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The Life and Loves of Anita Blake

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Since Joss Whedon introduced Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the world in the early 90s, there has been this fascination with building strong female characters who kick preternatural butt on a daily basis. True, some of this has been rooted in comic book/superhero mythology, where for many years lady heroes have been added into the more male-dominated stories. First there was Superman, then Supergirl. Spider-Man gave way to Spider-Girl.

But vampire hunting stories have tipped the balance toward us females. While there are certainly male characters that take up the stake and sword, it’s women who are portrayed in these roles more often than not.

The reason? My feeling is that it all has to do with sex. Vampires have always been written as seducers of females, dripping with sexual energy that women cannot resist. Look at Dracula, the original vampire, seducing Lucy with sex and blood while pining for his long lost love, whose incarnation is drawn inexplicably to the monster. Making a female the hunter of such creatures makes for the perfect unlikely hero; those whom are supposed to be most vulnerable are actually resistant to a point, enabling them to destroy the enemy.

Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series brings this balance of sexual power to a new level that has absolutely enthralled me since I discovered the books this past fall. Anita Blake is the epitome of what you would not expect a vampire hunter would be: short, petite, busty, clumsy at times, but always lethal. She’s also one of the hardest, most jaded and yet sexually empowered characters I’ve ever read. Wouldn’t you be if you were born with the sometimes uncontrollable ability to raise/control the dead and were constantly being pulled into conflicts and murders involving vampires, shapeshifters, demons and all sorts of bogey men?

Hamilton’s work straddles the worlds of horror, paranormal romance, erotica, fantasy and mystery. One minute, Blake may have her hand lodged in the chest of a vampire, where she entered under the ribs to make it faster and easier to reach the heart (no bone to go through, only tissue). The next, she’s being seduced by her own lust for sex and blood or any one of her preternatural lovers.

I must say the stark contrast of these scenes, mixed with Blake’s irreverent take on most of the situations in which she finds herself and the brutal honesty with which she views herself is simply awesome. Though Hamilton has been criticized for not showing enough real character development in her books as the series evolves and including too much sex into her plots, I disagree with this assessment.

Considering Blake has gone from being a very sexually reserved character to a woman with more lovers than can be counted on one hand by the end of Blood Noir, I can see how some may have this point of view. I think, though, this candor that Blake has is what proves that what Hamilton is showing us is true character development.

The basis of Blake’s character is intact throughout the series. She’ll be the first person to say she’s wrong or scared. She maintains her moral center in what matters to her and what is right and wrong. What we see through her journey from being on the periphery of the preternatural world to being “one of the monsters” is what any person would go through as a result of events in their lives.

In the space of a few years, Blake’s life has gone in directions that she could never have anticipated, and as such, she is going through a period of self discovery that she did not really have the opportunity to explore in college. She’s learning that things she thought were black and white are not necessarily so and trying to figure out how she feels about that. In the meantime, she’s doing the best she can with what she has.

This includes her sexual development, as well. Instead of running away from her sexual desires in favor of what she thinks she should be doing and feeling, Blake is empowering herself by taking control of her love life. She admits that she has no idea what she’s doing or how anything will work out, yet she is exploring her sexuality and the boundaries of what she really finds to be acceptable. She’s sleeping with numerous men, some individually, some all together – both of which in Guilty Pleasures she would never have considered.

That she has gone past the conventional boundaries of compulsory monogamy is, in my opinion, one of the coolest character changes I’ve seen in pop lit. Usually these types of stories end in marriage or the expectation of marriage sometime down the road. I love that Hamilton has enabled her heroine to be sexually powerful and diverse in her preferences.

Still, some have criticized Blake as being a narcissistic character who can’t stand to not be the center of attention or of men’s desires. What I think many forget is the context in which these stories are told. Sex is an integral part of the vampire and shapeshifter cultures, which are more predatory and feudal systems of subculture. Gaining power is also a base need for all of the preternatural critters in the Blakeverse.

Blake herself is a rare power that those who have more animal instinct than normal humans do are naturally attracted to her and gaining some of that power for themselves. She also defies most social conventions of all societies, which makes her intriguing to those around her. On top of that, she’s fiercely loyal and an incredible friend when she’s around long enough. Is there any wonder that those who live by a different code of life would want to have a piece of something like Anita Blake? And it’s not just a male attraction. Nikolaos, Obsidian Butterfly, Belle Morte and Marmee Noir all want her.

