A Fistful of Charms, by Kim Harrison (HarperTorch, 2006)

Meet Rachel Mariana Morgan, witch and bounty hunter. She has a spectacular talent for getting into the sort of trouble most supernatural beings can only dream about. As part of the independent runner firm, Vampiric Charms, she’s staked out something of a name for herself among the supernaturals (Inderlanders) in a world where vampires, werewolves, witches and pixies have come out of hiding and live out in the open. Of course, in Rachel’s case, it’s not always a — good — name. There are lots of people who want her dead and/or out of the way. Luckily, Rachel’s not just a witch. She’s a witch who can kindle demon magic, drive vampires to tears with distraction, and draw upon ley lines to accomplish all sorts of unexpected tricks. And she’ll need every trick in her book to get out of the latest trouble to fall in her lap.

It seems her old boyfriend Nick is up to no good, and needs saving from several packs of ornery werewolves. Rachel, desperate for closure on that failure of a relationship, goes on a road trip along with her estranged partner, Jenks (a pixie with a midlife crisis). So now our heroes are off their usual turf, and up to their eyebrows in werewolves and trouble. Along with Rachel’s current boyfriend Kisten (a vampire with way too much appeal) and Rachel’s other partner Ivy (who wants Rachel in all sorts of unhealthy, yet not entirely undesirable, but oh-boy-what-a-mess ways), they have to figure out a way to straighten out one very, very big mess.

Nick’s not just in trouble. He has something everyone wants, an ancient relic that could tip the scales in favor of the werewolves for the first time in millennia. No, Nick’s in huge trouble, and Rachel can’t turn her back on him. Welcome to a supernatural shell game that’s bound to leave corpses in its wake. And this is business as normal for Rachel. Along the way, she’ll deal with her increasingly complicated love life, figure out how she feels about Kisten, Nick, and Ivy, re-bond with Jenks, escape certain death, and compromise her own morals in fascinating new ways.

Kim Harrison clearly belongs to the “piled higher and deeper” school of mistreating one’s protagonists, because she doesn’t let up in A Fistful of Charms, the fourth book to star Rachel, Ivy, and Jenks. The more Rachel gets entangled with things beyond her immediate ability to handle, the more her efforts to stay alive screw her over for the future. What you end up with is a heroine whose perfectly aware just how steadily her grasp on her life and morality is slipping, and what’s worse, she rationalizes each new step she takes in the wrong direction. Rachel Morgan is easily one of the more complex and interesting characters around for these flaws. Where’s it taking her? Harrison’s not saying. All we can hope is that Rachel’s friends can help her, but they come with their own baggage. Heck, the relationship triangle between Rachel, Kisten, and Ivy is nine circles of confused hell all on its own, as the two vampires place their own set of wants and needs and demands on her. (And some of the scenes involving any combination of the three characters are so steamy, so desire-laden, so intense as to rival Laurell K. Hamilton’s more explicit material for sheer power.)

If there’s anything I have a complaint about, it’s the amount of angst that floats off the pages, courtesy of the three main characters. One occasionally wants to tell them to shut up, sit down, stop whining, and get over themselves. Rachel in particular is capable of wasting endless hours upon her confused set of desires, especially as she fast wanders into hypocritical territory. I know it’s all part of their charm, but between Rachel, Ivy, and even Jenks… well, it gets old.

Admittedly, I found the latter half of the book, with its somewhat complicated shell game (involving corpses, moving vehicles, ancient artifacts, vampires, spells, werewolves, and so on) to be a little confusing, and had to go back a few times to make sure I was keeping it straight in my head. But luckily, it all falls into place soon enough.

Overall, Kim Harrison continues to be one of my favorite urban fantasy authors, and her books always jump to the top of my pile when they show up. I devoured A Fistful of Charms eagerly, and now I can’t wait for the next one. I look forward to seeing what sort of trouble will hit Rachel next, especially since, while this book cleared up a few outstanding issues, it quite happily leaves at least half a dozen threads open for further exploration. I love the setting because it’s a new and interesting way to address vampires; their society is complex, their needs intense, their vulnerabilities exciting, and their appeal unmistakable. I love the setting because it makes werewolves interesting all over again, though they come off as vicious animals more than desirable supernatural beings. And I absolutely love the portrayal of pixies and fairies, who occupy a niche all their own (one exploited to great effect in this book.)

If you like Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, Tanya Huff, Emma Bull, Laura Anne Gilman, or Kelley Armstrong, then Kim Harrison’s books are for you. Like the rest of its series, A Fistful of Charms combines action and magic, fantasy and modern day, vampires and werewolves and witches, producing something that really does stand out. Fans won’t be disappointed with this book. Newcomers, I do advise you to start with Dead Witch Walking. You won’t regret it.

Originally posted at SF Site, 2006

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