Content warnings for biphobia, racism, and Ivy being predatory as hell towards Rachel on multiple levels
Chapter six of Dead Witch Walking begins with Rachel and Ivy eating a meal at their shared table, and Harrison sexualizing the hell out of Ivy for no reason whatsoever:
I had just enough experience with chopsticks to not look like an idiot, but Ivy moved the twin sticks with a slow precision, placing bits of food into her mouth with a rhythmic, somehow erotic, pace. I looked away, suddenly uncomfortable.
A Chinese woman using chopsticks to eat is not out of the norm or erotic.
Eroticizing the act of eating – of Ivy eating – is actually racist. Not gonna pull punches here. It is.
It’d be a bit different if Ivy was drinking blood or was a werewolf chomping on meat and Harrison chose to eroticize that, but Ivy is doing something that a significant portion of the world’s population does on the regular in countries across Asia. Maybe Harrison, like me and Rachel, can’t use chopsticks very well and that’s why she had to zero in on it, but –
There’s literally nothing sexy about eating with chopsticks.
And I’m gonna be real, that’s a decidedly racist start to the second part of my reread. Because I’d mentioned the racism of the series last time, but there’s something about being reminded of it on the page that is just hard to work around.
Even though we then get some quality conversation between Ivy and Rachel about the their lives and about Ivy’s complex relationship with her parents, that’s still a muddy mark too start with. Harrison is clearly aware that Ivy is an interesting character who deserves more of a focus but then she writes Ivy as…that.
To be a little bit fair, there are some cool aspects to the conversation that Ivy and Rachel have while they eat. Rachel and Ivy were coworkers before… all of this and how much do any of us know about our coworkers?
So they bond over talking about how kind of fucked up their families are. Rachel’s mom is perpetually mourning her dead husband and Ivy’s mom is basically draining her living husband to death – and he refuses to let anyone feed her in his stead.
One thing that’s super interesting to me is the way that Ivy’s notion of love is completely different from Rachel’s. When Ivy brings up how her father is basically letting his wife drain him on the regular, because “one person alone can’t support a dead vampire,” and she’s so perplexed by the notion, there’s the following exchange.
“I hardly ever see him,” she added, her voice a whisper. “I don’t understand it, Rachel. He has his entire life left, but he won’t let her get the blood she needs from anyone else. If he’s not with her, he’s passed out on the floor from blood loss. Keeping her from dying completely is killing him. One person alone can’t support a dead vampire. They both know that.”
The conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn, but I couldn’t just leave. “Maybe he’s doing it because he loves her?” I offered slowly.
Ivy frowned. “What kind of love is that?” She stood, her long legs unfolding in a slow graceful movement. Cardboard box in hand, she vanished into the hall.
We’re supposed to be like Rachel, confused at why Ivy would just… get up and walk out because she doesn’t “understand” love. Except –
Ivy consistently does make the most possible sense across this series. And she’s right to push back against the idea that it’s “love” for her dad to basically kill himself over feeding his vampire wife – because he won’t let her feed from anyone else. It’s never actually addressed in the series, as far as I know, but he’s basically telling his wife who she can eat and that it’s just him. Which means either she’s not getting the exact quantity of blood she needs on a regular basis or he’s basically coming close to death every single time she gets hungry.
That’s not love.
It’s also definitely controlling.
Harrison’s vampires, now that I’m rereading the series again, are actually one of the most interesting ones I’ve come across. For one thing, there’s the whole nature of “living” vampire lines and the weight that vampires place on their families. We know from other vampire series – like Anne Rice’s work or Nalini Singh’s – that vampires tend to orbit around whatever family they’ve got left alive. It’s a trope among immortals – the un-aging and undying watching their loved ones across the generation and wanting what’s best for them.
I also – despite my absolute lack of understanding of how genetics and biology work – am really fixated on vampire viruses that infect the unborn and the idea of dhampirs who become immortal in death. Like I have no idea how it works but wow am I glad it does!
The idea of “living vampires” makes zero sense to me when I sit with it for very long, but I think it’s definitely a concept that I approve of. Because we do have dhampirs across the urban fantasy genre and they certainly don’t make any sense on the regular even with the mythological aspects around them.
The attempt at making scientific sense of them here is neat.
I swear that Ivy does get better across the series and we can see that in how Harrison humanizes her without othering her because of her ethnicity or her sexuality.
Ivy put her boot heels on the edge of the coffee table. “My mother has been a true undead for the last ten years or so,” she said, startling me from my dark thoughts. “I hate it.”
Surprised, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why?”
She pushed her dinner away in what was obviously a gesture of unease. There was a frightening emptiness in her face, and she wouldn’t meet my gaze. “I was eighteen when my mother died,” she whispered. Her voice was distant, as if she wasn’t aware she was even talking.
“She lost something, Rachel. When you can’t walk under the sun, you lose something so nebulous, you can’t even say for sure what it is. But it’s gone. It’s as if she’s stuck following a pattern of behavior but can’t remember why. She still loves me, but she doesn’t remember why she loves me. The only thing that brings any life to her is the taking of blood, and she’s so damned savage about it. When she’s sated, I can almost see my mother in what’s left of her. But it doesn’t last. It’s never enough.”
These moments, like the one above where she explains what it felt like to deal with her mother post-turning, serve as sunny spots in the cloud that keeps covering Ivy’s characterization. (Again, eating with chopsticks isn’t inherently sexy wow. Is this Orientalism?? Possibly??)
And I love that a) we’re still on chapter six and b) right after this scene and a tense interaction between Ivy and Rachel over crucifixes, we get another scene where Rachel has to remind us of how heterosexual she is – and where Harrison reminds us how much of Ivy’s predatory nature seems linked with her (bi)sexuality.
