White Witch, Black Curse. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $25.95.
Kim Harrison has become such a good writer, so adept at producing hair-raising adventures filled with complex characters with believable motivations, that her world of the Hollows throbs with reality even though it is populated primarily by the dead and undead, by witches and werewolves, and by all sorts of things that go bump in the night – and the daytime. Indeed, Harrison has gotten so good that even when she is not quite at the top of her game, as in White Witch, Black Curse, she still creates novels that are unstoppably good and nearly impossible to put down.
As usual in Harrison’s stories of the Hollows (a supernatural enclave permeating, of all places, Cincinnati), the book’s title recalls a Clint Eastwood movie – in this case, 1990’s White Hunter, Black Heart, which Eastwood directed and in which he starred as movie director John Huston. Aside from being a director’s movie about a movie director, the film is about obsession, specifically Huston’s determination to hunt down one particular elephant. White Witch, Black Curse is about obsession as well: witch and bounty hunter Rachel Morgan’s continued determination to find out who killed her vampire lover, Kisten. But for much of the book, the Kisten-killer quest takes a back seat to a series of adventures involving a variety of supernatural beings who have not appeared before in Harrison’s Hollows series, in which this is the seventh entry. And that’s the problem here: Harrison has proved herself so exceptionally good at imagining both the outer and inner lives of living and dead vampires, witches, werewolves, elves, pixies, demons and her other primary character groups that there is something a little cheap about her suddenly dragging in such previously unsuspected entities as banshees and ghosts, then building large sections of the story around them. Because these new beings have not been, so to speak, fleshed out as well as such characters as the demon Al, the pixy Jenks, the vampire Ivy, the elf Trent, and many other memorable Harrison creations, White Witch, Black Curse teems with occurrences that have less depth and resonance than those in earlier books of the series.
This is not to say that the new novel isn’t exciting. It is – often tremendously so. Rachel’s near-fatal encounter with a banshee, her increasing level of comfort with using black curses as well as white spells to accomplish her aims, and the interlocking complexity of her life with grand political and social machinations among the supernatural Inderlanders and the humans among whom they move freely, add up to an intricate and fast-paced narrative. But there is one scene – a slowdown in the midst of an escape – that shows Harrison at her very best and makes some of the other parts of the book seem a bit pale. Rachel, hospitalized, is determined to leave despite doctors’ insistence that she stay; and as Ivy and Jenks help her get away, the three find themselves in a ward of desperately ill children. In nine pages out of the novel’s 500-plus, Harrison manages to deepen Rachel’s own character (she nearly died as a child; the way she was saved precipitated subtly world-shaking events that keep coming up in these stories); bring new empathy and humanity to Ivy; show a level of deep emotion lying just underneath Jenks’ frequent bluster; and pinpoint one of the series’ main themes – whether doing evil, even repeatedly, means that you are evil. Seeing Rachel’s blackened aura, caused by the curses she has invoked, a girl asks whether Rachel is a black witch, and Harrison writes (in Rachel’s first-person narrative): “There was no fear in her, not because she was ignorant, but because she knew she was dying, and she knew I wasn’t going to be the cause of her death. My heart went out to her. She was seeing around corners, but not yet ready to go. One more thing possibly to see and do.” Ivy manages to get the kids to see how closely related to them Rachel is, and the children become co-conspirators; and the entire scene – which passes in an eyeblink, compared with the rest of the novel – so thoroughly humanizes (if that’s the right word) everyone in it that the grander dramas of the banshee, the ghost and even of what happened to Kisten seem one-dimensional by comparison.
White Witch, Black Curse is an excellent book and a wonderful addition to the Hollows sequence. It deserves to be (and undoubtedly will be) a best-seller. If it is not quite up to Harrison’s very best, that is only because she has heretofore held herself to such an uncompromisingly high standard.