Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake #1)
by Laurell K. Hamilton
Recommended to Carly by: Curiosity
Recommended for: fans of female-lead UF with lots of violence and sexual tension--often together
***TRIGGER WARNING: DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN THE BOOK.***
***WARNING: EXTREMELY OPINIONATED AND CRANKY REVIEW***
As this is one of the trope-makers for the urban fantasy genre, it was quite interesting to read. Even I found the worldbuilding fascinating. However, I did not enjoy it, and, as usual, I'm going to work off my ill humour by enumerating precisely why. (Note: as I haven't read any others in the series, this review deals only with this book.)
I'm breaking my review into three parts: content, characters, and style.
This song/fan(?)vid of the TV show Dollhouse sums up my feelings about Guilty Pleasures.
[LYRIC/IMAGE TRIGGER WARNING--lyrics explicitly use the word "rape."]
The cost? In this case, I'm not talking about money. Don't believe me? Think back.
**About the video: when self-proclaimed feminist Joss Whedon created the television programme Dollhouse, some fans protested the hypocritical message that allows viewers to condemn while being titillated, the way rape is prettified into a "grey area" where "good" can be achieved, the unrelenting male gaze, and the constant violence against the helpless. Fan Giandujakiss created this brilliant video to bring some of these issues to light. I saw a couple episodes of Dollhouse--including one in which one of the Dolls (which means exactly what you think) is raped by her "handler," neatly splitting the world of the Dollhouse into "legitimate" and "illegitimate rape," to borrow a term.
This video highlights the hypocrisy by utilising unequivocal terms and clips that demonstrate Male Gaze and sexualised, sensationalised violence. I think it is one of the most brilliant, incisive criticisms I've ever seen or read, and the same issues kept confronting me when I read Guilty Pleasures. Personally, I think that sexual violence is one of the crimes that shoots you over the Moral Event Horizon--at that point, your good intentions are no longer relevant.
I tend to assign themesongs to the characters I read about. Here's Anita's:
Stand back, Everyone! Nothin' here to see,
Just imminent danger In the middle of it: Me!*
Yes, Anita Blake is here, hair blowing in the breeze.
The day needs my saving expertise!
A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.
Seems destiny ends with me saving you.**
The only doom that’s looming is you loving me to death,
So I’ll give you a sec to catch your breath.
*because she accidentally walked into it
**with help from stalkery male admirers
I know Anita is considered a "strong female character" and although I can see why, she is not one I can like or relate to. It started with the introduction: I was unamused by Anita's snarky side comments to the reader about how much she despised her friends and how she really didn't want to be a designated driver for a party for her best friend. Add to that the unthinking bigotry, a bitter sense of humour (because making jokes about elderly people finding nearby cemeteries "a convenience, just in case" is hilarious., as are all of her comments about fat women), a sense of superiority that could sink a ship, and a Speshul Snowflake Sueness that she shows off to great advantage in the opening club scene, and I loved Anita from the moment I met her. I was also repeatedly floored by her obtuseness.(show spoiler)
Other characters? Well, as Anita herself points out, everyone else is busy being a victim or victimiser, so I think the "content" bit covers them.
I've heard plenty of complaints about the content in the latter part of the series, but somehow, no on ever mentioned how...special...the writing is. Yes, I'm well aware that criticising anyone's writing style puts me firmly in pot-kettle territory. I know I have no feel for beautiful or evocative language, but here are a few of the issues that stood out to me:
--Minutes are not the same as seconds (emphasis mine):
"'Oh,' he said. He stared down at his drink for a few minutes. 'I don't know.'"
"He stared at me like that for several minutes, then raised the glasses back in place."
--"Proverbial" implies a proverb.
"There was an outer office, the proverbial secretary desk and etc"
"Winter was wearing a proverbial strongman's outfit."
"He strode through the tables wearing the proverbial vampire outfit, black tux and white gloves."
"The man wore a suit; the woman the proverbial dress, hose, and sandals."
I'd really love to know what proverbs she's referencing.
--Repetition, paraphrase, and simile/metaphor muddles:
"Fang marks. Tiny, diminutive fang marks"--tiny AND diminutive? Gee, do you think they're small as well?
"The pain was still there, but it [the pain?] didn't hurt as much."
"Darkness came. It swallowed up [__] and left me alone, floating in the dark."
"He lapped up my blood like a cat with cream. I lay under his weight listening to him lap up my blood."
"A neck-ruffling, throat-tightening feeling that tightens your gut."
"His voice matched his body, deep and gravelly."--his body is gravelly?
I'm also getting tired of everyone's eyes being "shiny."
"His laughter was bitter, like broken glass."--broken glass is bitter?
"The sound seemed to rub over my skin, like the brush of fur. Warm and feeling ever so slightly of death."--fur smells of death?
"He held the audience in the palm of his mind."
"All that rippling muscle was done in white, like Moby Dick."
"Rochelle was laughing silently, her considerable bosom shaking like dark brown jello."
With all my complaints, I do not exactly regret reading this. Hamilton's influence is visible throughout almost all of the books in our current urban fantasy genre, from the Dresden Files (Jim Butcher explicitly acknowledges his debt to Hamilton) to Kate Daniels to Rachel Morgan. I found it fascinating to return to the original source and identify some of the templates and tropes that would end up being echoed throughout the genre. As a fan of the Dresden Files and some UFs influenced by it, it was interesting to see just how much of Dresden's world is a genderswap of Anita Blake's. We have the first-person snarky protagonist, the sexually predatory adversaries, the same-gender helpful sidekick (I really did like Ronnie), the apparently dual cases that are actually connected, etc. (Many of these are actually straightforward hardboiled/noir tropes, but it's interesting to see that they were first applied here.) The influence on other female-lead urban fantasies (FLUFs) is even more apparent, from the broken masquerade worlds to the supernaturally sexy stalkers love interests to the incredibly beautiful protagonist who both scorns and loves "feminine" activities; even to the plain-first-name-plus-male-firstname-as-surname pattern for naming the protagonists. (Male UFs either follow this pattern or the Dresden Alternative: plain first name plus descriptive proper noun surname.) Due to my failure to sympathise with the protagonist and the story's rather unsettling fascination with rape themes, I was unable to enjoy the book on its own merits. However, if you're a more easygoing reader than me and are interested in seeing the birth of many of the themes that echo throughout UF, take a look.