I have just read the recently posted review by my fellow Heyer worshipper, Kassia, where she ponders the question of when a lengthy series reaches its “use by” date. This problem is not limited just to romances. In all the genres, storylines can span anywhere from two to an infinite number of books. The most common is the infamous trilogy with a single story stretched out over three books, à la Lord of the Rings. While there are longer single-story series (like Robert Jordan’s massive Wheel of Time, which at last count is up to book eleven, not including the prequel), usually those that go beyond three are “stand alone” where each book is complete in itself, such as JD Robb’s In Death or Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series.
But finite or open-ended, a series has the same rules as most fiction: the overarching story has to move towards a resolution of some kind. The ring is destroyed and Middle Earth is saved, all the Bridgerton siblings find soul mates, Eve Dallas overcomes her scarred past and discovers what it means to love and be loved. (The only exceptions that I know of are mysteries, perhaps because they’re mostly plot driven. Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe are the same in the last book as they were in the first, written some forty years earlier; their fans would’ve rioted otherwise.) If there’s no forward motion—no storyline and character arc reaching towards a logical conclusion—then the series becomes static, visiting the same problems and issues again and again, each time turning a bit more stale.
What happens, though, when an author abandons her series’ storyline to zoom off into left field?
Danse Macabre, is the fourteenth book in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter series. Not quite romance, traditional fantasy, or mystery, the Vampire Hunter is part of a relatively new subgenre: urban fantasy, which is a blend of all three with a large dollop of horror mixed in. Urban fantasy is set in our modern-day skyscraper and techno-gadget world, except there be dragons—and vampires, werewolves, wizards, witches, fairies, demons and other folks that go bump in the night. It’s a sort of Hans Christian Anderson meets Dracula in a Raymond Chandler setting. Though not the first, Hamilton was one of the earliest authors to write in this subgenre, and her Anita Blake is a forerunner of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, Charlene Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, and Kim Harrison’s Rachel Hunter, among many others, most of whom use Anita’s edgy, first person voice that invites the reader into the protagonist’s stream of noir consciousness as she or he routinely deals with things that would have us go screaming for our mothers.
When we are introduced to Anita Blake in Guilty Pleasures, she is working as an animator in St. Louis, Missouri, raising zombies from the dead. As Anita points out, animating is an innate ability that is a curse, a religious experience, or a nuisance; however, she and her coworkers at Animators, Inc., have turned zombie-raising into a business that pays well. Anita also is a preternatural consultant and a licensed vampire hunter. While the Supreme Court has declared vampires “alive” and legal citizens, there is only one sentence for a criminally inclined vampire—death—and Anita has racked up so many kills that vampires call her The Executioner, an epithet she accepts and claims as her own.
Small and delicate-looking, Anita has a black belt in martial arts and packs enough weaponry to give Rambo pause. However, while able to rumble with the best of them, she is rather solitary; she has a few close friends, but no man in her life. Even if there were, she would still sleep in a chaste bed because, after having a relationship go painfully sour in college, she believes in remaining celibate before marriage. Anita is a woman of strong convictions, and her world is starkly divided into black and white, right and wrong, human and monsters—and she’s carrying too many battle scars not to know that vampires are monsters, no matter what the Supreme Court says. When Jean-Claude, the new Master Vampire of St. Louis, indicates a romantic interest, she turns him down, stating, “I don’t date vampires. I kill them.”
Still, despite her stated aversion to the fanged crowd, Anita is attracted to the beautiful Jean-Claude. And Jean-Claude, his reasons deliciously ambiguous, does not let up in his pursuit of Anita. For she is more than an animator; she is a necromancer with power over all the dead (Hamilton doesn’t exactly explain the difference between the two; I assume it’s a matter of degree), and controlling her would drastically increase Jean-Claude’s own power. Almost immediately, he imposes on Anita two of the four marks that would make her his human servant, and is looking for any opportunity to give her the remaining two. No hand-wringing ingénue, Anita flatly tells Jean-Claude that if he forces her, she would kill him. But bit by bit, she finds herself allowing Jean-Claude into her private, chaste world while being drawn into his darkly sensual one. And perhaps in trying to escape her fascination with the Master Vampire, Anita turns to another, Richard Zeeman, Ulfric of the St. Louis werewolf pack. But the wolf is Jean-Claude’s animal to call, and so the two-way tug of war between Anita and Jean-Claude becomes a triangle, and Jean Claude damn near gets what he wants as the three of them form a triumvirate of Master Vampire, Necromancer and Ulfric.
