Well, Laurell K. Hamilton has done it again. She’s written a pretty decent police procedural and then tacked on about 300 pages of relationship angst. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for me to review Crimson Death, the latest Anita Blake novel.
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Whenever I tell people about the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton, I tell them to stop reading after the eighth book — before they get to the muddled middle that was everything from Cerulean Sins through about Hit List. Things started to get better around there, but not as good as the first books.
After finishing Dead Ice, the latest Anita Blake novel, I’m worried that things are backsliding a little.
This review contains spoilers for the first 21 Anita Blake novels.
You’d think after 22 books, most of which made the New York Times bestseller list, that editors would swoop in and get a very popular author to fix some of the stuff that’s… let’s say “not optimal”… about her writing.
You’d be wrong.
I just recently finished Affliction, the latest Anita Blake novel by Laurell K. Hamilton, and while it had a lot of really good action sequences, some of the problems that plague the other tales are just as evident in this one.
This review contains spoilers for the first two Death’s Daughter books, Death’s Daughter and Cat’s Claw.
So here’s the thing about Serpent’s Storm, the third Death’s Daughter book by Amber Benson: at first I thought she’d turned into Laurell K. Hamilton. Then I thought she was writing a madcap roller-coaster adventure. Then I got completely lost. Once I got to the end, I was really pleased with the destination… but unfortunately the journey didn’t work for me.
The following review contains minor spoilers for Kiss the Dead and moderate spoilers for all preceding Anita Blake novels. It also contains discussion of sexual material. Reader discretion is advised.
Hmm… okay, so, we start with police procedural, and our hero shows up on the scene. She’s got a crap-ton of weapons and abilities, and she uses them to be a monster and save the day, sort of, except that nothing really happens and, twenty chapters later, we’re going back to the station for her to have the new guy — let’s make him a gigantic freaking red herring, just for the sake of argument — come out to someone he’s never met. Add in some drama with the other female cops before the hero goes home to her polyamorous lifestyle and has sex with two gorgeous, exceedingly well-endowed men before being even more dramatic, going to a hostage situation, and then dealing with vampire issues. Then she has still more sex with still more well-endowed men — all of whose eyes and hair we get intimate knowledge of — and obsesses over the fact that, holy crap, I’m in a semi-successful polyamorous relationship, what must be wrong with me??? before sitting down for a discussion and having a little action scene at the very end that she’s not even in the same room for most of, and…
…and then the book just stops.
Yeah. Welcome to Laurell K. Hamilton’s latest Anita Blake novel, Kiss the Dead.
The following is part one of a two-part piece on graphic novels. It contains spoilers for several graphic novel series… serieses… whatever. The most recent one is Buffy Season 8, but many older ones are included as well. Read at your own risk.
I have a problem with graphic novels.
When I was a kid, I read a lot of comics — some superhero stuff, some Archie stuff, whatever looked cool at the comic shop, and of course a bit of Star Trek because, you know, it’s me. Later, as comics started to cost more and more*, I got out of the habit of reading them. I’d pick up an occasional collection, such as the Star Trek Mirror Universe saga, or I’d get a multi-issue run such as “The Worst of Both Worlds”, but for the most part… no more comics for me. I was too busy spending my pocket money on books.
I preferred books. Books were $6 (for a mass-market paperback), and they had hundreds of pages, and if there were no pictures… well… that was fine with me, because I could use my imagination. I could fill in the visual blanks using cover images and my own experiences**. And books took longer to read, too — a 350-page novel would last me a week or two, whereas a 32-page comic book took all of fifteen minutes to read.
Now, a lot of my friends who are comic readers say it’s not just about the story. They tell me the art is important. And yeah, they’re right, the art is important. But not to me.
Let me explain.
When I read a graphic novel, I rarely notice the nuances of the artwork. I’m far more interested in reading the story and finding out what happens next. Often that does happen via artwork, especially in sequences void of dialogue or narration. But for the most part, there’s text. As a short-story/novella writer, what I care about is the storyline. While I totally appreciate great artwork, if it’s just there as a reaction shot, I’m less appreciative.
