent Kalamack who is shrouded in mystery. As far as the actual story, it’s fairly simple stuff…you have werewolf/fairy/demon assassins, the difficulties of starting your own company when being broke, adjusting to living with a vampire who has sworn off blood, shapechanging, and investigating a potentially corrupt, though prominent businessman. Overall, “Dead Witch Walking” is a solid start to the series, which does a good job of establishing Rachel Morgan and the world she lives in, while providing a reasonably entertaining story.

From a personal standpoint, I’ll be truthful and admit that I didn’t like the book nearly as much as I liked the early Anita Blake novels. This was due more to personal preference rather than any glaring faults with the opening Rachel Morgan chapter, since I tend to favor darker, more graphic reading material opposed to the more humorous, accessible fare that is “Dead Witch Walking”. I will say however, that Ms. Morgan’s personality can be annoying at times, accentuated by weak dialogue/insights and the author’s inclination to over-use generic pop culture references. Also, the book suffers somewhat from the same weaknesses that Anita Blake does, namely lack of plot advancement at certain moments, and a tendency to spend too much time on mundane issues. In fact, the second book in the series, “The Good, The Bad, and The Undead”, is plagued by some of the same problems, but, after a slow start, thankfully turns out to be a much better novel than its predecessor.

While “The Good, The Bad, and The Undead” opens with a pretty silly premise where Rachel is trying to recover a stolen fish mascot, it’s not long before things get interesting with a serial killer on the loose murdering ley line witches, the reappearance of the demon who marked both Rachel & Nick in “Dead Witch Walking” and the havoc that it’ll play in their lives, the introduction of a master vampire, and of course the return of Trent Kalamack and the secrets that he harbors. Additionally, we’ll get to revisit the love/hate/fear friendship between Rachel & Ivy, who wants Rachel to become her scion, as well as the burgeoning relationship with Nick, where we’ll get to see more romance, or in plainer terms, more sex. On top of that, we get to learn more about ley lines, demonology & familiars; see Rachel try to work with the FIB, specifically Captain Edden’s son; deal with more pixie humor; and discover some startling revelations about Rachel’s past, family, Trent Kalamack and so on. In short, there’s a LOT more going on with “The Good, The Bad, and The Undead”, and while the book is still light-hearted in nature, the stakes have been considerably raised with the end result being a much more interesting, action-packed and dramatic novel that may resolve several questions, but also wonderfully sets the stage for some compelling future developments including unexpected romantic interests, vampire politics, and a host of other supernatural-themed issues.

My final verdict? The Rachel Morgan series is definitely comparable to Laurell K. Hamilton’s books, though they may not necessarily appeal to Anita Blake fans since it is friendlier reading material. Still, if it sounds like something you’d be interested in, then I would definitely check it out, but be aware that “Dead Witch Walking” is a weaker book, and may not impress some readers. So, I’d recommend picking up the “This Witch For Hire” omnibus from SFBC, which features the first two novels in the series, and is an excellent way to familiarize your self with Rachel Morgan & company, especially if you can finish “Dead Witch Walking” and move on to the much superior “The Good, The Bad, and The Undead”. Plus, two books for the price of one hardcover…who can beat that? For me, I’m looking forward to continuing Rachel’s adventures in the “Dead Witches Tell No Tales” omnibus, which includes “Every Which Way But Dead” and “A Fistful of Charms” – notice a trend there…Clint Eastwood anyone – as well as Kim Harrison’s most recent novel, “For A Few Demons More”…

3 comments:

ArielUK said...

Heartily agree re: Anita Blake, although I think I bailed out a couple of novels earlier...

If you're looking for good supernatural / detection crossover stuff, I can recommend Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, if you haven't tried them already.

And my missus reads a tonne of this sort of oeuvre. She rates Tanya Huff's Vicki Nelson novels very highly.

Shannon said...

I also agree with your assessment of LKH, although I continue to read her books (secretly hoping that she'll go back to the earlier style writing).
Kim Harrison is far and away the better series. The books only get better, with character and plot development that are intriguing and insightful as well as humorous and thought provoking. I think your review was too harsh but I'm certain that you'll be writing with more enthusiasm and praise for Ms. Harrison after reading the next three books.
I read most series in this genre, but only Kim Harrison has inspired me to join her website/yahoo group to discuss her work.
Each book wraps up the current adventure/mystery with originality, and leaves one(without discouraging), eager for the next book.

Anonymous said...

Rachel is much more innocent. I like the fact that she it more justice-driven rather than angst/lust-driven like Anita. I love both of the stories equally but I cannot stand Anita as a character. Nor do I enjoy the author (Laurell) that much, simply because her own personal beliefs filter out way to much in her later books, and they are far from my own. I feel like I can connect to Kim Harrison much more because she seems a lot more open minded.

Overall Rachel is way better in my opinion, but I can't help but love the early Anita, who's life wasn't all sex and preternatural powers so egocentric you want to choke.

They are both wonderful no matter my attitude grudges.

If you haven't read either of the two series. Get eyes on them a.s.a.p!

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