With their lives tangled in a Gordian knot, it seemed that Anita would have to resolve her relationships with Jean-Claude and Richard by cutting one loose. She does eventually sleep with both of them—one at a time—but that does not ease the sexual or relational tension. Richard will not share and Jean-Claude wants Anita to take the final marks that would bind her to him forever. In each subsequent book, it was a question of which way she would go, or if she would able to find a third choice, some sort of compromise that would allow her to have both and keep her soul intact. All of this is interwoven with Anita’s adventures first as an animator and consultant, and later on as a Federal Marshal traveling the country investigating preternatural crimes.
Then the ardeur hit.
In the eleventh book, Narcissus in Chains, Anita returns to St. Louis to discover that she has “caught” a power from Jean-Claude, the ardeur, which has turned her into an incubus (there is some serious mixing of mythologies). She has to have sex often, with multiple partners all at once, to feed the ardeur, else she will lose control and, uhm, “love” someone to death. No, really. Metaphysical sex, Anita calls it. She also calls it feeding and she calls her bed partners food. It is a radical change of direction, made all the more disconcerting by its suddenness. Overnight, fastidious Anita who had issues with casual hugs is boinking anything male. Well, not quite anything. All of Anita’s sex partners are young—or young-looking—and beautiful, with the stamina of satyrs. (We should be so lucky.) But the change in Anita goes far beyond her sexual appetites, for she’s doing the same thing that she’d once called vampires monsters for doing—treating people as sheep.
In Narcissus and the next two books, Cerulean Sins and Incubus Dreams, the focus shifts away from the darkly brooding mysteries that explore the preternatural world, moving instead to Anita’s romps between the sheets and anywhere else the ardeur hits. Incubus Dreams, in particular, is one long, sex-soaked monologue as Anita bemoans the dizzying wrench in her values, her beliefs, herself even as she gets it on—and on and on. But even more wrenching is what happens to Jean-Claude and Richard. No longer the dangerous lovers who had matched Anita strength for strength, at best Jean-Claude is just one of the many studs in Anita’s stable and at worse he is her procurer, while Richard is marginalized and replaced by Micah, a small man with a big—member—who doesn’t mind sharing. But then, no one matches Anita. Her powers are, at this point, so great that she is able to single-handedly wipe the floor with most opponents. The sense of danger and menace to her has greatly diminished, if not disappeared altogether, along with the dramatic tension that it created.
Anita Blake The Executioner has become Mary Sue the nymphomaniac.
To tell the truth, I was a little hesitant to review Danse Macabre not only because of my disappointment with Incubus Dreams, but also because of the vitriol splashed about by Hamilton’s readers at the abrupt change in the series. There are three camps: those who passionately (hah!) love the new Anita, those who despise her, and the rest of us who keep hoping that the old Anita, along with the old Jean-Claude and Richard, would once more reassert themselves. Based on the last three books, there’s little chance of that happening. However, like Kassia, when it comes to series—especially those I’ve greatly enjoyed in the past—I’m weak. I can’t help it. It’s something about having to have the complete set. So I bought it, in hardback, telling myself that I could review it divorced from the previous books. (I’m very good at justifying. You should see me at Coldstone Creamery.)
And so, Danse Macabre:
Due to her intense sexual activity, Anita is afraid that she might be pregnant, and she has no idea by whom. It could be any of the several men she’s been having sex with (except Micah; he’s been fixed). While Anita is dealing with the crisis of a missed period, Jean-Claude’s guests are arriving. The Master of St. Louis has invited the masters of other cities to St. Louis to celebrate the tour of the first ever vampire dance troupe (sounds hokey, but trust me, the ballet is the best part). Both Jean-Claude and Anita are understandably nervous. It will be the biggest vampire meet and greet in the history of America, and the chances for power grabs are great. In fact, Anita has to deal with two almost immediately, one from the siren wife of the Master of Atlanta, who wants to use Anita’s ardeur to release the inner siren of her sons. The other grab is from the Master of Chicago, who’d tasted the ardeur centuries before and wants it again, even if he has to take down Jean-Claude to get it. And in the middle of the power plays and booty calls, Belle Morte, Jean-Claude’s maker and former master, and Marmee Noir, the Mother of All Vampires, make their own appearances, eager to take Anita and all her powers for themselves.
For those who’d hoped that Danse Macabre would return to its Vampire Hunter’s roots, be forewarned: Jean-Claude still stands by as Anita goes at it like a bunny hyped on aphrodisiacs with as many as she can, Richard still slinks the edges around like a sullen wolf, and the only hunting done is by the ardeur itself as it seeks new partners to add to Anita’s sex posse. There isn’t any resolution of the many threads left dangling in Incubus Dreams; there isn’t any sort of mystery at all. In fact, Danse Macabre reads like a romance, with the story being advanced mainly through dialogue and character interaction. And as a romance—a twisted and deviant one, true—it surprisingly succeeds.
