Category Archives: Reviews

A Fistful of Charms by Kim Harrison (review)

A Fistful of Charms
Kim Harrison

Review by Carolyn Hill

In A Fistful of Charms, the fourth book in Kim Harrison’s Hallows series, Rachel Morgan and her partners must rescue Jenks’s son, who has been drawn into Nick Sparagmos’s theft of a dangerous artifact that could cause all-out war between werewolves and vampires.

Rachel and her partners—Jenks, a four-inch pixy warrior, and Ivy, a practicing vampire—are pushed beyond their physical and emotional limits as they leave the familiar confines of Cincinnati for a small town in the north. Jenks allows Rachel to turn him six-feet tall so that he will survive the journey, but being taller doesn’t protect him from the vagaries of father-son relationships and issues of aging as he nears the end of his natural life. Ivy follows Rachel out of love and friendship, but in leaving the big city she tosses aside the constraints that the master vampire Piscary has placed on her and, thus, risks losing all that she holds most dear. And Rachel repeatedly steps over lines she has drawn for herself, making heavy use of demon magic, becoming a wolf to survive combat against the Weres, and embracing her adrenaline-junky appetites.

Ivy and Jenks play larger roles in this book than in the preceding, both in the action portions of the plot and in the emotional arc of the novel. A Fistful of Charms offers satisfying resolutions to several conflicts in their relationships with Rachel, and readers come to see why these three individuals make such a solid team. In particular, we come to understand Ivy more fully—and those who have been rooting for her will have much to celebrate as Rachel makes a fateful decision.

In exploring the explosive consequences of events in the first three books, A Fistful of Charms takes the three partners deeper into the dark and closer to the truth.

Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrison (review)

Every Which Way But Dead
Kim Harrison

Review by Carolyn Hill

In Every Which Way But Dead, the third novel in the Hallows series, Rachel Morgan continues the ongoing battle for her soul with the demon Algaliarept and becomes entangled in a turf war between rival supernatural gang lords.

Bloody battles both physical and magical abound, but at center stage is Rachel’s struggle to define herself in an increasingly tangled web of relationships. As new people come into her life and old friends and acquaintances shift alliances, Rachel wonders whom to trust. Sexy vampires who bite? A powerful elf lord who kills? A human boyfriend who’s afraid of her? A roommate who wants to jump her bones? A pixy partner who isn’t good at keeping secrets? A toothsome werewolf who offers a sweet deal on health insurance? Can she even trust herself, knowing that she’ll do anything to survive?

Readers of the series may be surprised by the choices Rachel makes. But she is changing as she deals with the consequences of her actions in the first two books and as she learns more about her father’s death, his friendship with the father of her erstwhile enemy Trent Kalamack, and her own illness as a child. Becoming ever more powerful, she faces hard truths about herself: about her use of demon magic, about her craving for danger, and about her relationship with Ivy, her lesbian vampire roommate, as it becomes increasingly clear that Ivy wants to be far more than friends.

To satisfy her craving for danger (and, readers may suspect, to stave off her attraction to Ivy), Rachel turns to the sexy male vampire Kisten, Ivy’s old friend. Dating a vampire without getting bitten (either by Kisten or by an understandably agitated Ivy) is no easy task—and not entirely a sane choice. But Kisten meets Rachel’s needs in ways that Nick, her human boyfriend, never could: unlike Nick, Kisten isn’t afraid of her growing power, and unlike Nick, Kisten won’t dump her because of fear.

If you’ve read the first two books in the Hallows series, you’ll enjoy watching relationships develop in this third book. But if you haven’t read the first two, you probably won’t be entirely satisfied. Although Every Which Way But Dead can stand alone, its impact depends in part on a reader’s prior investment in the characters, and its ending leaves several tantalizing issues unresolved. But for loyal readers, Every Which Way But Dead offers a sizzling, sexually charged, emotional transition between the entertaining events in the first two books and the explosive outcome in the fourth.

The Good, the Bad, and the Undead by Kim Harrison (review)

The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
Kim Harrison

Review by Carolyn Hill

In The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, the second book in the Hallows series, Kim Harrison raises the stakes for Rachel Morgan and her vampire roommate, Ivy.

Someone is murdering ley line witches, and Rachel Morgan, talented witch and bounty-hunter, suspects the mysterious Trent Kalamack. She returns to college to gather evidence from a professor of ley line magic, but in the process she comes face-to-face with disturbing secrets not only about Kalamack’s past, but also about her own.

As her assumptions about herself and her world are tested, Rachel develops greater skill as a witch, coming ever closer to the line that separates black magic from white. Unfortunately, her desire to stay on the good side of that line isn’t shared by her human boyfriend, Nick, who pursues arcane knowledge by making deals with the evil demon Algaliarept—deals into which Rachel is inevitably drawn, at risk of her soul.