I think what many people forget in their criticism of Hamilton’s work is the complexity of the world and relationships she has created here. In her Meredith Gentry series, sex has – since almost page one – been a central character to the story and power structures because the story deals with the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of the sidhe, a fey race. The sidhe are mythical in reality, but in Hamilton’s books, they are real and part of U.S. society, similar to the backdrop she created in the Anita Blake series. The difference between the two is that Blake began as a member of “regular human” society and was drawn into the preternatural world/politics book by book; Gentry was always part of that other world where our values and customs don’t necessarily apply.

So where exactly am I going with this assessment, you may ask? With the release of Blood Noir, the sixteenth book in the Anita Blake series, last week a renewed flurry of Internet chatter about where the story is going and how Hamilton is moving it forward is bound to follow.

I read the book about two months before it was released and had quite a bit of time to think about its place and function. I’ve spent some of my time rereading earlier novels and the manuscript I received to review to gain some more perspective on this, since Anita Blake is a character and series I’ve come to know and love. Like her, I’ll be the first to call a spade a spade, and if you’ve read my review of Blood Noir, you know I think there’s not enough plot development in the book. But then, it’s not the huge away-from-St. Louis drama that Obsidian Butterfly was; it’s more along the lines of Micah, a short break that moves the overall story forward a little, but focuses mostly on one of the subplots that had been neglected.

I was happy to see a Jason-focused storyline. I’ve been on the fence about Jason for a long time. Now that I see this other side to him (not to mention the real affection Anita has for him), I have a better appreciation for him as a character. I like that Hamilton takes a break from the heavier story arcs to concentrate on developing the stories of other characters. I think that she is working up to another big battle that centers on Marmee Noir and needed this book to set up some very necessary plot points for the next one.

In the meantime, I think we should not forget that this is not the type of literature that is going to be taught in graduate English classes at Harvard. This is the type of book and story that you curl up in bed to read because it speaks to the edgier senses in you that you don’t want to admit to others you have. The Blakeverse is there to enjoy as a fantastic look at how life could go if things in reality were altered. Who doesn’t like to take a break from reality and lose themselves in someone else’s life for a while? And if it involves some interesting sex scenes in the meantime, so be it.

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About Robin Kavanagh

  • Jerry

    With all due respect, Ms. Kavanagh, I tried to get through one of Ms. Hamilton’s books a few years ago and couldn’t get past the first 2-3 chapters. I’m a big fan of the urban fantasy genre and read several authors but Hamilton’s books were more about setups for her personal erotica and she seems to struggle to move her story forward. I have no problem with sex in the books as they are also in the romance genre and I love good erotica, but the Meredith Gentry book I started with was almost nothing but erotica. For a really kickass heroine, I recommend you check out the Rachel Morgan series of books by Kim Harrison. While they are not perfect, they fit more into the Buffy mold of an empowered heroine with a solid storyline than Hamilton. Remember that the Buffy character was inspired by that cute little blonde girl in horror movies that always seems to walk into a dark alley and get eaten. Joss wanted just once to see the little girl go into the alley, kick ass and walk out dusting her hands off. Hamilton’s characters can’t seem to take their minds off sex long enough to move the story forward. Harrison’s character Rachel Morgan (and Joss’s Buffy for that matter) seems to struggle to find time to work sex into the equation. I think that is a bit more realistic, which is why both character’s audiences respond to the travails and triumphs they experience.

  • Aragem

    I love your assessment of Anita Blake. I adore her and view her as an sharper edge version of Buffy Summers. I admire how her character has grown from having strict, almost childlike morals and rules to developing her own code of ethics that may seem confusing to others, but make perfect sense in her mind.

  • Robin Kavanagh

    I admire how her character has grown from having strict, almost childlike morals and rules to developing her own code of ethics that may seem confusing to others, but make perfect sense in her mind.

    I’m reading through the Meredith Gentry series right now (on book 4) and I’m noticing that that is something that Hamilton is doing with Merry as well. She begins by running for her life from the faerie courts, but when she needs to step up and go back, she slowly works through her almost child-like expections to become a more savvy and in some cases ruthless leader who is prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure justice and protection for her people. This is a very Blake-like characteristic. It’s interesting to read different characters by the same author and look for these similarities. I wonder if the writers know that they are infusing similar traits throughout their characters or if it’s done subconsciously.