Let’s take a panel from “Twilight, Part 1”***, issue 32 of Buffy Season 8, written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Georges Jeanty, Andy Owens, and Michelle Madsen****. Specifically, the panel that references the iconic scene in Superman where Lois says “You’ve got me? But who’s got you?” At this point in the story, Buffy has gained superpowers and she and Xander are trying to figure out just how powerful she is. At the bottom of a cliff in Tibet, Buffy throws Xander into the air as he calls back to that line, then zips to the top of the cliff to catch him. The panel itself depicts the cliff, a temple at the top where Oz lives, and Xander in the sky with “YOOOOOOoooooooooou?!” breaking vertically out of his word bubble.
Maybe that sort of thing works for some people, but for me it was just silly. For me, I might have better appreciated something like this:
Without warning, Xander jumped into Buffy’s arms. He recognized the mischievous look in her eye and, honestly, it worried him a little bit.
More than a little bit.
“What are you doing?” she asked him, smiling.
Xander didn’t really like the smile — he had a sinking feeling she was going to do something Slayer-like. But he’d committed to the part, and he had to say the line now. “You’ve got me?” he quoted. “Then who’s got you–!”
The last word was a howl as Buffy flung him into the air. He watched the cliff go past, then Oz’s temple — was someone waving at him? — then the treetops, and then he was more stories up than he’d care to count.
As his ascent slowed, something from Geometry class popped into the back of Xander’s mind. Something about parabolas.
He stopped rising.
He started falling.
Well, he thought, at this point, screaming will do me absolutely no good.
He screamed anyway.
The ground was looking awfully close.
And so was Buffy. Who caught him easily in her arms, bounced a little, and smiled. “Hat trick,” she said.
Now, to me that’s got far more impact than actually seeing it happen on the page. Maybe if Season 8 had been televised, and they’d done this on screen, I would’ve appreciated the visual impact, but to my mind action sequences really don’t work in comic form. Plus they have all those Adam West-era Batman sound effects. Like my personal favorite, KPOK!, which some Klingon somewhere will someday read and be pretty ticked off about the misuse of his name.
Admittedly, writing action sequences can be tough; I’ve struggled with fight scenes from time to time — I recently wrote one about two martial artists trying to see who’s better, and I inevitably found myself getting sucked into the witty dialogue at the expense of the ass-kicking — but they can be done well. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s latest Anita novel, Hit List (click the link for my review), I mentioned that the action sequences were well-written and well-paced. Sean McMullen pulls it off admirably in the battle sequences in his Moonworlds saga. And of course we’ve heard it on the various Escape Artists casts — anyone remember the squid combat of Ferrett Steinmetz’s “As Below, So Above”? But when you’re writing an action sequence, you only have to concentrate on transcribing what you see in your mind. When you’re writing the action sequence in a graphic novel (or comic), you have to pick specific points in the action to depict.
I don’t want to see specific points. I want to see the whole thing. And, for me, comics just can’t pull it off.
Plus, action sequences in comics are sometimes… well… boring. Who needs to see two or three pages of your main characters fighting each other? There’s no story there. There’s no real advancement of the plot. Maybe there’s some “scuffling for the superweapon-of-doom” that you might also see on TV when the good guy kicks the bad guy’s gun away but then has to get to it in order to kill the bad guy… but otherwise, to me it’s just meh. If I’m watching a fight scene on TV or in a movie, it’s maybe two minutes of moves before the plot moves along and someone wins. Occasionally it goes longer — especially if it’s a Boss Fight, or we’re seeing a space battle. But jeez… compared to the video version of a space battle, even if you’re only watching it on a four-inch phone screen, a comic just can’t stand up to that kind of action. You can just do so much more.
I realize it’s a limitation of the medium, one that the artists and writers work valiantly to overcome, but really… there’s a lot more to Kirk blasting the Reliant than a bright orange line and the words ZZZZZAP!!! in bold, colorful letters somewhere on the panel.
