Urban Fantasy 101: Stitch Reads The Hollows – Dead Witch Walking Chapters 1-5

Part of officially deciding that I’d break away from the Anita Blake series was trying to figure out another series to focus on that did more interesting things.

I wanted to tackle a series that I had positive memories of, but also know I can criticize it solidly without losing it. Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series was another one of those urban fantasy series that I kind fixated on as a teenager and kept at it until I was a younger adult.

So, I have the positive memories, but then room to criticize it. 

So I’ll be covering the books five chapters at a time blending snarky sporking with the kind of criticism I wanted to return to but couldn’t with the Anita Blake series.

(Not sure how this is going to work? It’ll be something like the spork I did of “Shutdown”, but far less unkind and wordy because I’m not going to go through this book the way I did Shutdown. We’d be here all month.)

Let’s get started.


Dead Witch Walking opens with an introduction that kind of set the stage for me and what I wanted from urban fantasy introductions. This is a series that’s done in a first-person point of view and immediately drops you into the mind of a snarky, stressed out character that’s just trying to make the world work for her. 

(Honestly, this book’s introduction primed me for authors like Karen Chance – though the time between when I picked this book up and her books wasn’t that long – because it was ideally what I wanted from an urban fantasy series.)

From the start, Rachel Morgan is a character that’s I still like because she’s kind of brash and definitely very Fed Up with the world around her and with the idea that despite being a talented runner and great at capturing her targets, she’s still not respected by the law enforcement organization that she works for. 

As someone who’s definitely felt under appreciated by their Day Job – though not at my current Day Job – I get the frustration she feels. I love that this is a a major set up of her character: that there’s someone out to stump her at her Day Job at every single step she takes and how that really leads to her relationship with Ivy as well as her shifting role in the politics of her city.

The novel starts with Rachel once again being under-utilized. Despite being a runner with a solid if stressful track-record, Rachel keeps getting stuck with grunt work. She gets slapped with tracking people or doing basic tasks. It’s unfun and it’s Not Fair and it almost leads to her getting killed – and definitely leads to her getting cursed – as a result of how little her bosses appreciate her.

The honest to god only issue I have with the very start of this book is the way that this book drops some casual commentary that I’ve definitely come to recognize as anti-sex worker or coming from a point of view that doesn’t value sex work/ers.

Case in point?

A sleek car turned the corner, looking black in the buzz of the mercury street lamp. This was its third time around the block. A grimace tightened my face as it approached, slowing. “Damn it,” I whispered. “I need a darker door front.”

“He thinks you’re a hooker, Rachel,” my backup snickered into my ear. “I told you the red halter was slutty.”

Really?

The first few pages of that chapter actually repeatedly uses the word “hooker”, a word that I know many sex workers have rejected for being dehumanizing and for how it’s used to dismiss them. The way that Rachel and her pixie partner Jenks talk about the sex workers on the street is so casual and unkind that I instantly found myself wanting to do a UF 101 installment on sex work just to talk about how the introduction is a marker of an alienating POV that’s present across the urban fantasy genre. 

And let’ be very real here: that’s a frustrating start to a novel that is otherwise largely sound. 

I think that this introduction sets up my feelings with the series as a whole? Rachel is a fantastic and relatable main character because she’s a hot mess, but… where she fails for me very often is when Harrison uses her as a mouthpiece for problematic or frustrating POVs. Between how she talks about sex work and how she kind of… engaes with Ivy’s queerness – there are definitely some blocks in place to enjoying her as a character.  

Speaking of Ivy – 

Ivy was one of the first queer characters of color I found myself attached to in the genre. She’s a bisexual and biracial Chinese vampire, and both of those things aren’t handled well in the way she’s written. 

Take how Harrison has Rachel describe her:

She stood half a head over me, but where I just looked tall, she pulled off a svelte elegance. Her slightly Oriental cast gave her an enigmatic look, upholding my belief that most models had to be vamps. She dressed like a model, too: modest leather skirt and silk blouse, top-of-the-line, all-vamp construction; black, of course. Her hair was a smooth dark wave, accenting her pale skin and oval-shaped face. No matter what she did with her hair, it made her look exotic. I could spend hours with mine and it always came out red and frizzy.

From describing Ivy has having a “slightly Oriental cast” to how she keeps focusing on the exotic aspects of Ivy’s features – which are basically that she has dark hair and  pale skin – there are constant reminders that it’s more than Ivy’s vampirism that make her appeal to Rachel. And it’s annoying. Even once they move in together, Ivy being a Chinese vampire – the two things are linked in how they’re exotified – there’s this air of inability to just… treat Ivy like a regular person across the series.

Yes, Rachel does figure out that Ivy’s a person that’s not just an eroticized ideal who thirst after her metaphorically and literally, but – 

Their friendship as it evolves across the series is one of the weird things about this book. Because Ivy isn’t always conceived as a real person in the same way that Rachel is, with a racialized focus on her Chinese identity as well as her status as a vampire. 

And don’t get me started on the queerbaiting. 

In the second chapter, Rachel reveals that she’s going to break her contract with the IS – because, again, they’ve been underusing and mistreating her for years. There’s no point in her sticking around to field abuse that’s never actually checked and getting a paycheck isn’t worth putting up with that nonsense. 

So when Rachel confesses that she’s done with the IS and that she’s ready to move on: Ivy confesses that she wants to make the switch to the independent life too. 

One problem though? Ivy’s vampire mother is vampire royalty and if Ivy leaves the IS – their status shrinks and all kinds of weird political shit will go down. Ivy wants freedom, same as Rachel does, but the cost of freedom from the IS is… hefty. 

