Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Harlequin, by Laurell K. Hamilton

I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Laurell Hamilton's works. On the surface, it's just hard to admit to reading them--just try and summarize what's going on. Well, it takes place in St. Louis, where there are vampires running strip clubs, werewolves and wereleopards and wererats and werehyenas and werelions and zombies and . . .

See? I have now lost all credibility as a critical reader of contemporary fiction. This is not prize-wining midlist fiction--this is the kind of stuff that you get at the cash register aisles at the grocery store. Just look at the cover and see if my credibility remains:

Oh yeah. The fact that it's hardcover only means that I can take that picture off, which slightly compensates for the fact that this stuff sells at typical hardcover price. Which I paid. Because once I knew it was out, I couldn't wait for it to get to the library. Or to paperback.

And I'm not really sure why.

This is about book 15 in the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, and it's right in line with its immediate predecessors. And just as incredible. And I mean that literally. In-credible, as in unbelievable. But I keep reading them.

Anita Blake started as a necromancer, who used her talents on a hired basis to raise zombies. In a move that makes me laugh, the most often repeat customers are lawyers, who need to find out where the will is hidden, or who the killer was, or some other matter of evidence and estate. Trust lawyers to hire zombies, eh? At the start of the series, Anita did that job full time, while occasionally serving as a consultant to the police on crimes committed by non-humans. She had studied vampires and the "furry community" (meaning all those were-animals), and was able to provide more information than the police had on their own. Her necrotic abilities gave her some psychic powers not ordinarily available either, and for the first half dozen or so books, she primarily solved violent preternatural crimes. She started out with a boyfriend (Richard) who had caught lycanthropy from a vaccine, and was twisted with self-hatred for what he viewed as the monster in him. She was also avoiding being courted by Jean-Claude, a powerful vampire--since part of her job involved killing vampires convicted of a crime, it seemed like a conflict of interest. Plus, she saw vampires as monsters herself.

And the violence was a big part of all of this. Lots of blood, lots of gore, lots of scary scary monsters and magic and violence. I am not a big fan of violence, and I don't find blood to be anything but offputting. As the books went on, Hamilton seemed to find herself in a bind--the books demanded escalating violence, but there were only so many ways to do that, and she was running out of ideas. She had to change something, and so she switched to sex.

Which is not to say there isn't any blood--there's still a LOT of that. Psychotic mercenaries, serial killing vampires, were-animals with anger issues and powerful claws--someone usually ends up dead one way or another, which is typical for thriller kind of novels: science fiction/vampire thriller detective novels, I guess, which is (oddly enough) a growing genre. But increasinly, the focus is on the relationships between the characters--personal relationships, sexual relationships, political alliances, and the way the different powers of the different preternaturals combine and divide.

Which is maybe why I like these--Hamilton takes time to show that werewolves are organized differently than leopards would be, based on the survival tactics of the animals. Vampires have laws that govern their behavior--reasonable, given that they are essentially immortal, inhumanly powerful, and capable of creating their own armys of completely loyal vampires--so vampire relations are marked by deceit, cunning, hidden agendas, and political maneuvering. When vampires of different strengths and powers get together, there is strict protocol which cannot be ignored for any reason. Meanwhile, the werewolves only respect physical dominance and simply fight out their differences.

We see Anita come to accept that humanity inherent in the different preternaturals--accepting that the "monsters" are not necessarily monstrous. Although they are just as capable of inhuman acts as humans are. She falls in love with Jean-Claude, and grows over the course of the books in ways she would never have imagined at the start. She thought, at the beginning, that she could be happy married to Richard, living the white picket fence life--maybe. But as time goes on, she finds that his self-loathing gets in the way of his ability to accept her and the way her live has developed. In this most recent book, it looks like the two of them may break up for good--one that has been a long time coming, in the way it happens in real life too.

Sure, realism isn't a big thing in these books. For example, it's a little hard to accept that Anita has all the different powers she has gained over time--apparently, no one in this alternate history have had as many different types of affinity for were-animals (without being one herself), or such strong vampire powers (without being one herself), or the ability to form power triumvirates with other species while remaining technically human. But some of the emotional power of these books feels true--true enough for fiction, anyway.

Interestingly, despite the growing populations of all these different meta-humans, we still see a lot of prejudice and hatred, which spices up the pot. The head of the Preternatural Crimes Team is completely squicked out that Anita is "dating" a vampire--as she "dates" more and more different men/creatures, he can't stand to even look at her and doesn't call her onto cases any more. When they are thrown together--as they are in this book--he can't stop himself from interrogating her about her personal life, even as there are preternatural criminals to catch. Richard can't stand how Anita is comfortable with the "monsters" and lives a life that involves sleeping with far too many different men. He is possessive, significantly homophobic, and unwilling to acknowledge that maybe. . .just maybe. . .he's stuck with the life he has. Anita is learning to accept that her life is going to have to be unlike the one she thought she would have--it's the nature of what has happened to her. Richard cannot. And again--that feels like a real emotional battle.

So, I guess I'm going to keep reading these, and being embarrassed by the fact that I do. Maybe I'll come to some form of acceptance too. . .you never know.

No comments: