I'm falling behind, having read about a zillion books since my last post. So to help catch up, this review's going to be a twofer covering both Dead Witch Walking and its sequel The Good, The Bad and the Undead.
I had about three false starts as I tried to get into the first of these. On my initial attempt I made it through two chapters before I got bored and quit the book, re-reading an old favorite instead. A few weeks later I re-read the first chapter ("why is this still in my to-be-read stack? Didn't I read it? The cover looks familiar") and put it back on the stack again as soon as memory caught back up. Some time later I restarted yet again, this time making it through four chapters before deciding that although the book wasn't hopeless, I still had better things to read.
Fast forward another month, and I'd just put down something truly dreadful and grabbed the next book on the pile--Dead Witch Walking again. Fourth time lucky, right? I picked up where I had left off earlier and this time it stuck. I started carrying the book around, reading a page or two during free time, putting off chores to reach the end of a chapter. And when I finished the thing, I dug its sequel out of my to-be-read stack and started on it.
Reading these two back to back, I was particularly struck by the differences in character development. In the first book the protagonist Rachel is almost entirely a self-obsessed, whiny, ineffectual non-entity, while her "friend" Ivy is a moody goth Mary Sue non-entity with no real personality other than generic menace. The author forces the characters through scene after scene where they play out their precisely defined personas regardless of whatever motivations might be appropriate, and the resulting dissonance prevents you from ever really being absorbed. Or at least, not without a lot of effort, which kind of defeats the point.
In the second book, though, every single character (even the pixie--which the author always writes as "pixy", thereby bugging the hell out of me) has become more complex. They demonstrate varied emotions, their behavior is appropriate to a particular scene's motivations, and each of the characters has picked up both weaknesses and strengths--and I don't mean like "Ivy can now eat steel and spit nails," but rather that there are histories, emotional motivations and goals for all of them. It's a big and a welcome difference, but it does kind of highlight a problem in the first book. Thinking back, I'd have to say that the plotting is marginally improved as well: the first book is pretty linear, while the second--while still a far cry from a murder mystery--at least tries to throw a spin or two in.
Out of curiosity I popped briefly through Kim Harrison's web site, and from the looks of it Dead Witch Walking was her first published work by a couple of years. If so then she's managed to fix some big flaws in her writing pretty quickly--that's impressive. Her baddies are still kind of cookie-cutter (I need to pull out the Vampire Evaluation Sheet to find out where these score) but overall she's done a reasonable job at world building, and with characterization and plotting fast getting fixed that leaves her looking reasonably strong in the field.