Meanwhile, Ivy walks a fine line of her own as her past makes demands she refuses to meet. Her ancient relative Piscary, one of Cincinnati’s master vampires, orders Ivy to bite Rachel and bind her as a pet. Ivy’s refusal has horrifying consequences, and we see the strength of the friendship between Rachel and Ivy and how far the two friends will go for one another as they fight the ugly realities of vampirism.

Although the murder mystery is central to the plot and Rachel actively employs both fists and magic in solving that mystery, this second book in the series is more overtly sexual than the first, as the effects of the demonic vampire bite Rachel suffered in the first book become clear. Relationships rather than action drive this novel. And those relationships pack a wallop. Readers who enjoy sexual tension and admire strong yet vulnerable characters who sacrifice themselves for their friends will find much to enjoy in The Good, the Bad, and the Undead.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison (review)

I recently completed reviews of four of Kim Harrison’s fantasy novels for the Chronicles Network. I’ll repost those reviews here.

Dead Witch Walking
Kim Harrison

Review by Carolyn Hill

Set in an alternate modern-day Cincinnati where humans coexist uneasily with supernatural residents of the Hallows, Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking delivers refreshing, lively, and tension-packed entertainment.

When Rachel Morgan, a white witch, quits her job catching criminals for the government and starts her own agency, her former employer marks her for death. Rachel and her new partners—a control-freak, living vampire and an irreverent, temperamental pixy—set up shop and home in an old church, learning to cope with one another’s idiosyncrasies as they fend off assassins and pursue a case against a mysterious biodrug runner.

The three main characters—Rachel the witch, Ivy the vampire, and Jenks the pixy—are intriguing. All three are loyal, courageous, and likeable, but each has flaws that make for interesting reading. Rachel is principled, determined, and quick to adapt, but despite her fear of the black magic that killed her father, she’s too drawn toward danger for her own good. Ivy has dark secrets in her past, and although she longs for Rachel’s trust and hasn’t drunk blood in three years, she’s on edge and close to sinking her teeth in Rachel’s neck. Jenks is a family man with a loving wife and a swarm of cheerful, battle-savvy children, but his pride and his temper are quick to flare, and his tongue cuts as sharply as his sword.

Add a host of entertaining secondary characters, physical action, quiet humor, supernatural confrontation, sexual tension, a deadly demon, murderous fairies, and liberal use of spells and ley line magic. Stir well, and you have a thoroughly enchanting and clever novel.

Dead Witch Walking not only completely satisfies as a standalone read, but also simultaneously sets up characters and tension that will develop in ever more surprising ways as Rachel Morgan’s story continues in the next three novels in the series: The Good, the Bad, and the Undead; Every Which Way But Dead; and A Fistful of Charms.

Terry Pratchett’s The Truth

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel The Truth. It’s the second Pratchett book I’ve ever read (the first was Going Postal), and I absolutely loved it. I laughed out loud and felt quite jolly, even during the occasional gruesome bits.

Amid all the chuckles and zippy plot threads, Pratchett manages to say sage things about the printed news media and the public’s relationship to those media: what’s important and what’s not, what the people will believe and what they prefer not to believe, what obligations the press have to the truth and what obligations they do and don’t have to those in power, and what might or might not be in the public’s interest.

Something I very much enjoyed in both Going Postal and The Truth is that both protagonists get swept up by events and find themselves building by bits and pieces what we in the real world see as established institutions. Lacking definite plans, the protagonists cleverly stumble onto methods and ideas that are new to them but old to us, progressing from one method or idea to the next in a somehow simultaneously random and inevitable series of cause and effect. In seeing through their eyes, those methods and ideas become new again to readers.

I am definitely going to add more of Pratchett’s novels to my list of books to read.

Battlestar Galactica

No, I’m not talking about that cheesy series from the late 1970s (although I loved it at that time). I’m talking about the critically acclaimed version of Battlestar Galactica about to begin its third season on the SciFi channel.

Battlestar Galactica has everything (except for Joss Whedon) that I look for in a science fiction show: believable, engaging, and complex characters; thoughtful character development; entertaining, unexpected, and ongoing plot arcs; social and political commentary; suspense and drama; humor and romance—and lots and lots of spaceships. As my dear friend Jennifer Carson says, it’s a truly literary show.

And Battlestar Galactica has the most fan-centric official website I’ve ever seen, full of goodies, including videos, podcasts, blogs, and interviews by cast and crew. Right now, the site is offering new two-minute “webisodes” that lead up to the October 6 start of the third season. (I’m watching these and chewing my nails.) Podcasts offer the show runner’s commentary on each episode, or let you listen to a writers’ meeting as they create the compelling episode titled “Scar”. (The podcasts are full of interesting writerly tips and insight into what makes the TV series so compelling. ) Blogs let you read or watch other entertaining and intriguing information. And there’s a bulletin board with an active community.

A show that takes such good care of its fans is rare.

If you haven’t yet watched Battlestar Galactica, you might give it a try. Watch two episodes in succession, to get an idea of the show’s range: sometimes it focuses on action, sometimes it focuses on drama, and sometimes it’s all about the laughs.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness


The Left Hand of Darkness is my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novel, and quite possibly my favorite of all SF novels.

