Bi Book Club: Dead Witch Walking

By Siobhan Ball

October 27, 2020

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Photo credit: unsplash/Mark Tegethoff

In the world of The Hollows, Kim Harrison constructs a richly detailed urban fantasy setting featuring ley line demons, corporate elves, and bisexual vampires, all working at cross purposes to settle millennia-old feuds and contemporary crimes.

The series starts with Dead Witch Walking (2004), where, after a mutated virus decimated the human population, witches, vampires, and other formerly mythical creatures came out of the shadows and integrated with human society. Now making up 25% of the population, they have to deal with the same corrupt cops, greedy politicians, and, quite possibly literally, soulless business tycoons as everybody else. It's a surprisingly prescient setting for our current reality all typed out like that, but don't worry, it's nowhere near as depressing.

Rachel, an earth witch and daughter of a cop, is discovering that she actually hates working for the magical police. The only catch is that once you sign up you can't leave, not unless you can afford to buy your way out of the assassination contracts they take out on departing members— and Rachel just doesn't have the money for that. A combination of chance encounters leads her and her trust funder partner Ivy, a chic bisexual vampire, along with their backup pixie Jax, to take the risk of quitting anyway and set up their own private investigation service out of a decommissioned church. While Ivy could afford to buy her way out, thereby dodging state-sanctioned murder attempts, Rachel has to spend a chunk of the book dodging government assassins on top of all the other problems they have to deal with.

And there are a lot of problems, from getting turned into a mink while spying on a corrupt businessman— and being entered into some sort of underground rodent fight ring once he got bored of keeping her on his desk— to inadvertently summoning a demon and freeing the centuries-old elven princess he's been keeping as his familiar in the process. One major problem is her relationship with Ivy. Despite choosing to live and work with Ivy, Rachel doesn't entirely like her and is also powerfully afraid of her — a situation made worse by Rachel accidentally initiating vampire courtship rituals and finding out that Ivy is very very into her in the process.

As the plot progresses, Rachel and Ivy mend fences and get to know each other better, take on a billionaire drug lord, and manage to get enough leverage together to make the magic cops back far enough off that they can go about their lives without worrying about Rachel being sniped on the street. There are also multiple romantic plot threads running through the novel, and Rachel's primary romance is funny and warm. Instead of the classic urban fantasy dangerous and emotionally detached vampire or tough guy werewolf, Harrison goes in the other direction, writing Rachel a clever, competent man whose also completely aware and utterly unphased by the fact that she outpowers him.

While the book, and the rest of its series, are a lot of fun, it's not all rainbows in this review. As much as Ivy is an interesting, complex, and sometimes relatable character, she's also something of a nightmare when it comes to depictions of bisexuality. Thanks to a whack childhood and adolescent trauma, Ivy is unable to separate her sex drive from her drive for prey, and the only way to knock her out of a feeding frenzy that's likely to kill the victim is for the victim to try and turn the situation sexual. 

Harrison takes the fun of all vampires are bisexual right back to its biphobic predatory origin with the unfortunate inclusion of childhood abuse as an instigating factor— something homophobes have been blaming our sexualities on for more than a century. Add to that the fact that Ivy is often pushy with Rachel about her feelings for her in later books, the overall effect is very close to the classic example of the bad bisexual. It should be said that none of this is deliberate on Harrison's part, rather it seems to be the result of living in a culture that's still saturated in biphobia and its tropes, and how invisible the biphobic underpinnings of those tropes often are. There's also a little bit of whorephobia in Rachel's inner monologue at the beginning of the book when she's in the middle of a job, and while it feels authentic for her character at that point, it's still uncomfortable to read.

Despite its drawbacks, The Hollows series, and Dead Witch Walking in particular, makes for a fun fast read. While there are problems with the depiction of bisexuality in the series it's still enjoyable specifically as a piece of fiction featuring bisexuality and bi romances. Dead Witch Walking might not end with a bisexual awakening and Rachel sweeping Ivy off her feet, but their relationship is rewarding in its own way— after all, for a lot of us the idea of a straight friend not running a mile after finding out their bi friend is into them is an even more extreme piece of fantasy fiction than anything involving witches and elves.

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