Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: Laughing Corpse by Laurell K Hamilton, Book 2 of the Anita Blake Series

There are a new series of gruesome murders in the city and Anita, on retainer with the Spook Squad, has been called out to investigate some of the most blood saturated, brutal, violent crimes she’s ever had the displeasure to see.

And she sees a flesh-eating zombie – whether out of control or wilfully set on people by an animator, voodoo priest or necromancer. Either way, people are dying and being eaten and Anita needs to get some answers before she sees more bodies. Except investigating requires crossing some of the most powerful and dangerous magical practitioners in the US – enemies who are happy to send a murderous zombie through your door at night.

Then there’s the added problem of Harold Gaynor. Extremely wealthy man and an extremely ruthless, dangerous man who wants a zombie raised – a zombie that’s so old that only Anita can reliably raise it. But it’s also so old that a human sacrifice will be required – a line Anita will not cross. Of course, Harold doesn’t take no for an answer and is more than willing to use any methods he can to persuade Anita

And then there’s Jean-Claude, Vampire Master of the City to whom Anita is bound with 2 marks. He wants her to play his human servant, her defiance is weakening his political power – but she wants nothing to do with the vampire.

We have another intriguing mystery here that, again, didn’t come together until the end of the book. The clues were there, repeatedly and variously throughout the book, but it was only at the end that you could see how they all fit and how they were all interconnected – even the seemingly two separate, parallel plot lines coming together to be part of the same mystery. I often forget reading the later books just how elegant and interesting these early books where and how well done the detection was. I was confused, but never bored, curious but never lost.

And I like the world, especially given the age of the book. The diversity of beings, the complete integration into the world and the fact that they have always been integrated – there has never been a hidden conspiracy of supernatural – is well done and interesting. It ensures there is always something more to learn and something more to see.

I like Anita’s voice. Yes she does over-describe things a lot and it can be repetitive. But it can also be funny, snarky and informative, her internal monologue being a way to expound upon the world around her. I think it’s very easy to bog a book down with this kind of writing – and we’ve certainly seen it as a problem in other books – but this flows. It’s not overdone, or not consistently so and if it does incline itself occasionally to being overly descriptive or unnecessarily purple, it’s not in a bad way.

Anita is, of course, a very powerful woman. Both physically and personally. She’s dangerous, skilled and at least as good as everyone around her – from martial arts bringing down men twice her size, to a deadly accurate trigger finger and a stubborn unwillingness to give up. But she’s also strong in how she lives her life. She lives as she chooses, she refuses to bow to other people’s demands, she will not be intimidated, not be bullied and will not police herself.

Of course, that can be problematic when it comes to Anita’s temper. She lashes out at times when prudence would dictate at least moderating her tongue – and going from being utter terrified of Dominga, the big bad wicked Voodoo Queen – fear, horror, alarms, to turning round, threatening her and mouthing off to her just makes me cringe. Aside from making Anita seem to have very little self-control but it also reduces the power of the big bad villains. After all, the fearfulness of a villain is established, in part, by how afraid people are of them.

There was the beginning of a very good theme in this book – shades of grey morality. Anita sees things in rather stark terms – good evil, right wrong. But when her friend, a man she respects and admires has performed human sacrifices in the past she’s confronted with a big shock to that. Add in her own willingness to shoot people that shocks and impresses Ronnie, and her willingness to hunt down and kill Dominga if she couldn’t do it legally – and her clear cut world is fuzzing around the edges. Necessary exceptions are creeping in.

There are a lot of disabled characters in this book – 1 is a victim and 2 are villains which aren’t ideal portrayals. However, one thing they all are is capable – even Wanda, despite being helpless and a victim still has her strengths underlined. Cicely and Gaynor, while evil, are skilled, powerful, clever and dangerous. And all 3 are sexual which is such a rare depiction of disabled people.

Voudun in Urban Fantasy is rarely portrayed well. In fact, it’s usually portrayed awfully with little or no emphasis on it as a religion and far more on it as evil dark magic. And, yes, in most of this book we have the big menace of the voodoo queen. The only thing that pulls it back from the edge of being another awful portrayal of scary scary black magic is that the practioners Are portrayed as priests, even if their religion is de-emphasised. And Anita makes it clear her grandmother was also a voodoo priestess and she wasn’t evil and that what Dominga is doing would be considered evil by voudun practitioners as well.

Anita recognises several times that she is a woman in a man’s world and how that puts a greater onus on her and other women to be extra-strong, extra-tough. It’s not overdone but it’s there as a careful statement of how a woman has to negotiate a male dominated profession.

We do have several POC in the book but they’re largely side characters or, in this book, a villain. They don’t carry much in the way of destructive tropes and stereotyping, at least, though they do suffer from over-description like in the last book.

All in all, this follows on perfectly from Guilty Pleasures by taking the story into a new angel. We continue with the same characters but we’re quickly moving to a different part of the supernatural world for a wide revelation – this ensures that these early books fully explain just how broad this world is while at the same time developing Anita and telling a great mystery.