**Today we are deviating from our usual current release schedule to review our January contest winner’s choice, Every Which Way But Dead.
Romance, for all the suppleness it possesses as a genre, rigidly adheres to certain axioms: the heroine must be likeable (the most limited definition possible for this), the story must center on the emerging romance, the ending must satisfy. These elements, while enjoyable time and again, do limit possibilities. They are the creative equivalent of a coloring book versus the wide open space of a blank canvas. This is never more apparent than when another genre of fiction plays around with the elements most traditionally associated with romance, but doesn’t then bother with those axioms. Such is the case with Kim Harrison’s three-books-and-counting Rachel Morgan series. Like any good romance, Harrison’s story is tightly focused on the heroine, but with the freedom found outside the genre—in this case fantasy—Harrison doesn’t waste a single word on making Rachel saccharin likeable, when gritty and downright dirty make for better conflict. There is a romance with a male character who is just that, a male character, not a hero. It’s long in coming and spicy while only accounting for a portion of the overall story, and it isn’t sugar-coated with hard to ground concepts like destiny. The romance never feels buried behind other plot points, but rather blends nicely with the underlying theme of Rachel learning not everything is black and white. Why then do so few offerings in genre romance accomplish all that?
Every Which Way But Dead is the third installment in the Rachel Morgan series. Rachel is a bounty hunter witch living in an alternate present wherein humans, witches, vampires (both living and dead), fairies, and elves live along side one another and exist next to a parallel plane, a demon controlled chaotic and crumbling landscape known as the ever-after. The book creates an illusion of a complicated plot, but is actually fairly simple. Rachel—presumably in a previous book—made a deal with the demon Algaliarept: for his testimony against a serial killer, Rachel agreed to be his familiar (though she negotiated her soul to her keeping). Algaliarept kept his end of their bargain and now Rachel must pay up, or out smart the demon. Rachel’s deal with Algaliarept proves to be Rachel at her stripped down best: do what needs to be done now in order to survive the moment, and worry about the rest later. It’s this motivation—conscious or otherwise—from Rachel that propels her through a large scale power struggle between an elf and a witch (both battling for control of Cincinnati’s organized crime), getting involved with a living vamp, and her repeated run-ins with the demon who wants to be her master.
Rachel’s world is filled with a large and intricately woven cast of characters that lend the story its complexity. Each character from Rachel, to her roommate Ivy, to the Were insurance agent David, to bad-boy living vamp Kisten, has an agenda of their own; one that never lends to the feeling of pawns on a chess board, but rather rounded people (or vamps, witches, and werewolves) that genuinely have histories, desires and needs that keep them all in conflict. For all the stunning imagination on display here, it is the ability to keep her character in constant and sustainable conflict that is Harrison’s shinning talent.
Unfortunately there is a large stumbling block that makes quick emersion into Rachel’s world difficult. Harrison writes with the expectation that the two previous Rachel Morgan books were read prior to this third installment. The result is a loss of significance of Rachel’s actions. For example, without reading the first two books, it’s difficult to judge exactly what Rachel loses when her boyfriend Nick leaves her, or exactly how monumental her decisions regarding Kisten are. There is definitely a sense that readers who’ve followed the series from the beginning have waited for the coming together of Morgan and Kisten for hundreds of pages. It is a struggle to keep characters straight or understand who they are, if they’re good guys, bad guys, or just trying-to-get-by guy when introductions are frequently limited to names only.
Every Which Way But Dead engrosses despite the already-in-progress-plot. While there are references to what can be assumed are events from previous books, those references peak interest to read the series in its entirety rather than satisfy curiosity and make the other books moot. Rachel is compelling for the ordinary, everyday approach she takes to the extraordinary circumstances of her life. Every Which Way But Dead isn’t romance, it’s fiction that includes a romance, and illuminates the possibilities of what genre romance could be.