I’ve read the novel many times, delighting in Le Guin’s prose and admiring how she unapologetically immerses her readers in the world, minus expository cliffnotes, so that our experience is akin to Genly Ai’s first contact—everything at once, swamped with alien mystery, so that from the very first we have to puzzle our way along, piecing together the layers of significance and meaning.

And when we shift to Estraven’s native point of view, and see Estraven puzzling over Genly, and then shift to the Gethenian folklore, and layers build on layers of meaning, and the two characters come together, struggling to connect—oh, I’m swept away.

That’s what I love about the best science fiction: it takes me there.

K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City versus Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

After reading glowing reviews of K.J. Bishop’s first fantasy novel, The Etched City, and having a friend recommend the book to me, I bought a copy and settled down to read it. Now that I’ve (finally) finished, I must say I’m disappointed.

The prose is beautiful, and Bishop knows how to use her large vocabulary. But the book is a slog: unpleasant characters, soggy plot, imprecise theological maundering. The novel is ambitious, which I admire, and it flashes with occasional brilliance that lights up the page. But I kept waiting for something to pull the disparate clever flashes and promising elements together to make the reading worthwhile. That something never materialized—at least, not for me.

I can’t help comparing The Etched City to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which does a more effective job of handling theological reflection and encounters with the strange. Damnation, redemption, and salvation are fully fleshed in Russell’s characters and plot, rather than being nattered over primarily at mealtime, as in Bishop’s book. And the alien culture in The Sparrow is a more compellingly complex counterpoint to human expectations (religious and otherwise) than Bishop’s rose-and-blood infused city.

It’s not just my preference for science fiction that makes Russell’s the better book.

Magical books of childhood

I have fond memories of various books that seemed magical when I was a child. But a few hold pride of place, and several have shaped the person I am today.

Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door is the first science fiction book that took me away to a magical place. Its anti-establishment, pro-alien, longing-for-home message has stuck with me and no doubt led to many of my liberal attitudes today.

A wonderful third-grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden to our class, and I reread both for myself soon after. Those two books called forth deep emotions, teaching me about death and disability and the solace of gardens and friends. Today, I’m an avid gardener, I try not to kill spiders, I deal with disability in my family, and I value my friends.

I sucked down one after the other of Andrew Lang’s fairytale books in various colors (The Pink Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, and so on), fascinated that people around the world have so many different ways of telling the same basic stories. That comparativist reading experience surely marked me, because when I grew up I wrote a dissertation on Lang’s fellow comparative anthropologist James Frazer. When I was young, the beauty-and-the-beast variants were my favorite, and I still deeply love that romantic motif in all its guises.

In kindergarten and first grade, my father read to me the Jungle Books and a talking-animal book whose name I can’t recall. It may have been part of a series of books: lots of forest creatures, owls that hunted mice, no humans. Rabbits featured prominently. (Not Watership Down—something earlier, aimed at a younger audience. Perhaps one of Thornton Burgess’s books, but certainly not Peter Rabbit.) These books seemed magical because he read them to me.

There are more books, many more, but these are the most special: magical doors, not forgotten, between the secrets of childhood and the webs I weave today.

V for Vendetta

I just finished watching V for Vendetta on DVD, and I found it extremely powerful. The question of one’s responsibility in the face of an oppressive regime resonates strongly for me, given the current political climate. References to “America’s war” and the fear-mongering that convinces citizens to give up their rights in return for supposed protection from chaos, terrorism, and biological attack have a chilling relevance today.

Natalie Portman’s performance as Evey is intelligent, nuanced, believable. Stephen Rea’s performance as Inspector Finch offers the audience a sane center in the storm to relate to. And V . . . is insane, dangerous, warped, but thought-provoking.

The film is visually stunning. I don’t know the language of filmography, but the blacks and reds of the high chancellor’s chamber are stark, cold, and scary. In contrast, the brown tones and classic art in V’s lair seem all the more earthy, comfortable, valuable, and human. So many memorable images: the dominos that topple and leave one standing at the end, V’s slow-motion final fight, the pastoral setting and sun-saturated colors in Valerie’s movie, the overhead shot of Evey in the slowly falling rain paralleled by the shot of V emerging from the fiery wreckage of his prison, and the opening shots that show V donning his mask and weaponry intercut with Evey donning her makeup and work clothes. All these have strong emotional appeal.

The script contains nuggets worth mining. I particularly appreciate the line that says artists use lies to tell the truth, but politicians use lies to cover it up. If we citizens are denied the truth by our governments, we cannot make informed decisions; we become disposable pawns, collateral damage, or tools to ends that are not our own.

Personally, I don’t think blowing up Parliament is the way to solve our problems. But I respect the film’s message that we must not be passive as our governments make choices we may not agree with or as individuals consolidate their power over us by concealing truth and pretending to act in our names or our best interests.

Comparisons between the film and Alan Moore’s graphic novel are inevitable. But in this instance, I think the film stands on its own.