In the second part of this article, I will move from action sequences and general discussion about art to the way comics make me feel… or don’t.
* I picked up some older comics to read on my iPad, and all the covers say $2.99. That’s for a 32-page book. My friend Chrome, who reads a lot more comics than I do, says prices these days are still the same, but that some books go up to $4.99. Too rich for my blood.
** Someone remind me later to write an article about how we perceive fictional characters we’ve never seen before. I’m on a roll right now and can’t stop to make notes.
*** The episode is rather-cleverly subtitled “Buffy Has F#©$ing Superpowers”. It’s one of the best issues in the entire run of the comic.
**** Letterers: Richard Starkings and Albert Deschesne. Never let it be said that I don’t credit everyone.
This review contains minor-to-moderate spoilers for the previous 19 Anita Blake novels.
Toward the end of Smallville‘s eighth season, I told myself, “this is it, it’s getting silly, and I can’t deal with it anymore.” Then General Zod showed up. And I absolutely had to watch. And when it was announced that season 10 would be the last one, I figured, “okay, I might as well stick it out.”
I wasn’t terribly thrilled with the way it all ended, but I was invested in the characters and the story.
And that’s exactly how I feel about the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series. When I first started reading it, back in 1996, I thought it was great; it had action, fantasy and horror elements, good characters that I could care about, cool villains, and a fast-paced storytelling style. But sometime around the tenth book, Anita started gaining “power-of-the-week” abilities and having sex with lots… and lots… and lots… of people.
And then the books stopped being about the story and started being about tiny details, nit-picky arguments, and Anita somehow having the perfect power to stop any bad guy. I thought when the Mother of All Darkness was introduced, we’d finally have someone we could respect, who could actually defeat Anita.
I should’ve known better.
So, Hit List by Laurell K. Hamilton. The reader is thrown into this book running, with Anita and Edward (Anita’s sociopath best friend) in their roles as Federal Marshals, trying to figure out who’s killing weretigers across the country. After some infodump disguised as a police procedural — with some cool stuff about the preternatural branch of the Marshals Service — Anita goes back to the hotel. There the Harlequin show up and severely injure another Marshal, and now we get more info about exactly who is hunting the weretigers and why. (For those who don’t know, the Harlequin are basically the Vampire Council’s Secret Service. Anita defeated them a couple of books ago.)
But the problem is that Edward and Anita need more than just the two of them, plus a few unproven Marshals that neither one really trusts in a fight. So they bring in crowd favorite Bernardo and serial killer Olaf (and a bunch of were-creatures from St. Louis, Anita’s hometown) to back them up. Before the help arrives, though, Anita tries to confront the local weretigers, to get information, and there she discovers the man who may be the key to stopping the Mother of All Darkness once and for all.
Here’s my major problem with Hit List: it feels like Hamilton wanted to write another book where Anita and Edward take on a lot of really tough bad guys, but she had to advance the overarching story. So there’s a lot of background shoehorned into this novel — which, by the way, is only 320 pages (according to my Kindle). Despite the infodumps and the rather-predictable “let’s stop the pace of the book to have a three-page discussion over some point of conversational/personal protocol”, it moves at a very quick pace. The writing has been tightened a bit after — I’m guessing — reviews of past books have discussed how wordy Hamilton can be. Her action sequences are (except for the discussions) well-written and well-paced, but the rest of the book is a lot of talking, driving around, and going to the hospital. If you’ve read the previous Anita novels, you can compare this one to Obsidian Butterfly.
Which is funny, because that gets referenced too.
Anyway, regardless of my somewhat-backhanded praise above, I had several problems with this book, and while there have been improvements on my general issues with Anita Blake novels (including the last one, Bullet, which I reviewed on my old blog), the problems still exist. Let’s start with the talking. And oh, how there is talking. Everyone talks. A lot. About everything. Even when Anita is about to have sex, she’s still talking. It’s really tough to pace a novel when you have so much talking. At least, I think so.