I turned to Ivy. “I know you signed a contract. They love you. If anyone should be worried about a death threat, it’s you, not me. Why would you risk that for—for—” I hesitated. “For nothing? What wish could be worth that?”

Ivy’s face went still. A hint of black shadow drifted over her. “I don’t have to tell you.”

I think this is actually one of the more solid aspects of the opening chapter? 

That Ivy is chafing at the bonds her parents put on her and that society puts on her as a “living vampire” – an infamous dhampir that hasn’t transitioned via death – is another incredible aspect of the world that blends the hard-to-rationalize aspects of the supernatural with what it feels like to be crushed under the weight of the expectations of others.

The strongest aspect of Harrison’s The Hollows series is the friendship that develops between Rachel, Ivy, and Jenks. At the end of the second chapter, when Jenks declares them “Partners!” and they all shake hands, there’s this feeling like a lock fitting in a key or some other trite analogy. 

But it works because they work. 

A lot of urban fantasy series tend to treat secondary characters solely as sidekicks. Even the ridiculously well-written ones can’t quite seem to grasp that having your main character be a conveniently positioned lone wolf figure isn’t actually that interesting. So one thing that I will always congratulate Harrison for is how she sets up the relationship between Ivy, Jenks, and Rachel from really early on. Queerbaiting aside – and again, we’ll get to that before this entry is done – it’s so well done and all three characters get to be people in and out of their friendship. 

Which… usually doesn’t happen in these franchise that privilege this POV of the sole and strong hero supplemented by their sidekicks – that don’t have a personality outside of interacting with them.

Ivy and Jenks are people outside of Rachel.

Even from now, they might actually be better written characters and more nuanced than she is. (She does take up more of my interest as the series goes on, to be fair!)

Another interesting thing that Harrison does in this series lies in how she handles the pre-series worldbuilding. In the world of The Hollows, humanity is irrevocably changed by a virus that wipes out the population of humans and kind of puts them into the same percentage as other supernatural beings. 

Sorry for the absolutely massive block of text, but this is the best way to understand how this all went down: 

Somewhere up in the cold Arctic labs, a lethal chain of DNA escaped. It left a modest trail of death to Rio that was identified and dealt with, the majority of the public unaware and ignorant. But even as the scientists wrote their conclusionary notes in their lab books and shelved them, the virus mutated.

It attached itself to a bioengineered tomato through a weak spot in its modified DNA that the researchers thought too minuscule to worry about. The tomato was officially known as the T4 Angel tomato—its lab identification—and from there came the virus’s name, Angel.

Unaware that the virus was using the Angel tomato as an intermediate host, it was transported by the airlines. Sixteen hours later it was too late. The third world countries were decimated in a frightening three weeks, and the U.S. shut down in four. Borders were militarized, and a governmental policy of “Sorry, we can’t help you” was instituted. The U.S. suffered and people died, but compared to the charnel pit the rest of the world became, it was a cakewalk.

But the largest reason civilization remained intact was that most Inderland species were resistant to the Angel virus. Witches, the undead, and the smaller species like trolls, pixies, and fairies were completely unaffected. Weres, living vamps, and leprechauns got the flu. The elves, though, died out completely. It was believed their practice of hybridizing with humans to bolster their numbers backfired, making them susceptible to the Angel virus.

When the dust settled and the Angel virus was eradicated, the combined numbers of our various species had neared that of humanity. It was a chance we quickly seized. The Turn, as it came to be called, began at noon with a single pixy. It ended at midnight with humanity huddling under the table, trying to come to grips with the fact that they’d been living beside witches, vampires, and Weres since before the pyramids.

Humanity’s first gut reaction to wipe us off the face of the earth petered out pretty fast when it was shoved under their noses that we had kept the structure of civilization up and running while the world fell apart. If not for us, the death rate would have been far higher.

Even so, the first years after the Turn were a madhouse.

A lot of urban fantasy series – a recent example if Rebecca Roanhorse’s series and Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series – go with a post-apocalyptic approach. It allows them to keep the general setting of a modern future while also turfing the population as necessary to focus on the main character’s social group. 

To this effect, the postapocalyptic premise in Kim Harrison’s work is really good and unfortunately plausible. Let’s be real here: in a world where folks kind of… seem to have stopped believing in science, it’s absolutely plausible that something that wild could’ve happen. 

(Chapter five also has some more of that supremely solid worldbuilding that makes this series shine. 10/10 I could recommend this series on the worldbuilding alone, honesty.)

In these first five chapters, the most annoying things have been that bit about sex workers and how I know that some truly weird shit is about to go down with Ivy and Rachel. I know I keep mentioning the queerbaiting like it’s going to happen this set of chapters but uh.. it is not.

So here’s a little spoiler for y’all:

Across the series, Rachel (who is straight) and Ivy (who is, again, bisexual) have an attraction to one another that develops across the course of their friendships. Despite the fact that Rachel repeatedly identifies as straight and expresses a valid desire to keep her relationship with Ivy platonic, the books actually do show several steamy moments that, if they showed up on an episode of Voltron or Supernatural, would set loose a whole ship.

But it’s never… acted upon. This series is… and I don’t know why… one big “no homo” moment on Rachel’s part and it remains one of my biggest bones to pick with it aside from the weird racist writing that Ivy gets smacked with sometimes. 

The last line of chapter five kind of spells out a recurring theme across the series:

Everything was going too well. Something had to be wrong.

And something is.


Here’s hoping that y’all like this new and hopefully approachable semi-spork! Let me know your thoughts and what you want to see as I work through the next installments!

About Zeenah

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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