Into the Woods is a collection of original and previously published stories by Kim Harrison, predominantly featuring pieces from her Hollows universe but also four stories set outside of it. While most of these stories are reprints from themed anthologies, originally published from 2006 onward, all of the non-Hollows pieces are original to Into the Woods, and so is one Hollows novella: “Million Dollar Baby,” the story of how Trent Kalamack and Jenks the pixie stole back Trent’s kid in an elven rite of passage/custody battle.
The majority of these stories don’t star the protagonist of Harrison’s Hollows series, Rachel Morgan. Rather, they’re focused on secondary characters and stories elided from the main narrative of the series by virtue of the fact that Rachel wasn’t there to see them. (In fact, only two stories—“The Bridges of Eden Park” and “Two Ghosts for Sister Rachel”—are narrated by Rachel, and both are reprints.) From Ivy to Trent to Al and Ceri, each of these stories gives some insight into the background, secrets, and trauma of the folks who fill in Rachel’s life—some as antagonists, some as friends, some as both—and offers a richer tapestry of the Hollowsuniverse.
However, because of this focus, the book will not be as likely to appeal to readers who aren’t familiar with Harrison’s series. Many of the stories function on the presumed interest of the reader in the back-stories of these characters – and, for a reader who has no idea who they are, why their struggles matter, or what’s going on, the experience may be less than satisfying. On the flip side, for fans the fact that more than half of the book is devoted to reprints and the rest is predominantly original fiction outside of the Hollows universe may prove to be a problem – though, “Million Dollar Baby” is a strong offering.
Despite the uneven appeal of Into the Woods, given the ideal reader—a fan of the Hollows universe who hasn’t read the majority of these stories before—it’s an enjoyable collection that hits several good notes and offers a satisfactory thrill-ride of action, adventure, and supernatural hijinks.
The first four pieces fall under the heading of “back-stories.” “The Bespelled” explores how Al initially trapped Ceri as his familiar; it’s a bit of a squicky opening to the book, considering that it’s about manipulation, kidnap, and sexual assault – but, as Harrison says in her introductory note, it also shows a hint of Al’s dissatisfaction with himself. All the same, there’s not much in the way of plot for a reader not already in the know about the characters. To a fresh pair of eyes, it seems to be mostly a story about a demon successfully kidnapping a young woman. Then, however, comes “Two Ghosts for Sister Rachel.” This story is a more emotionally complicated and engaging tale, at first about a young Rachel Morgan’s family drama but quickly evolving into the tale of her first “run” when she accidentally summons the ghost of an old witch, Pierce. Pierce realizes that the same vampire he was trying to kill way back in the day is still kidnapping children and decides to stop him, finally. After some shenanigans, they go to take the bad guy out together when the I.S. won’t listen to them, and Rachel proves to herself and her mother that she has what it takes to be an I.S. runner. (Plus, Pierce comes to be very important later, so seeing their first meeting is significant.)
Following this is “Undead in the Garden of Good and Evil,” a piece from Ivy’s backstory just before she meets Rachel for the first time – full of abuse, self-loathing, and really problematic sexual politics, it’s an uncomfortable piece, but intentionally so. Ivy’s life hasn’t been pleasant. This story gives the reader some insight into her internal struggles as a survivor of abuse, and also an early picture of Kisten, before Rachel ever meets him. (The actual plot is about her framing the supervisor who’s been trying to force her to participate in quid-pro-quo exchange with him for a murder.) “Dirty Magic” is one of the weaker pieces: a story about Mia the banshee draining a lover to feed her young daughter. The piece is initially powerful, as we see Mia struggling with her needs and her love for the young man she’s victimizing – but, then it turns out that she’s just a psychopath, and the tension of the emotional conflict disappears.
The next two pieces are, respectively, “The Bridges of Eden Park” and “Ley Line Drifter.” Both are action-adventure stories: one from Rachel’s point of view as she helps Kisten protect his sister’s child from being abducted by the father, the other about Jenks and Bis helping another pixy defend his children from a dryad and a nymph who’re making life in his garden hell. Both are reasonably entertaining, and “Ley Line Drifter” gives some startling and personal insights into Jenks’s family life before the death of his wife – as a long-time reader, I appreciated that intimate touch.
The stand-out piece of the collection is, by far, “Million Dollar Baby,” the last of the Hollows stories. The intrigue and adventure of Trent and Jenks attempting to follow the traditional elven rules to steal back his child—both a sort of rite of passage and a custody dispute gone wrong—is fast-paced and engaging; the danger feels entirely real, particularly in the closing sections, where it’s revealed that the child’s mother is willing to kill them both if it means Trent won’t get to have his daughter. And, woven through the action, the dual subplots about Trent’s internal struggle to be a good person despite having to kill to protect himself and his people plus his conflict about his ability to be a good father (with Jenks there to give parental advice) make the story remarkably rich for a long-time reader. Jenks and Trent make a delightful pair, each fathers, each exploring their own identities as companions rather than enemies and making connections. Trent is more sympathetic here than usual, as we finally get to see his own perception of himself. Many of the better characters in the Hollows (most?) are morally dubious and pressured into making hard decisions; Trent shines as one of these folks in “Million Dollar Baby.”
Then, there are four pieces of original urban fantasy fiction outside the Hollows universe. Interestingly, a couple of these are stories written pre-Hollows, according to Harrison’s introductory notes—that makes them, with a little bit of rounding up, nearly a decade old, and never previously published. “Pet Shop Boys” follows a hapless young grad student into a den of creatures who are a bit like vampires, where he’s then rescued by his boss – a woman who’s apparently a lot more than human. Though she tries to drug him to erase his memory, he fakes sipping the dosed coffee, and remains “in the know” about the supernatural. It’s a playful story though a creepy one; there’s a certain pleasure in the young guy being rescued by a powerful woman, too.
Next comes “Temson Estates,” a somewhat unbalanced story wherein a young man inherits an English forest, finds out it has dryads, gives it back to the young woman who the grandmother adopted – and then she falls in love with him and they buy a forest of their own in the U.S. There seems to be a middle missing, frankly.
“Spider Silk” is a scary story, rural and breathing with the resonance of the woods, that has an unsure and eerie ending. I appreciated the classic move of destabilizing the reality of the supernatural, of the possibility that the women in the story are actually crazy after all, all the while hoping that it was real.
Finally, the last story “Grace” is perhaps the second-most compelling of the four original stories: in a world where the earth’s polarity has shifted, giving some people electrically-based kinetic powers, Grace is attempting to bring in a teenage “throw.” He turns out to be un-saveable—in the end, she ends up killing him to save her on-again, off-again lover—but her refusal to bend the rules or compromise her morals in the chase gets her the promotion she’s always wanted. The internal conflicts that drive Grace, and her world, are intriguing. Her relationship to the elite Jason is the stuff of romance tropes, but it’s still reasonably engaging.
Overall, Into the Woods is a good collection for folks who would like to have the majority of Harrison’s short fiction in one easy-to-manage place. There is more than enough action, intrigue, and character development to entertain. However, for those unfamiliar with the Hollows universe, I might advise starting there first, rather than with the short fiction – standing alone without the context of prior audience engagement, it is not as likely to impress.