by Lynne Murray
It’s painful to see a series you once loved as a reader become almost unendurable. I recently read Laurell K. Hamilton’s 25th Anita Blake book, Crimson Death. I had to skip a lot to finish the book. This led me to wonder, as a writer, what happened to the dramatic tension that used to make her books so addictive?
Hamilton’s work is still so popular that each book is expected to be a bestseller. A whole mini-industry is waiting to jump on each title. That must be stressful. But I’m not alone in feeling sorrow over recent books. Out of 850 plus reviews for Crimson Death on Amazon, 15% are one-star reviews from fans like me who keep coming back hoping against hope that the author will get her mojo back.
The first in the Anita Blake series, Guilty Pleasures, was unlike anything I had ever read. The heroine was hard-boiled and sarcastic yet vulnerable in her personal life and majorly skilled at defeating murderous monsters. It was a noir urban paranormal, the kind of book you have to tell other people about. I happily bought the next 15 books, some in hardcover.
For those who haven’t followed (or have never read) the Anita Blake books, let me give a quick recap: It’s a world where vampires are U.S. citizens and paranormal creatures that once hid in the shadows are now being regulated by an often-baffled police force. Anita Blake is a licensed vampire executioner. Her “day job”—which takes place at night—is raising the dead for Animators, Inc. The agency’s clients need to consult with the dead, usually about legal matters. Anita also consults with the local cops on preternatural murders.
In the first books, Anita drew a clear line between the humans she protected and the monsters she fought. An early conflict was her flirtation with the vampire Master of the City Jean-Claude and then with Richard, an alpha werewolf with severe self-esteem issues. Those both became romances, causing more conflict.
As the series marched into the double digits, Anita took on more lovers, the sex scenes veered into more BDSM, and Anita started to absorb the powers of the monsters she defeated. When she battled the ultimate mother of darkness, she acquired the ultimate social disease—the ardeur. Just as vampires crave blood, the ardeur demands the inflicted be fed at least daily with sex or very, very bad things would happen.
Mere humans couldn’t give Anita the quantity of sex she needed to survive. Her relationships with humans suffered. Friends, co-workers and police colleagues slipped away. Human characters I’d gotten to know and like over several books “turn against” Anita and are banished. These include: her best woman friend, her primary police contact, and a young co-worker she used to mentor.
That, in itself, didn’t ruin the books for me. It could have been handled as the tragic result of a scary profession, something for Anita to deal with. Instead Hamilton presents it as totally everyone’s fault but Anita’s. I had to stop reading to roll my eyes every time the formerly tough heroine was attacked by mean humans. It happens a lot and it’s always the same. Women are jealous of her many lovers. Men make passes at her, openly suggest she’s a slut, or mistrust her for sleeping with the monsters.
All Anita has left is her legions of lovers. I found it impossible to keep track of all the men and women Anita has sex with on a regular basis. I just didn’t feel like making a chart. Then there are the powerful supernatural critters who either want to have sex with her or kill her so as to take her constantly increasing powers. Most disillusioned long-term fans who review this series mention these problems.
What none of the reviewers that I could find mention is the elephant in the room for me. It turns out that the ever-demanding ardeur can be satisfied by other means than sex. It can also be sated by feeding on someone’s anger, but Anita’s trying not to do that because it brainwashes the victim—I mean, more than usual. Also, and here we come to the elephant, the ardeur can be lessened by regular infusions of actual human food.
Anita avoids food to a point where her lovers are always urging her to eat something. Twice in Crimson Death a boyfriend calls her out because she has “forgotten] to eat anything but coffee for 16 hours.” They joke with each other about how Anita never eats.
We live in a culture that glorifies control. For women in particular, the ability to starve has become confused with virtue. I’ve remarked elsewhere that
...the taboo...with female protagonists once was sex; now it is food. Mystery heroines, who cheerfully go to bed with policemen, suspects or even mobsters are afraid to sleep under the same roof with donuts.”
People with life-threatening health problems who lose their appetites because of pain or nausea and exhaustion will tell you upfront that they do whatever they can to keep their bodies nourished. Wasting away to death is a real thing. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.
I’m not saying that giving Anita an eating disorder is wrong from a storytelling view. It could be very powerful for her to realize that she’s recklessly weakening herself in a way that could prove dangerous for someone inhabited by so many powerful supernatural entities. That would be a real conflict rather than squabbling over which gym rat in her harem of hotties gets skin-to-skin time with Anita. Maybe it could replace the lectures on polyamory (a term she seems to have recently discovered and wants to describe in excruciating detail) or the tedious task of watching Anita take down yet another mean cop who sneers at her life style.
I still have hopes for Anita Blake. The character is so strong that it feels like an old friend has lost her way and you root for her to wake up and come to her senses.
About 20% of Crimson Death was a good story, while the other 80% cried to the heavens for rigorous editing and re-writing.
The gossip is that Hamilton has a clause in her contracts to protect her from being edited. For those of us who welcome (sometimes pay for) the editing that makes a book a better story, this is sadly ironic. Not getting that editorial perspective smacks of arrogance. As a rule editors are our friends. Even mainstream publishers can’t force an author to accept editorial suggestions. The final decision always remains with the author.
I hear that there are cases where publishers make unacceptable demands and authors’ books are pulled for refusing them, but the publishing industry is all about making money. An author with Hamilton’s sales momentum is unlikely to suffer that kind of ultimatum.
Keeping the love alive in a long-running series is a fascinating challenge. What series have you read that has you scratching your head?
Lynne Murray grew up in transit due to her father's work with the military. She wrote her first book before she could read, inspired by Little Golden Books and library books such as Mr. Bear Squash You All Flat. Her proud parents typed up her book and she illustrated it with crayons. The crayons got lost along the way, but an obsession was born that continues to this day with over a dozen books in print. Lynne now lives and writes in San Francisco with a group of rescue cats, who rescue her right back with heroic feats of purring.
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