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.
Ostensibly the plot of Dead Ice is that someone is making zombie porn, which isn’t technically illegal. Except that in this case the zombies somehow still have their souls and are aware of what’s happening to them. The FBI brings Anita in to see if she can help because she’s the pre-eminent animator in the US (if not the entire world) and because she’s also a federal marshal. And, I mean, she’s pretty good as an investigator (along with her partner, the irrepressible Zerbrowski) so it would help to have her on board.
The problem with books this far into a series is that you really can’t just pick them up and start reading. You have to get a ton of infodumps, which are done fairly well in the first scene, but that’s just for the police stuff.
It wouldn’t be an Anita Blake novel if there wasn’t more than that, and the B-plot of this book is that Anita and Jean-Claude (the vampire king of the United States) are getting married. Or, at least, that’s what I thought the B-plot would be. But there’s actually a C-plot, where Anita has to raise a very old zombie and she’s going to need to use a cow as her sacrifice (which is somewhat amusing) only to find that something goes horribly wrong with the zombie. And then the D-plot, where Anita basically has to add another shapeshifter to fulfill a prophecy where the killer of the Mother of Darkness (the late leader of the Vampire Council) has to marry a weretiger or else the Mother can come back to life. And let’s not forget the E-plot, where Asher’s asshattery leads to issues with the Shapeshifter Coalition, led by Micah, Anita’s other primary.
Yeah. This book is packed pretty tightly. And, in fact, most of the tightness is unnecessary. At least 25 percent of it is repetitive, or internal-monologue-y, or at one point the introduction of a new character for the sole purpose of… hell, I don’t even know why Susannah is given so much screen time. Especially in the middle of a damn zombie crisis. Give her time to Manny, who it was very nice to see again after so long.
And that, I think, is what made this book less satisfying: so much interpersonal crap is going on that the A-plot gets swallowed up. There are maybe five total scenes where Anita interacts with the FBI, and that includes the climax (which brings back her friends from the local SWAT team). In a 576-page hardcover, that’s not enough. Anita has to explain her poly relationships over and over, with all the nuances. She has to mention people we never see in this book (like Jason, JJ, Claudia, Bobby Lee, and the Swan King). People think like that, sure, but there’s a limit to how much you want to screw up your pacing in a novel that has people committing sexual assault on zombies who are self-aware but being controlled by other people.
Even in the other plots, the story seemed to drag unnecessarily. I can name several places that could’ve used some editing:
- The “getting to know you” in the first scene with the FBI.
- The scene at the bottom of the stairs with Kelly and Lita.
- Way too much talking when Anita reunited with the zombie, and especially in the scene at the graveyard.
- The loving way Hamilton talked about the locker-room and communal shower situation.
- Anita figuring out which shapeshifters to share a bed with for healing.
- The whole mess with Narcissus, and then the scene after with Asher and Kane.
- The entire Asher sub-plot — it needed to go, or it needed to be elevated to the level of the B-plot (maybe: Anita and Jean-Claude are getting married, but Asher is jealous even though he has his own poly group).
- The scene with Larry and Gillingham — and in fact the addition of the Gillingham character in general.
Why couldn’t some of those pages have been given over to the things readers want: more about the vampire politics now that Jean-Claude is king; more about Anita’s primaries (Micah and Jean-Claude got a lot of time, but I want more Nathaniel); more from the fan-favorite characters we haven’t seen in a while (like Jason and Claudia). The book has almost no down-time, because the story is so packed-in with interpersonal crap, and Anita needs time to breathe — which will give the reader time to breathe as well.
Oh, and of course Anita gets another power bump, although at least this one requires the help of some others to work correctly. And she hasn’t killed off any major characters yet, which needs to happen. (Hey, Ms Hamilton, why not consult David Mack and GRRM on that one?) And the A-plot wraps up super-quickly after being basically forgotten about for a huge chunk of book, with a villain that we don’t know enough about or care enough about until he starts monologuing, and even then it falls flat.
I will, however, give Hamilton this: the areas that have bothered me in the past have been cleared up almost completely. This book is copyedited well, and the sex scenes (only two this time out) actually make sense in the story. Also, she deserves a lot of credit for actually explaining how healthy poly groups work, even though Anita’s poly group is enormous and most of the poly people I know don’t have nearly that many people in theirs. It slows down the story a little, but given the surfeit of bad poly/erotic fiction out there, it’s nice to see when authors try to fight back against that. I give credit for that to Hamilton’s own lifestyle change — she herself is now part of a poly group and is able to experience firsthand what makes good (and bad) poly.
In comparing this book to Affliction (the previous one in the series), I’d rank it slightly lower, but only because Affliction had some awesome action sequences and this one didn’t — and action sequences are one of Hamilton’s strongest talents. The scene with the SWAT team bears that up: her research and realism is wonderful, and I would gladly read a book of hers about a cop or SWAT agent without any of this preternatural stuff. Maybe it’s because The Laughing Corpse was my least favorite of the first eight novels and this book frequently calls back to it (which pretty much requires that you read that one first), but I didn’t love Dead Ice. It has things I like, but overall I didn’t like it. Fans of the series need to read it to keep up with their favorites, and some fans may think it’s great, but I don’t think it holds up to the classics. It’s no Circus of the Damned, it’s no The Lunatic Cafe, and it’s absolutely not anywhere as good as The Killing Dance.
Hopefully the next book will be better.
Note to Parents:
This book contains explicit sex, explicit language, and explicit violence. It should not be read by anyone who isn’t an adult. Of course, you should use your own best judgment when it comes to your children.
About the Author (of this post)
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land, among others. His voice has been heard around the fiction podosphere as well, including here on Escape Pod. Find him online at roseplusman.com, or on Twitter @listener42.