Chosen Families: The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison

Rachel Morgan is back in the penultimate volume of Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series, older and wiser after the large-scale catastrophes of the past several books. The Undead Pool begins with a cluster of problems: magic is misfiring with deadly repercussions in waves across Cincinnati, the undead vampire masters are asleep and not waking up, and tensions between humans and the other species—not to mention between those other species themselves—are on the rise. And then there are Rachel’s personal issues, her relationship to elf Trent Kalamack and her standing in the ever-after as a demon not the least of them.

Harrison’s Hollows novels are some of the better urban fantasy offerings out there. The world-building is complex and solid, decidedly science-fictional despite its supernatural aspects, and the cast of characters is immensely engaging. Though sometimes comedic or playful—these books are often adventurous romps—Harrison maintains a core concern with the ongoing growth and development of the characters and their world.

And, on those scores, The Undead Pool doesn’t disappoint.

Spoilers follow.

The elves are, in a real way, the central focus of this book—in particular, their Goddess and their politics as a group with multiple factions. I found myself most intrigued by the fact that the novel was finally going to explore the concept of divinity as it appears to the elves. In previous books, we’ve gotten hints at the Goddess being a real thing, which felt a little odd in a book where most of the magic is scientifically explicable. The reality, as we find out, is just as weird as could be: the Goddess is a multiplicity, a collective mind formed of magically charged particles, immensely powerful and in some sense the origin-source of much magic. But not, in the typical sense, divine.

It’s pretty neat. And the revelation at the end, that Newt has been lying to the other demons all along about the Goddess being imaginary (and wild magic causing madness) and that she herself was the last person to attack and “reformat” it, is super intriguing. The relationship Rachel is developing to Newt, and all of the unanswered questions about the elves and demons’ war, are increasing in pitch and intensity throughout this book. We spend plenty of time on the elves’ politics and their history and their magic, seeing little from the demons but knee-jerk reactions; I expect that the next and last novel will address the other side of the questions.

I will say, for the plot in this book, that I was hardly surprised that it was Landon all along: talk about foreshadowing. That Rachel doesn’t figure it out before it becomes a Major Issue strains my belief a little—she’s been doing the investigator thing for years at this point. The basic mystery wasn’t the strongest point in The Undead Pool, really. It’s not terribly hard to guess that the elves are at least in some capacity pulling the Free Vampires’ strings. But watching Rachel and company struggle through it and try to take out the major players was still engaging, and seeing how the dominoes fell kept me turning pages.

This is a fast-paced book, juggling several threads (though they do come together in the end); it’s one disaster to another for the majority of the novel. That kept me reading—I finished the book in nearly one sitting—but it was also edging close to the sort of breakneck pace that the reader eventually gets desensitized to. Harrison never quite lets the tension falter or overwhelms the reader with it, but The Undead Pool is the closest I’ve seen one of the Hollows novels come to being a little too fast.

However, as a whole, I found it a pleasurable, worthwhile read and installment in the series. Questions are answered; more questions are asked. Though it’s obvious that the elves are behind the plot, here, it’s not obvious how many were complicit and what that means for the future of their species, or specifically for Trent and his family. The tension here, at its best, is a part of the growing tension that crosses the series as a whole—following the conflicts between human prejudice and Inderlander nature, between species and their genocidal histories, and between individuals on intimate issues. These are not standalone books, and The Undead Pool is very much a part of an ongoing story.

And on that note: one of the things that doesn’t get discussed enough about these books is their understated emphasis on chosen families—the kinship networks we create and maintain in our lives outside of those typical “nuclear” structures. The complex political and social world that Rachel and other Inderlanders inhabit seems to lend itself to forming these groups; the Weres have their packs, vampires have their families (though that’s pretty fucked up a lot of the time), et cetera.

But throughout the course of the series, Rachel herself has gone from being a loner with a weird relationship to her own legal family to the head of a small, unlikely group of people who love each other. Those are some complicated webs, too: she and Ivy were nearly and item, and now they’re best friends, for example. Harrison doesn’t oversimplify the nature of intimate relationships and their permutations. Of course, these books also don’t draw too much attention to how unique this sort of thing is, either.

As the series progresses, since we’re watching all of the relationships happen as well, it feels natural in the twelfth volume that Rachel lives with Ivy, Bis, and Jenks and his family (including Belle, who Jenks has taken up with after the death of his wife). And it feels just as natural that, when she and Trent decide to be together, she won’t be moving out—but his kid(s) feel just as comfortable at her place as his own.

And that he and Quen are raising their daughters as sisters in what was a big happy multiple-couple family. That Rachel is also part of.

Because the majority of relationships Rachel has are with men, I suspect people often miss or brush aside the queerness of this series—the complicated intimacies across and within gender (and species) barriers, the aspects of chosen families and nontraditional love bonds, etc. But I can’t help but notice them, and be fond of them, and the way that Harrison has shown Rachel growing and developing throughout: overcoming her fears of relationships and loss to try and make her life full of people she cares about. Trent, too, has grown up. They’re both willing to make sacrifices, now, and to admit to their weaknesses in a way that would seem impossible to the Rachel-and-Trent of the first few books.

So, there’s that. The Undead Pool has a lot of things coming to fruition: Rachel’s longstanding relationship to Trent, for one thing, but also her realizations about how much she cares for the people in her life and the city she’s a major part of. There’s only one book left, now, and I can’t help but hope it’s about repairing the last of the glaring conflicts in Rachel’s personal life and her world at large—the nasty history between the elves and the demons, the history that seems to have cost her Al’s friendship. I’m looking forward to the finale, though I’ll miss these folks when it’s here.


The Undead Pool is available February 25th from HarperCollins.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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