Ivy reached out, her fingers grazing mine as she grasped the old metal. Swallowing hard, I scooted back into my chair and adjusted Ivy’s robe to cover my legs.
Moving with a provocative slowness, Ivy took her cross off. The silver chain caught against the black sheen of her hair. She pulled her hair free, and it fell back in a cascading shimmer. She set the cross on the table between us. The click of the metal meeting the wood was loud. Eyes unblinking, she curled up in her chair opposite mine with her feet tucked under her and stared at me.
Holy crap, I thought in a sudden wash of understanding and panic. She was coming on to me. That’s what was going on. How blind could I be?
My jaw clenched as my mind raced to find a way out of this. I was straight. Never a thought contrary to that. I liked my men taller than me and not so strong that I couldn’t pin them to the floor in a surge of passion if I wanted. “Um, Ivy…”I started.
Like with Laurell K Hamilton’s Bernardo Spotted-Horse, Ivy was a character who was eroticized and exotified by the text and that I didn’t click as such until years after the fact. Ivy may have been the first bisexual female character that I knew was bisexual in urban fantasy. Definitely one of my earliest experiences with bisexuality in urban fantasy.
But Ivy, like Bernardo, isn’t written well when it comes to her sexuality or her ethnicity. At least for the earlier chunks of the series – we’ll see if my memory holds true about the later ones.
And what makes for good representation are marginalized characters who are written as characters.
And Ivy, as you can see with how Rachel reacts to her not in the context of a human faced with a vampire but as a woman faced with a potential predator period, is a threat. (Both in the above snippet and the one below where Ivy literally bespells Rachel into feeling desire and then ogles her.)
“Living vamps can bespell people—if they want to be,” she whispered. The softness of her voice rubbed against my skin until it tingled. Double damn.
“What good is it if it only works on those who let you?” I asked, my voice harsh next to the liquid essence of hers.
Ivy’s lips parted to show the tips of her teeth. I couldn’t look away. “It makes for great sex—Rachel.”
“Oh.” The faint utterance was all I could manage. Her eyes were lost in lust.
“And I’ve got my mother’s taste for blood,” she said, kneeling on the table between us. “It’s like some people’s craving for sugar. It’s not a good comparison but it’s the best I can do unless you… try it.”
Ivy exhaled, moving her entire body. Her breath sent a shock reverberating through me. My eyes went wide in surprise and bewilderment as I recognized it as desire. What the hell was going on? I was straight. Why did I suddenly want to know how soft her hair was?
All I’d have to do was reach out. She was inches from me. Poised. Waiting. In the silence, I could hear my heart pound. The sound of it echoed in my ears. I watched in horror as Ivy broke her gaze from mine, running it down my throat to where I knew my pulse throbbed.
“No!” I cried, panicking.
Honestly, that’s enough of that.
Because this is how too many of Ivy and Rchel’s early interactions are across the series go. It is a constant and trust me, I am constantly annoyed. Ivy – a bisexual female dhampir of color – spends a ridiculously large amount of her early time on screen being basically a stressful ass stereotype that pushes against (but thankfully does not cross) Rachel’s boundaries.
So despite the fact that I want to do nothing more than yell about this endlessly… I’ll save that for a solo series installment rather than devoting even more of this read-through to screeching about this.
Especially because, again, I haven’t made it out of the sixth chapter yet.
But we need to.
(But hey, remind me to actually email Kim Harrison to ask her if she’d be interested in talking to me about the biphobia and racism inherent in her characterization of Ivy. It won’t end well, but remind me to do it anyway.)
In moving on, let’s talk about some more worldbuilding because that’s still something that Harrison continues to be very great at. Harrison does tend towards a bit of the info-dumping at times, but it works because of who Rachel is. Rachel, as a character, feels like someone who can’t stop spilling her knowledge. She’s chatty.
And it works because while you’re learning about the world, you’re also getting deeper into Rachel’s head and engaging with her on-the-page personality. It’s neat.
A highlight of the worldbuilding in this section of my reread is that Ivy gives Rachel a “How to date your vampire” guide. Like that’s just a thing people have lying around in their homes that she can pass on to an interested – or terrified, in Rachel’s case – roommate or potential partner.
Rachel going over the book is one of the funniest things I have ever read in my life because she’s like “shit, I did everything the book tells you to do in order to lure your lover in”. Which explains why Ivy went full throttle the night before.
Wearing the vampire’s clothes? Check.
Following the vampire to another private location while eating? Check.
Talking about bloodlines and family? Check.
Basically, Rachel accidentally did everything she could to present herself as ready and willing to Ivy’s vampire sire – even though she wasn’t actually interested. It reminds me of like some totally trope-y fan fiction I’ve read before. Wild.
But the way Harrison writes it where we’re learning about what makes vampires lusty as hell at the same time that Rachel is… I like it.
Chapters eight and nine are pretty much worldbuilding chapters focusing on vampires and magic. The faint bits of monotony are broken up by an action scene with Rachel dodging assassins in the eight chapter and then a little magic 101 lesson. They’re not boring chapters, to be fair, I don’t dislike worldbuilding info dumps at all, but they’re definitely way different from chapter six in that I spent that chapter raging about Ivy/Rachel and the way Harrison writes them in relation to one another.
After that, I didn’t really have shouting in my sails for the rest of the readthrough.
But chapter ten ends with Rachel turning into… something – the product of her magic 101 lesson and an attempt to get more answers about the case she’s working on on her own. So chapter eleven has to be interesting if only because I can’t remember what Rachel turns into or what actually happens next.
I can’t wait to (re) read it.