Finished the most recent novel by Kim Harrison in her Rachel Morgan series. Each of Harrison's titles is a riff of a Clint Eastwood film. This one I'm guessing is from "A Perfect World". And Rachel is a pseudo female version of Clint's Dirty Harry Calaghan. The book's have a decidedly noir western feel to them, even though they take place in the Supernatural World of Urban Fantasy. Harrison, a bio-engineer and geneticist, utilizes her knowledge in her novels - which gives them a decidedly science-fiction tone. Harrison's books are different from all the other urban fantasy novels and stand out a bit - for being a combination of multiple genres. She combines noir mystery, gothic horror, with science fiction thriller. It feels at times like Michael Crichton meets LK Hamilton and Jim Butcher by way of Raymond Chandler and Tony Hillerman.
That said, she sucks at pacing. I scanned the first half of the book. Bored stiff. Then it took off like a rocket, then it slowed down to a halt, then took off, then crawled to halt, then took off. Part of this may be due to certain characters that the author has either lost interest in or can't quite figure out what to do with. She's bleed dry so to speak. Other characters, who are either featured less prominently in previous books or sparingly - suddenly come into their own in this one and the book crackles whenever they appear. New characters, however, fall flat and feel somewhat one-dimensional.
This is admittedly a problem with long-running serials, whether they be novels, films or television series. One of the few serial writers who did not run into this problem was JK Rowling and The Harry Potter series - 7 books long, and every character stays vibrant and alive, while new ones take off. You don't realize Rowling's talent until you read other writers who attempt the same thing and can't quite pull it off. Not literally the same thing - just a long running serial. This may also be due to the fact that the Harry Potter novels are not told in first person close, while Harrison's books are. First person close is a tough pov to do for a long running serial. Sooner or later, the reader will get annoyed and want to know about the characters other than the protagonist, and feel like the protagonist is either whiny or too good to be true or get's away with murder, while no one else does, or is unduly tortured.
Harrison however is good at the science and the theme bits, her over-arcing themes about racial, sexual and gender diversity, tolerance and acceptance resonate. She is adept at exposing through her character Rachel's interactions with various people - the misogynist and chauvinist reactions of men and women towards a woman working in a male occupation. She also shows the alternative. And does it well via metaphor and analogy. In the process, she plays with the ethical dilemmas regarding pharmaceuticals, bio-engineering, and gene splicing. While on the one hand fatal diseases may be cured, they can also equally be created. While lives are saved by science, they are also destroyed. It's not a black and white scenario.
Like most books in the noire genre...Harrison's world and characters are decidedly gray.
What I like most about this book and the arc is that the villains in the first group of novels, the boys we the reader's loved to hate, turn out in the last two novels to be misunderstood allies to the heroine and in some respects powerful friends, one may even turn out to be a long-term romantic interest. The heroine slowly comes to the realization that they had her best interests at heart, and while they did some horrible things, the motivation behind those things wasn't clear cut...both were trying to either save their race or their world. She starts to see a pov other than her own and adjusts her perceptive...in the process becoming more self-aware of her own actions and how they may be perceived.
The weakest parts of the book focused on a new character, a Were bodyguard, that her biological father, Takata, sends to protect Rachel from herself. Or as Takata puts it to the bodyguard - "My daughter needs someone to yank her back from the edge of the stage before she falls off." The problem with this plot point - is it makes little sense that Takata who up to now had relatively little interest in helping or interacting with his daughter - suddenly sends a staff body guard to protect her. Nor does it make sense that he would considering his daughter lives with a living vampire, a pixy, a gargoyle, and is the alpha of a were pack and has a powerful and rich elf protecting her. It seems a bit silly actually. Also the Were, Wayde, is pathetically weak, a bit stupid, and chauvinistic as all get out. He sees Rachel as a damsel, a child-woman he has to control, who can't take care of herself and needs "handling" like a child. And he's horrible at doing it. His methodology is a bit patronizing - either to order her not to go, keep valid information from her regarding any people that may have been following her or threatening her, or to dominate her physically as in carrying her against her will to a car to get a tattoo or stealing her car keys from her pocket and browbeating her to stay. Both times - he gets his ass-kicked, and deservedly so. The author clearly wanted to make him either a potential love interest or object of lust...but Wayde is about as appealing as a bull-dog, with his stocky biker's build, tattoos, long shaggy hair and beard. Not to mention lack of a sense of humor.
A whole chapter is spent with them playing pool or Wayde in the kitchen making chili and whining about life on the road touring. We're supposed to feel sympathy for this character, but he was mainly annoying. And a bit redundant. As Rachel notes at one point - "No more boyfriends. Always telling me what to do and to stay behind." Which is what Wayde keeps doing. The fact Rachel can kick Wayde's ass with both hands tied behind her back...makes Wayde feel a bit like a joke, which may be the intent. But haven't we been down this road before with Pierce (who actually did have a lot of power), Marshal (who had none and was a bit of a coward) and Nick (a manipulative opportunist)? I kept wondering about Takata...seriously, you'd think he'd know after hiring his daughter to do security on one of his gigs and seeing her in action that the people she fights could take Wayde out in an instant. Rachel does take him out...she literally beats him up, while seriously injured. Wayde? Go home.
The other new character which works slightly better is Winona...and I can't help but wonder if the writer has been watching Sons of Anarchy and Justified in her spare time. Winona...is a witch who gets turned into a demon...while Rachel and Winona are held by a human hate group - HAPA. (Humans Against Paranomals.). The hate group iunrelentingly evil. There is nothing nice about them. They are annoying as well. Not to mention whiny. After about two or three chapters in their company, I was swearing in frustration and wishing the writer would rescue her character already or at the least give us another point of view. I began to scan and missed nothing. Nothing happened - except the main character being beat up and her friend Winona being beaten up verbally and physically by insane scientists. Made me miss the earlier novels where Trent, Nick, Kisten and Al were the alleged or actual villains.
The later novels unfortunately have sunk into a trend of comically one-dimensional villains, who are insanely lucky. You can't wait for them to exit the stage. This is the problem with making the cool villains into well ...allies. You have to find new cool villains. And Harrison hasn't yet...although there may be some potential with the new high-tech special forces group, and Felix - the undead vampire head of the IS. What Harrison is good at in her novels is discussing the difficulty of managing power, the desire for power, the gift of power, and the responsibilities that come with it.
Harrison also is doing a good job with the star-crossed romance metaphors and the problems with interracial romance. At the heart of her tale is the star-crossed romance of an elf and a witch-demon. Both equally powerful in their own right. Both with a troubled past and parental secrets. This romance is not going very well - there are a lot of realistic obstacles in its path. More so than in most star-crossed romances. My problem with a lot of star-crossed romances is that the obstacle often feels either contrived or too externalized for me to care that much about it.
I prefer it when it is more internal. Here - the protagonist, Rachel is, in spite of herself, falling in love with Trenton Kalamack, the man she hated for years and had once been so determined to tag and put in prison for illegal drug trade, illegal bio-engineering, and murder. Trent, apparently has already fallen for Rachel, but is careful not to show it and clearly doesn't see her ever returning his feelings. He may not even be aware of it, although difficult to determine, since we are in Rachel's pov and Rachel is in denile. Up until recently she was in denile about being a demon...so one step at a time. The odds are stacked against them. Demons and Elves had been at war for thousands of years. Their war destroyed the Ever After and drove the supernatural creatures to the human realm. It also ended both species, the demon and elf, ability to reproduce. Their kids would die. The elf attempt to stop demons from reproducing, backfired and caused them to be unable to. Only by healing Rachel, a witch child who was born as a demon and would die as one, due to the Rosewood virus created by elves, was Trent's father able to ensure his own son, Trent's survival, and the continuation of the elven race. Rachel in turn aids Trent in acquiring an elf sample in the ever after - that will ensure his ability to have children and continue his race past his own generation and his children's. Together they save the elven race. And in return he promises to save the demon race. Trent is a businessman and bioengineer - who would rather be an elf practicing wild magic like his mother. And it is clear, when he tells Rachel about his mother in this novel...that it is Rachel's similarities to his mother that he most admires. His mother he tells Rachel was so much more, she was a sword.
The other star-crossed romances, which feature earlier in the novel and set this one up, are Jenks awkward romance with Bella (a fairy) and Ivy's awkward one with Glenn (a human) and Daryl (a dryad) which doesn't work out due to external reasons. Ivy is given short shrift in this novel and I'm wondering if the writer may have grown tired of Ivy, who was over-used and explored in perhaps too much depth in the first five books. The first five books focus heavily on vampires, witches and weres and pixies. The later books focus more on witches, demons and elves and fairies. The later three are actually more interesting...and darker. Rachel's struggle with the darker group..
is her struggle with the shadows inside herself. To be both sun and shadow, as Trent states.
Ivy notes the difference between Trent and all of Rachel's other romantic interests (adeptly leaving Kisten out of the mix - of the group Trent is perhaps the most like the troubled and violent Kisten). "Nick would have told you to summon a demon, Marshal would have told you not to go, Pierce would have insisted on going with you to protect you and take the lead, fouling things up in the process....Trent just brings you a weapon. Interesting." Trent in some respects is also the most like Ivy and Jenks. Who don't try to stop Rachel from being who she is. If anything he is pushing her to be that person. "You are a good person, Rachel," he tells her. "Don't change just because I'm a bastard."
