Guilty Pleasures - Laurell K. Hamilton
~~Moved from GR~~

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


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.

[Basically all the men--and some of the women--that Anita meets try to rape her. Philip forces her into appearances of intimacy. Nikolaos mind-rapes her and threatens to physically assault Philip. Jean-Claude mind-rapes and those dream sequences are horrific, and yes, it is rape, especially in the one where he physically restrains her while she fights and screams and begs:

I was wearing a long, white dress that had lace of its own. I had never dreamed of myself in anything like it. I glanced up at Jean-Claude. It was his choice, not mine. Fear tightened my throat. "It's my dream," I said.
He held out both hands and said, "Come."
And I went to him. The dress whispered and scraped on the stones, a continuous rustling noise. It grated on my nerves. I was suddenly standing in front of him. I raised my hands towards his slowly. I shouldn't do it. Bad idea, but I couldn't seem to stop myself.
His hands wrapped around mine, and I knelt before him. He drew my hands to the lace that spilled down the front of his shirt, forced my fingers to take two handfuls of it.
He cupped his hands over mine, holding them tight; then he ripped his shirt open using my hands...I tried to pull away, but his fingers dug into my jaw like a vise. I shouted, "No!"
I hit at him with my left hand. He caught my wrist and held it. I used my right hand to grip the floor and shoved with my knees. He held me at jaw and wrist like a butterfly on a pin. You can move, but you can't get away. I dropped to a sitting position, forcing him to strangle me or lower me to the ground. He lowered me.
I kicked out with everything I had. Both feet connected with his knee. Vampires can feel pain. He dropped my jaw so suddenly, I fell backwards. He grabbed both my wrists and jerked me to my knees, body pinned on either side by his legs. He sat in the chair, knees controlling my lower body, hands like chains on my wrists....Jean-Claude transferred both my wrists to one hand, and I could not stop him. His free hand stroked my cheek, smoothing down the line of my neck. His fingers tightened at the base of my skull and began to push.
"Jean-Claude, please, don't do this!"
He pressed my face closer and closer to the wound on his chest. I struggled, but his fingers were welded to my skull, a part of me. "NO!"...
His voice came like velvet, warm and dark, sliding through my mind. "Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, two minds with but one body, two souls wedded as one." For one bright, shining moment, I saw it, felt it. Eternity with Jean-Claude. His touch...forever. His lips. His blood.
I blinked and found my lips almost touching the wound in his chest. I could have reached out and licked it. "Jean-Claude, no! Jean-Claude!" I screamed it.

etc. Just in case you weren't already freaked, there's that long scene with the rats where they explicitly threaten to rape her:

"Come down to us, human. Touch us, let us touch you. Let us teach you the joys of fur and teeth." He rubbed claws through the fur of his thighs. It drew my attention to him, between his legs. I looked away, and heat rushed up my skin. I was blushing. Dammit!"..."You ever been had by a were?"...he was on me, snarling, claws reaching, screaming in my face. I bunched my legs against my chest, or he would have been on top of me. He put one claw-hand on my knees and began to push.

Aubrey tries twice. Valentine--also twice. There's the party in which she is informed that guests are "shared." Catherine is mindraped and threatened with physical assault. And in many of these scenes are described sensually, almost pleasurably by Anita--all while being able to remove any sense of guilt from the pleasure because it is, after all, forced. But wait, you say! The quotes I presented here are horrific, not "hawt!" Nothing I've presented has implied that any of the sexual violence is intended to be titillating! Well, consider the comments from the opening scene, in the titular "Guilty Pleasures" stripclub:

'Have you ever wondered what it would be like to feel my breath upon your skin? My lips along your neck. The hard brush of teeth. The sweet, sharp pain of fangs. Your heart beating frantically against my chest. Your blood flowing into my veins. Sharing yourself. Giving me life. Knowing that I truly could not live without you, all of you.'
Perhaps it was the intimacy of darkness; whatever, I felt as if his voice was speaking just for me, to me. I was his chosen, his special one.

Sure, none of the sexualised scenes are consentual. But to me, that makes it all the more disturbing: it's as though her lack of control of the situation gives Anita the ability to enjoy a guilty pleasure that her otherwise upright Christian morality would not allow. There's more, and I thought about collecting some more quotes to back up my perspective, but honestly, I don't want to think about this any more. What do we, as readers, pay when we are made complicit in this? ]

(show spoiler)

**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.

[Rather like Jean-Claude, who stalks and defiles her, yet still is supposedly a "grey morality" character.]

(show spoiler)

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.

[Gee, you're looking for a lot of dead bodies and your other case is a lot of dead vampires. Gosh, I wonder if they're connected. Plus, why on earth not tell Edward where Nikolaos' coffin is? Because the plot so demands? And talk about an obvious trap in the graveyard scene...why not at least take the basic precaution of calling the guy before going? ]

(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."

Final Thoughts:
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.