Friday, March 9, 2012

Review: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton, Book 1 of the Anita Blake Series

Anita Blake is an Animator. She raises zombies for a living – and it pays surprisingly well. You’d be amazed how many people need a zombie. She’s also a vampire executioner – actually, the Executioner, since she has 14 kills under her belt for legally executed vampires. But she also works for the police, since the mortal police force is expected to investigate the supernatural when they know so little about it, it’s good to have an expert like Anita around. Especially one who can use a gun and wield a stake when needed.

Of course, those same skills make her useful to the vampires as well, especially when  something starts killing them. The Executioner finds herself working for the Vampires to investigate the killings and find the killer – and not by choice, with both her own and her friend’s lives at risk should she fail. But as the investigation progresses, the chance of her surviving Nikolaos’s wrath seems slim, especially since she seems to have stepped into a political fight between her and Jean-Claude.

Then there are 2 vicious killer vampires who most certainly want her dead as soon as possible. And, of course, Edward, Death himself, a vampire hunter that makes Anita seem like an amateur. He wants Nikolaos’ hiding place – but dare she risk Nikolaos’ anger if he fails and could she feed Edward to the vampire? And what will Edward do if she refuses to tell him.

I first read this book a long time ago, and I loved it. I still do, despite the direction the story turned. Anita is a strong, independent character, the story is intriguing with a mystery littered with plenty of red herrings to keep me going. Anita isn’t exactly the most brilliant of investigators, that’s certainly true and the villain ends up finding her rather than the other way round – but the journey to the villain isn’t slow or dull. I think, in some ways, mystery is a misnomer. Anita tends to flail around various interesting side-plots, revealing more about the world and the people in it, before the mystery actually catches up with her. I’d generally find this style very frustrating if the world and the side-plots weren’t so interesting – but seeing Anita explore the world and face off the vampires in various defiant fashion, ducking Edward, plotting against Valentine, wondering how to survive Nikolaos and trying her own little ham-handed investigations kept me interested

In terms of world, I love love love this world. I love the diversity of vampire powers, the different shapeshifters, ghouls, different forms and types of magic – and the legal consequences and what that means for the wider world as well. I think this may be the first Urban Fantasy book I came across that blended the modern world and the supernatural world so well – without the supernatural world being a hidden shadowy thing behind the real world – but actually as a part of it, a part of modern society and always having been an open part of society.

And even Anita has such a unique profession – Animator and it being a business, raising zombies in order to interview them and ask them questions – and how that can be used in other professions from the law to therapy and then the questions of ethics of using the dead in such ways.

I actually really like the writing style of this book. Anita’s internal monologue is snark, amusing, adds to the tension and generally is just such a nice way of doing it. I think it adds much more feel and atmosphere to the scene.  I just like the style and think it adds to the depth and feel of the book and really carries me along. Yes, it’s wordy, but I don’t think the words are generally wasted. GENERALLY, there are moments when it’s overdone but that’s more a matter of balance than style

There are, however, 3 flaws in this style that are more down to execution than the style itself. One is that it tends to be over-dramatic in a way that can reach either purple or comic proportions. The second is repetition – we keep re-describing things, visiting the same scenes or having another round of Anita’s feelings when we’ve already covered it. And lastly, there’s a problem with over-description. Sometimes it adds richness and texture to a scene, tension and fear or general atmosphere e- and, really, they’re really well done when it works. But often it adds unnecessary fluff, drags things out – and is at its worse when she’s describing people. Really, when you first meet a person, especially a vampire who is a threat, do you really notice every last detail of their wardrobe? I sometimes feel the whole cast pauses while Anita stands with her mouth open, a little drool escaping, staring at some hot guy’s clothes. And the target worse than the hot guys is POC – because that excessive description normally reserved to clothes can also stretch to non-white skin tones. This is especially noticeable when describing Luther, apparently a very dark skinned black man and fully contains our trope Blackety Black Black in a way that feels exoticising and contrived, almost like we’re supposed to underline the POC in case we miss the inclusion.

Inclusion-wise, there are no overt GBLT people in this book yet (for which I am grateful considering what is to come) I will give points for a fair number of POC in this book. From Luther to Detective Clive to Rafael, to Beverley Chin, to Manuel, to Jamison to others I can’t even remember. Of the animators of Animators Inc, I don’t think there is a white Animator. None of the characters are playing a central role though, or are even particularly large side characters. I think she has made sure to have her “crowd scene” minor characters of colour, but none actually in either Anita’s or the story’s close arc.

Anita herself is mixed race with a Latina mother – but she died young and passed on none of her culture and we make a point of repeatedly mentioning how ultra, ultra pale Anita is. Anita is, in general, a strong character. She is fiercely independent, she is snarky to the hilt and she lives her life her way – unfortunately this independence and unwillingness to follow authority often crosses the line to Keilie Independence, with Anita throwing out fits of temper that are both unjustified and suggest an anger management problem more than actual independence and self-assertion. But she refuses to be bullied, refuses to be dictated to (even by friends) and furiously resists and slaps down the constant unwelcome sexual come-ons she’s faced with (though they keep returning with annoying regularity). And I like her sense of humour, yes yes I do. Ultimately, I think Anita is very much her own person, even when she is threatened and prodded to follow  others agendas

Other women in the book often fit as victims or villains, but they often have their own strength and capability (Catherine is capable even as a victim, Beverley Chin is strong and self-assured even as a victim) and we also have Ronnie who is, in many ways, a less edgy version of Anita

I think we had the chance to examine both class and abusive relationships with the human companions of vampires and their living conditions but we never really went there. Both the abused look of the humans the poor conditions they were living in were pretty much dismissed as vampires. I also didn’t care for Anita’s judgemental sexual shaming of the “freak” party which, all in all, wasn’t all that shocking or freaky.

All in all, this was the book that probably started me on Urban Fantasy – and for good reason