Ceri equally makes the story crackle as does Al - two characters who are extremely powerful and far more knowledgeable about magic than Trent and Rachel. Both are also much older. Ceri is over a thousand years old, and Al over five thousand years. Both hail from the Ever-After. Ceri was saved from being Al's familiar and dying by Rachel. Ceri admits that she owes everything to Rachel and has made this clear to Trent. While Trent and Ceri are acting as parents to their two little girls, Ceri's is by Ceri and Quen (Trent's head of security and Ceri's lover) and Trent's by Trent and Elizabeth Withon, who with Rachel and Jenks help - Trent took back as his to raise. They, Trent and Ceri, are not, to Rachel's knowledge, romantically involved, nor will they ever be. Ceri wouldn't go there. Ceri in some respects feels like a maternal figure to Trent, as does Quen, both seem to be trying to keep him in check. Al similarly feels like a paternal or uncle figure towards Rachel, a teacher. He's dangerous though. Trent aids Rachel at keeping Al at bay and not letting him pull her into the Ever-After to live. The aid that Trent gives Rachel has sexual undertones, and Al picks up on it, along with Trent's willingness to risk death for Rachel. Rachel notes that while she's willing to trust Trent with her life, she won't with her heart. Perhaps wise - he did try to kill her more than once. But she also tried to kill him or put him in prison.
Trent oddly got over his prejudice regarding demons faster than Rachel did. With Trent and Jenks and to a smaller degree Glenn and Al, Harrison shows men who are not chauvinistic and not threatened by powerful women. Who are secure enough in their own power and masculanity that they don't need to dominate. Trent asks Rachel to work for him, but in reality he just wants to work with her and Jenks - he enjoys working with them. And he supports her. Trusts her. Stop being angry at me, he tells her, for being able to do things you can't...or making mistakes. I'm trying. And she begins to finally realize that he is stuck too, stuck being something he isn't.
Another theme that Harrison excels at is identity, being forced to wear masks, to be someone we aren't for societal approval. Internalizing societal views about who we are. Rachel starts out hating demons and black magic or curses or leyline magic...convinced it is evil. But it is merely dangerous. And has been demonized. Over time her black and white view of herself and the world shifts. She stops being so self-righteous and starts questioning things more. The journey from taking everything at face value to beginning to question it, is shown well through the books.
Finally the theme of memory or story thread regarding memory...it's a continuous and long-running theme in these novels. Rachel's mother we are told - can't remember things and is somewhat crazy in the earlier novels. Then Newt - Rachel's demon mother or insane demon mother - who like her biological one, also can't remember things and is driven insane by memory blocks that her male counterparts and handlers have forced on her. Rachel herself has been the victim of memory blockers in the form of drugs or charms. As a child, Trent's father blocked her memories of summer camp. It's unclear how much he blocked his son's memories. As an adult, Jenks blocks her memories of how Kisten died. Rachel as a result hates memory blocks, as she states, they take away the person you are. So fearful the IS or someone else will erase her memory, she finds a memory curse and ensures no one will block her memory ever again. In first half of the book - she keeps reminding herself to ask Trent to come up with a memory charm to protect both their memories. When she takes her bracelet off, she does it herself but doesn't have time to do one for him - forgetting that she'd meant to ask him for one. The special forces unit tries to wipe both their memories with drugs, and it doesn't work for either of them - because both, separately took measures to ensure it would not happen. Both believe the other won't remember...and both are relieved when this is not the case. This story-thread makes me wonder about the character's back story in summer camp...what happened, what doesn't Rachel remember about Trent? But the continuous mention of memory loss or the removal of memory by the writer...is once again about identity, about how others attempt to manipulate and control how we perceive ourselves. Newt's perceptions are changed by her memory loss. As Rachel tells the special forces team - you can't take this away from us, from Trent, you are taking away a part of him, an accomplishment, mistakes, things he learned. You are erasing a part of himself. She's horrified that he won't remember, and relieved when he does.
Every time Trent pops up, the story crackles with an energy that is hard to put down and becomes a page-turner. Same with Al or for that matter Ceri. To a degree Jenks still picks up the pacing. And even Ivy...still pushes it along. But Wayde stopped it cold. As did the villains - HAPA. Winona was fine with the Trent family, but alone, like Wayde, she stops it cold. I hope both characters are not recurring ones. Wayde made me miss Pierce. Luckily Marshal has finally been written out completely (the previous Wayde), and so too has Glenn, who the writer no longer appears to know what to do with.
The ending...makes me think the next book will focus even more on the Trent/Rachel/Al relationship. As well as the kids. I can't help but wonder if Al's interest in Trent's daughters will push Rachel to reassess her relationship with Al and her need to control him. HAPA also lurks as does the new security force. As well as Rachel's new relationship with Trent.
Overall, the book was a mixed read. Not as satisfying as the other books I've read in some respects, yet more satisfying in others. Serials can be frustrating, because they never end neatly.
The writer wraps up some story threads, but leaves several hanging. Also you're never sure if the characters will end up together. Happily ever after isn't really a possibility in most serials or noirs. It also, like I said before, had pacing problems. Too much time wasted telling the reader what the reader already knew. And took far too long to get to the point. Bad editing. Some bits could have been compressed, such as the captivity, and the whole Wayde pool scene.
So my grade? B. Worth reading on the Kindle or borrowing from a library. Although you might want Kindle. Another point? Harrison's books much like Jim Butchers have become so serialized now that you sort of have to start with the first one. You can't read them out of order. You'll get confused.