Dead Witch Walking – Kim Harrison (Review)

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It took me a long time to get round to reading Dead Witch Walking. The book gets a lot of praise, but it was first mentioned to me as “urban fantasy about killer tomatoes,” and that description did nothing for me. It sounded like comic fantasy, and the list of authors who can manage to do that well is extremely short.

Dead Witch Walking is not comic fantasy, and killer tomatoes don’t really feature. Instead, a weaponised virus used tomatoes as a carrier, eventually wiping out a significant proportion of the human population. In the aftermath of this tragedy, vampires/witches/et cetera revealed themselves to humanity. The book takes place long after this, in a post-masquerade world where monsters are feared but accepted as part of reality.

Rachel Morgan is tired of dealing with bad assignments and unreasonable orders. For years, she’s been an employee of Inderland Security, tasked with solving supernatural problems – rogue vampires, black magic, that sort of thing. Now she’s ready to strike out on her own.

Life outside the I.S. isn’t easy though. With only a pixie and a vampire as backup, Rachel has to find steady work and stay alive, all the while dealing with demons, drug lords, and an agency that really doesn’t like people breaking their contracts.   

I think the main thing that impressed me about Dead Witch Walking was how well the exposition was handled. There’s an awful lot of world-building and set-up to get through in order for the plot to make sense, and the opening of the book really doesn’t drag at all. The book has an original and complex setting – a twist and an evolution on standard urban fantasy ideas – yet within a few chapters you have a good handle on what’s happening and why it’s important.

There’s a strong plot, with a lot of twists and threads. I felt that, given the amount of background required in the book, that a simpler plot might have worked a little better. Towards the end of the book, there’s almost too much going on. Dead Witch Walking is the first book in a series, and a slower introduction – perhaps with one of the subplots shifted into prominence and the main plot pushed back into a second volume – might have worked well.

Unlike a lot of urban fantasy with a female protagonist, this book is not simply a fantasy veneer over a romance plot. There is a romance between the protagonist and a side-character, but it’s not the focus at all. In fact, throughout the book, I was hoping for a difference romance. The love interest is fine, I guess, but the character who Rachel really has chemistry with is Ivy, her vampire colleague/housemate.

The characterisation of those two and the detail of their relationship is done really well, and while there are hints at a confusing and complex romance, those plot threads just fade away. I’m not saying that the romance has to happen, but the relationship between the two of them is something that deserves more focus and exploration, whether it goes in that direction or not.

Overall, Dead Witch Walking is a strong start to a series. It’s a book that does a lot of work setting up its world, but manages to create interesting characters with compelling problems. It’s definitely worth reading, and I’ll look out for the sequels.

Buy it here.

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