There was only one sex scene in this book — a record, I think, if you include only the past ten books — and Anita only had one partner in it. Of course he’s never been seen before this book, and of course he’s good-looking, and of course Hamilton spends many sentences describing him, and of course he is exceptionally well-endowed*, and of course they have amazing sex, because I don’t think Anita is capable of having bad sex. I mean, come on — if you’ve had sex, you know that even with someone you love, or even someone you’re really attracted to, it can be bad on occasion. I’m just saying.
Because we were in another city, there weren’t a ton of new preternaturals in this book — and, now that I think on it, very few vampires — but we did get several new humans, including Marshals, doctors, nurses and cops. There’s a few scenes with the Marshals that are creaky and painful, one where a character was (in my opinion) written in specifically to allow Hamilton to write herself out of a corner, and the word Marshal started to look weird after a while anyway. But we definitely knew every character’s eye and hair color, height, build, and what part of him Anita liked the best. Pretty standard fare for the series at this point.
Strangely, there was extremely little contact with our friends back in St. Louis, and that’s what I missed the most. With the exception of exposition and a quick scene near the end, there was no Jean-Claude, no Micah, no Nathaniel, no Jason, and no Asher. I missed them. They’re the reason I read the books — although recently Jean-Claude has been very whiny, and I’m pretty much over him. Also, Anita did slip in a couple of anti-Richard barbs.
Without the Missouri contingent, though, the ending of the book really falls down. I’ve read the same basic story before — in The Laughing Corpse, Hamilton’s second novel, the climax is relatively similar, except that now Anita is more willing to kick ass than to run away (a welcome change). But when the Final Boss shows up, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that the hero of the book is going to win that fight, and I also don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that she does it using what she describes as the “worst” power she holds. Which, of course, works perfectly. Makes me wonder why, if there’s a Vampire Council, they let the vampire who gave Anita that power live for as long as she did (and, of course, it was Anita who killed her to gain said power). There are references in the Boss Fight, though, that directly point to characters that haven’t even been glimpsed in this novel.
Which is one of my problems with it. Hit List is not a novel that a casual reader can just pick up and hope to understand. You really have to have read at least the last three novels to know what’s going on — by then you’ll have at least enough exposition to know why Anita is so powerful.
And believe me, after this (rather disappointing) Boss Fight, not only will she still be powerful but you’ll be wondering what the point is of writing any more Anita books (Hamilton, on Twitter, said she is already working on the next one).
To summarize: I don’t think Hit List is a really good book, especially when held up to others in the Anita Blake series such as Blue Moon, Lunatic Cafe, or my personal favorite, The Killing Dance. While the writing is definitely better and tighter than the past couple of Anita Blake novels, this one doesn’t really stand on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right — it feels more to me like a bridge book, like the author has a story she wants to tell but had to tell this one first to get to that point (the pacing of the Boss Fight is a big clue). I maintain that, in order to bring the series back to what it was during its good days, Hamilton will have to kill off a lot of her characters**. Unfortunately, she’s built the world in such a way that killing one of them would kill (or at least seriously damage) Anita, and we can’t have that.
One thing I will say is that Hamilton loves her characters — even the evil ones — and in Hit List, I see a lot of that, especially with Edward. However, every writer will tell you that one of the first thing s/he learns in seminars and from editors is that you have to cut, and cut, and cut, and when you think there’s nothing to cut, you cut again. And, hey, I love her characters too — they’re the reason I read the books, to keep up with the characters I care about. But the cast list is getting enormous; it’s time to pare it down.
I’m waiting for your next book, Ms Hamilton. Let’s see some cutting.
* I wonder what Hamilton’s husband thinks about all of Anita’s lovers — and Anita is definitely a Mary Sue in many regards — being so well-endowed. Of course, since we write what we know…
** Maybe she should call in David Mack. He’s really good at killing off huge swaths of characters in a way that works well in the story and gives them honorable deaths when deserved.