Return to the Hollows: American Demon by Kim Harrison

Rachel Morgan might have hoped that fixing the source of magic would earn her a vacation, but instead, she finds herself mired in a swamp of fresh trouble: wandering zombies, a mysterious demon and a teenage elf loitering around her church, a series of violent but inexplicable crimes cropping up throughout Cincinnati and the Hollows. If the question posed by American Demon is “What happens after you’ve saved the world?,” the answer seems to be: start cleaning up the mess the ‘saving’ made, because your work is far from finished.

I had thought, as I figure most readers of Harrison’s Hollows series did, that 2014’s The Witch With No Name was the final novel: the main couple get together, the family unit feels secure, magic is recreated, demons are freed from their elf-arranged servitude and must find their way in the real world. Imagine my surprise, then, when American Demon was announced! Worlds as thoroughly fleshed-out but narrow in scope as Harrison’s are the easiest kind to slip into though, and despite the six-year gap, picking up where we last left off was no challenge.

The Hollows novels are light-hearted fare: urban (science-)fantasy where each book stands as an independent action-mystery episode building on the world as a whole. American Demon opens with a prologue in the form of Rachel’s I.S. file running through her alliances, the threat she might pose, and the various factions at play in the world, intended to either refresh our memories or give new readers a foothold, though it didn’t accomplish much on that score. Diving back in without doing an ounce of re-reading wasn’t a problem: Harrison sprinkles enough reflection and summation of prior events throughout to bring a familiar reader up to speed.

As the title implies, the focus here remains on the conflict between demons and elves while the rest of the world stands watching in anger, motivated by a standing distrust of demons (which almost led to Rachel’s public murder last time around, when her heritage as the first surviving witch-born demon came out). Trent is embattled in his political position while Landon attempts to discredit him publicly… and, as we find out in the first third, has simultaneously sicced an ancient energy monster Rachel accidentally freed on him. The baku cannot be contained through traditional means, and knowing who and what has set it upon them, Rachel and Trent’s main concern is discovering how to stop it rather than discovering a perpetrator. Plus, in the meantime, familial and social conflicts chug on unabated.

American Demon, not unlike other series-pivot books in urban fantasy universes, has some mild pacing issues. The extended scenes of magical research and interpersonal drama are a big part of the readers’ investment, but at the same time sprawl to an extent that bogs down the plot, particularly given that the book takes place over a handful of days wherein the characters mostly aren’t allowed to sleep. That isn’t to suggest that I wasn’t hooked to see where all of that tension went—particularly as the magical and interpersonal sections are far more important to the series as a whole. It’s just that the balance between novel’s individual plot and series’ larger plot was wobbly in this hefty installment while Harrison sketched out the narrative pivot heading further into the reinvigorated series. And reading some fun action and intrigue isn’t the sole reason folks return to these long-running series: let’s be honest, we’re here for the characters and their relationships.

Which brings me to an aside that I might not have noticed at a different point in time: the police forces in the Hollows series, both FIB and I.S., maintain an antagonistic, often-corrupt role… even while Rachel maintains friendships with or takes on jobs for them on an individual level. Questions of bigotry and abuse of power hover in the foreground. As we’re all considering our relationship to procedural novels, that little tidbit of Hollows worldbuilding stood out to me. Rachel’s goal is to form coalitions, protect the innocent, and solve disputes, as much as she’s also-often solving crimes. Something implicit to chew over, at least.

As for other characters, there’s one addition to the big ol’ cast whom I latched onto quick: Hodin, the tetchy, academically-minded demon who seems to be a relation of Al’s—and who has been imprisoned for centuries for the crime of working elf-Goddess magic in combination with his demon magic. His role as a potential teacher (and friend) for Rachel seems to signal the direction future books will head toward: combining demon and elf magic to its original unsplit state, which more or less no one remembers or has record of in the current time given centuries of conflict between the two species. Probably no one is surprised that I, like Rachel, found the grumpy shapeshifting demon immediately, delightfully compelling. He’s got a tragic backstory, of course, and reminds Rachel of herself; watching their friendship blossom over argumentative spelling research was quite fun. (More of him, please.)

Though speaking of friends… at the same time, Ivy and Nina are sliding off the stage—a source of pain for the Morgan family unit throughout the novel, as their previously secure life together seems to be dissolving now that Ivy is, well, more or less married. While Rachel had envisioned their living arrangements continuing as they always had once the church was repaired, Ivy’s relationship and job are pulling her further apart from their domestic space. At the same time, Rachel has the offer to move in with Trent, thought that’s a big step she’s unsure of. How do mature adults handle these inevitable shifts in domestic arrangements and individual emotional needs?

I continue to find the ongoing, understated queer struggle of sprawling domestic units in these books comfortingly familiar. Rachel and Trent are figuring out how to handle Ellasbeth—will they be a three-party parenting unit to the toddlers, will she move into the house?—and if they’re going to basically adopt Zack-the-teenage-runaway as their kid. Ivy and Nina must figure out how to maintain their friendships when life drags them in another direction, Quen struggles with the decades-gone loss of Trent’s mother (with whom he may or may not have had an affair), Jenks learns to live as a widower, and so on. The Hollows books have some on-screen romance, but the main emotional arc is actually… the intimacies of chosen-familial bonds and friendships for people without blood families to return to. I dig that here too, as I always have.

American Demon will be a pleasant diversion for familiar fans of the Hollows, who had perhaps accepted the series’ end in 2014 as final. While I don’t recommend it as a starting point—the books are far from episodic enough to allow that—I had a good time reading it, and when it comes to these big universes, that’s all I’m asking for. Rachel continues to be a thoughtful, silly, fun protagonist; watching her big familial unit evolve and grow is as engaging as seeing her fight with elf religious leaders and knock people out with prank curses.

American Demon is available from Ace Books.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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