One reason for its success is Hamilton’s writing style. It is straightforward and smoothly non-intrusive, allowing each character’s voice to be their own. Another reason is the way Hamilton capably uses the basic premise of a romance: two lovers trying to overcome whatever obstacles that are in their way to fulfillment. (If they succeed, then we have a happy ending. If they don’t, then we have a French art house film.) Okay, so “two lovers” is quite a stretch (no pun intended) and the happily ever after is more like survive until the next crisis, but Danse Macabre does have enough sympathetic characters dealing with enough conflicts and obstacles that I wanted to find out how Anita, et al., overcame the crisis du jour.
But Danse Macabre also has a common failing of many romances: the secondary characters are weak. When the ardeur hit, Jean-Claude, Richard, and the rest of the strong males were in a sense emasculated and made subordinate to Anita’s appetites, and all the strong female characters who could’ve counterbalanced have disappeared. (Anita’s best friend Ronnie did make an appearance at the beginning of Danse, but she and Anita immediately argued and she disappeared again.) All the weight is given to Anita, who looms very large while everyone else are much smaller and less than. Another common problem is that we’re always in Anita’s head. Of course, that’s partly because the narrative is in first person. But in the b.a. (before ardeur) books, we were shown that the other characters had lives beyond Anita. We saw them at the office, saw them partying, saw them getting married, saw them grieving at funerals, saw them with loved ones, friends and with enemies. Now Anita has become the sun around which everybody orbits and, to mix a metaphor, anything that happens outside the solar system is off stage.
More importantly in the characte development department, though, is that Anita herself is still bellybutton-gazing. There’s a lot of space given to her explanations of who she is now versus who she was b.a. But the fact that she has to explain herself, especially after thirteen prior books, means that her current character arc is not true and her “now” self did not organically grow out of who she was in those past books. Hamilton introduced a deus ex machina in the form of the ardeur to take the repressed and controlling Anita and turn her into a free-love sex fiend.
Well, not exactly love. While Danse Macabre reads as a romance, it is not romantic. The inclusiveness of Anita’s bed precludes intimacy. There is no pillow talk that isn’t about the ardeur, there is no sharing of hopes, dreams and aspirations, there is no sense of building towards a future, or even leaving the past behind. The one person who offers exclusivity is rejected; Anita sneers at Richard’s desire for a white picket fence, saying that she’d rather have a spiky black wrought iron one. She also says that she loves the men she sleeps with, but as stated above, she also calls them food. Adult love means that the one loved is at least a potential equal who complements the other. It’s kind of hard to be equal with someone you equate with lamp chops. Beyond that, though, why does she love them? After the physical attraction is sated, what else is there? We don’t know—we aren’t shown any meeting of minds, any sense of kindred spirits, anything that would say “when you’re old and ugly I’ll still want you.” The ardeur might not presently be the glue binding them, but it is what pushed them into bed in the first place and no matter how fervently Anita embraces her lifestyle now, she was forced into it by something she never sought. Instead of metaphysical sex, the ardeur has overtones of metaphysical addiction or, worse, rape. Whichever it is, it crowds out everything else, including free will.
Now, lust can work great as a plot device. I’ve stated in another review that there is nothing like a well-written sex scene, or better yet, the promise of sex, to drive a story. Anita didn’t tumble with anybody until book six, and the sexual tension in books one through five was just as riveting as whatever mystery she was uncovering. In contrast, Anita tumbles early and often in Danse Macabre, many times interrupting crucial moments to feed the ardeur, even taking time out to do the deed in the middle of a fight (although in one instance the sex scene was the fight scene). After the fourth—or was it the sixth or tenth?—description of Anita’s ambidexterity and multitasking, I found myself scowling impatiently as I read, wanting everyone to hurry up and finish so we could get back to the real story. Wading through all the sex in Danse was like being forced-fed a box of Sees’ chocolates (yes, I know, but work with me). By the time I was finished, not only was I rather queasy, but I was ready to give nuts and chews a rest for a long while.
But not Anita. Her sexual appetites are here to stay. She has admitted to Richard that even after she controls the ardeur, she will still want her stable of beautiful men. She has also clearly indicated that while she is still ridden by the ardeur, her investigations are on hold. However, there is hope—Anita reminded a Master Vampire that not only was she a Federal Marshal and preternatural expert, but she also was The Executioner. Maybe one day she’ll go back to ferreting out monster crimes and misdeeds. In the meantime, she is working her way past her obstacles to whatever happily ever after that awaits her and her studs. The question is, will I be there when she does? I don’t know. Despite my above-stated impatience and discontent, I am intrigued by the confrontation building between Anita and Marmee Noir and Belle Morte. I am also interested in the changing vampire politics in America and in Europe, curious what shape they will eventually take and what the fallout will be. I wish Hamilton had taken more time to explore that instead of whether Anita has mastered the art of using both hands and mouth simultaneously.
You can visit Laurell K. Hamilton here and can purchase Danse Macabre here or here.