Books: Narcissus in Chains

by Laurell K. Hamilton.  Narcissus in Chains is horror/fantasy/romance aimed at a more feminine audience,  from the popular series of ‘Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter’ novels.  The target reader for this book is likely:  a) She-nerds, b) Grown-up Buffy aficionados, c) Romance readers with decent imaginations.  I’m guessing I’m not part of the Anita Blake marketing campaign, but I bought the book for the wife, having heard good things about the series, and she suggested I check it out when she was done.  I was also curious about crossover romance/fantasy/horror/erotica writing aimed squarely at females, as it has become an important subset of the whole speculative fiction scene.

Narcissus starts off with promise, as Anita quickly finds herself in a seedy dominant/submissive/leather sex type club in East St. Louis, which is run by were-hyenas.  (C’mon, admit it: if you live in St. Louis or downstate Illinois you’ve probably at least considered checking out one of those clubs at some point…) Anita needs to rescue a couple of her were-leopard peeps who enjoy being dominated, and she needs the help of her two recently neglected beaus to do so.  It seems Anita has been mystically melded to effete Vampire Lord Jean-Claude and buff Werewolf King Richard through the marks they shared in a previous book.  She’s been putting off choosing between them, but this has caused those marks to become holes in her magical defenses.  Holes that are in danger of being penetrated.  And Anita quickly realizes the only answer is to have Richard and Jean-Claude fill both those holes…

Saucy…  Intriguing…  Oooh…

But Anita quickly proves to be a somewhat indecisive prude, and a penis-mutilation scene soon follows.  (Sidenote: nothing says, this book is not for dudes quite like a blase description of a literal dismemberment).  Then comes roughtly 400 pages of brutal scene-by-scene writing, in which Anita hems and haws about should she or shouldn’t she, makes sarcastic use the word Yippee! a few too many times, and reminds us (every time he does it!) that Jean-Claude only calls her by name when he’s really serious.

This may seem a bit harsh, but Hamilton has a severe case of Robert Jordanitis; she seems incapable of using summary in her writing and moving the plot forward to the more important bits.  The true adversary doesn’t really appear until after page 400.  Instead we see a pattern of Anita thinking about what she’s going to do next, calling and arguing with one of her mystic boyfriends about what she’s going to do, actually doing, it and then reviewing what just happened internally or in another conversation with one of her minions.  Maybe this is really how some women operate, but that doesn’t mean I have to like reading it.  Maybe this is also a symptom of ongoing series writing-itis (there are currently 17 Anita Blake books).

There are numerous conversations that seemed to go on and on and on, without really accomplishing much of anything, and again, reviewing on behalf of the male perspective, I kept wondering why some of the men in the book just didn’t say, “fuck it then, I’m gonna go watch Sportscenter.”

Part of the problem is my old hang-up with 1st-person p.o.v. books.  If I don’t really like the voice and persona of the main character, I start to get restless.  And while Anita has some good qualities, she really started to annoy me.  It didn’t help that the plot basically grinds to a halt for  about 2/3 the book.  Just not very well-structured.

On the positive side, Hamilton is all in on her fantasy/horror alternative world.  There’s total commitment there, and she’s done an admirable job of building a setting in which were-creatures, vampires, and necromancers more or less operate in the open.  She’s created these very hierarchical rules and structures for the paranormal community, most of which follow a certain sort of logic and mythological resonance.  The writing can be effective too–if you can get past Anita’s need to overexplain and overtalk everything.  Also, Anita is an admirable character in many respects, and you can’t help but root for someone as resolute and loyal to her friends as she proves to be.

Maybe my problem goes back to the gender question again.  To me, the most interesting character is Werewolf King Richard, who is conflicted about his more bestial nature and basically trying to bring some of the more progressive aspects of society to his pack.  Now there’s a situation with some teeth (if you’ll forgive me).  But Richard sort of ends up as a disappointment.  Jean-Claude, on the other hand, is the worst sort of non-evil Vampire Lord cliche, and yet he gets plenty of consideration.  I found myself wishing desperately for Cassidy from the Preacher series to show up and assault J-C for being such a wanker (and if you know that reference, hats-off to you).   You see, JC’s managed to infect Anita with part of his hunger, a sort of mystic rufi known as the ardeur.  JC feeds of lust as well as blood.  Thanks to him, Anita now needs to feed off lust to keep herself under control.  She basically has a built-in magical excuse to embark on some serious slutty behavior.  But do we get the alluded to were-orgy or dom/sub jamboree?  Do we get actual erotica?  No…

Research and Oprah have informed me that this scenario, an overwhelming sense of passion and desire that lead to the removal of all inhibitions, is a prevailing female fantasy situation. One in which women don’t have to make excuses and don’t have to feel badly about their sexuality.  Let me just state for the record:  I favor this.  And yet Anita just can’t quite accept or embrace it; if she did she’d be a whole lot more interesting, and not merely in the ‘Dear Penthouse, I never thought this would happen to me’ kind of way.

Narcissus is all about female fantasy, just a surely as a lot of traditional speculative fiction is male fantasy.  Witness all the buff, virile males surrounding and competing for Anita, willing to engage in pages and pages of dubious conversation.  Witness the surrogate family of misfits and creatures dependent upon her.  Most importantly, behold how Anita is the absolute center of attention for nearly everyone of note in this fictional St. Louis underworld… (sidenote: in 1st person books I enjoy, the main character is often a bit-player who finds himself more important as the story goes on, or thrust into the spotlight by accident or through the designs of others.)

So would I recommend Narcissus or other Anita Blake novels?  Depends.  If you meet criteria a, b, or c in paragraph 1 above, I say knock yourself out.  If not, well…  Will I read another Anita Blake novel?  Perhaps in the distant future.  Somebody tell me which of the books moves faster, has a few less yippees!, and (cue up the Elvis track) a little less conversation, a little more action, and I might give it a shot.

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