GUILTY PLEASURES (ANITA BLAKE, VAMPIRE HUNTER BOOK 1)- by Laurel K Hamilton

Ah, before the series devolved into badly written polyamory reverse harem porn (while having little idea what polyamory really looks like), there  . Written in the early 90s, and taking strong  The Vampire Chronicles, and being highly reminiscent of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which it preceded) Anita Blake is one of the grandparents of Urban Fantasy genre. Not only that, but it really stands up well today and is extremely enjoyable, offering one of the few urban fantasy novels that has a heroine take centre of her own adventure, which centers around action and not romance.

The story is a sort of a film noir paranormal fantasy where the supernatural is known to the world (which is quite refreshing). Anita, known as ‘The Executioner’ to vampires (because Hamilton couldn’t call her The Slayer- although this book predates the tv series but not the movie), has a licence to Slay and is the paranormal expert that works with the police. What’s cool is that Anita has a job (shockers) that relates to the supernatural, which is being paid to raise the dead for various reasons- like to settle disputes over wills. This in itself is a really interesting concept, and it’s really great seeing Anita live a daily life- with work, friendships, gym routines, bills to pay- that doesn’t just stop when supernatural problems come a knocking.

In this novel, her central objective is to track down a serial killer who’s targeting vampires, but lets face it, Anita Blake is no Sherlock. She is a really terrible investigator and one of the clues she only happened to find because a plot important event just coincidentally was taking place on the same night and the same time as Anita was investigating a nearby location. She wouldn’t have found out who killed the vampires basically announced themselves with an evil laugh and then did basically the urban fantasy version of leaving Anita dangling above a shark pit instead of shooting her with a sniper rifle. Yeah, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo this book is not, but fortunately it doesn’t matter. There are so many interesting things happening that the central mystery- who is the serial killer who targets vampires- was really the least interesting part of this book. This book was interesting for all its multiple sub plots that come together perfectly in the end (although there are a couple of threads that will remain unsolved for later books).

The vampire serial killer is really small potatoes compared with the menace that is Nikolaos, an insanely powerful immortal child vampire (Claudia expy), or this whole ‘human servant’ thing with Jean Claude (super sexy kind of pansexual french vampire? definately Lestat inspired). Now, she really is a fantastic big bad. She’s devastatingly powerful, and commands fear of everyone around her- including Anita herself and even Jean-Claude- who himself is insanely powerful. Nikolaos was brilliantly built up, and like Dominga and The Travaller to name a few, she stands out as one of the most compelling villains in the genre.

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This is one creepy child you don’t want to play with

I also like the way that the ‘discrimination’ against vampires is handled. At the beginning, having not read this book in a long time, I rolled my eyes when it went into vampire rights movement. As I mentioned in my list of top 7 gripes against the genre, I hate the way that discrimination against vampire is used as an analogy for homophobia or racism . But Guilty Pleasures avoids this. A vampire tries to use this logic against Anita, he tries to play the victim and claims that she treats his life as nothing, but she strikes back with ‘you killed 23 people’. Go Anita. It does not use this as any kind of analogy for existing prejudice, but treats it as its own unique issue. Dehumanizing them and treating vampires as vermin regardless of their actions is wrong (like hate group Humans Against Vampires did), but they are far from some helpless minority. I liked the way that HAV wasn’t a direct analogue to NOM or the KKK- they went too far in their venom, but because vampires are super powered monsters who seem to operate above the law, a lot of people have very legitimate reasons to hate them.

Of course, they’re still sentient creatures with free will, so it’s not as simple as them being evil hell beasts either. Anita’s Catholic background is also interestingly utilised in this as she hates the idea of vampirism because she believes in the Christian afterlife, and she doesn’t know if a vampire’s soul will go to heaven.

An speaking of Anita, as a protagonist, Anita Blake really is something terrific. At this point (before the Ardeur dragged this series to hell), she isn’t the chosen one and nor is she some super powerful Goddess. She mainly relies on her wits, ferocity and her ability with guns to get out of tough spots. She’s capable, but more so she’s not just ‘grrl power with attitude.’ Her dialogue’s snarky, sure, and I enjoy her remarks, but she’s also compassionate and struggles with moral dilemnas. She struggles with how black her soul is after killing, and she genuinely cares about protecting the lives of innocents, and when innocents are hurt she grieves them.

I also have to mention the side characters who were generally great. Edward – the hitman turned vampire hunter- called Death was a terrifying and brilliant lancer to Anita’s hero, and it’s fascinating how he also represents what Anita fears she’ll become. Then we have Jean Claude, sexy vampire love interest (although he’s so much more than this). We also have Anita’s best friend, Ronnie.

And thank God for Ronnie- Ronnie is Anita’s female friend ( a depressing rarity in this genre) and a private investigator who’s skilled in her own right. Though Anita will eventually become the exceptional woman- the One Strong Woman while all other women are are either weak or evil- Ronnie holds the line of defence against this trope in Guilty Pleasures. Strong, capable, and though still definitely one step behind Anita and her male allies,her role is primarily that of ally and partner instead of victim. I also liked Beverly Chin, an un trope laden Asian woman who’s an ordinary non action woman who was still able to step up and save Anita’s life . They both help to negate the characterization of Catherine, a girly girl who’s into weddings and partying, who only exists to be a victim and to show how uninterested in those feminine pursuits Anita is; and worse still Monica, a woman Anita hates before she’s even done anything contemptible, a girl who’s even sillier and girlier than Catherine and who’s evil and foolish.

It’s sadly rare for an urban fantasy heroine to have important friendships equal to or more important than their relationship to the main love interest, especially if that friend is a female, so seeing Ronnie and Anita hang out was a breath of fresh air.

Also, I liked the portrayal of Rafael, the  Rat King of Mexican ancestry. He doesn’t play a large role in this novel, but he is compelling enough. He commands authority, and although he helps Anita, he does so out of both his sense of right and wrong and in the interests of his own people, so he doesn’t fall into the ‘helpful minority’ role. And speaking of POC, Anita is half Latina- but really, all her Latina heritage does for her is give her cool gothic dark hair to go with her pale skin (it’s so conveniently when your non white mother only passes on the sexy  traits), so I really don’t think she counts.

VERDICT: Even though this book was written in the early 90s, it still holds up well today. Anita is a total badass, who kicks ass and is front and centre of her own story, which is not just a romance. The world is fun and enjoyable, the action sequences were great and it had a fun cast of characters that are definately ones you want to spend more time with.

BOOK REVIEW: STOLEN- by Kelley Armstrong

Blurb: When two desperate witches lure part-time journalist and full-time werewolf Elena Michaels into a carefully laid trap, she quickly learns that her perceptions about humanity are based on some fundamental flaws. In Kelley Armstrong’s supernatural thriller, Stolen, the world is populated with vampires, demons, half-demons, magical shamans and other supernatural races living anonymously among the human population–a concept that Elena has a hard time accepting, just as she struggled with her own lupine identity in Armstrong’s remarkable debut, Bitten.

But when Elena returns to her werewolf pack in upstate New York, pack leader Jeremy reveals that the threat people pose to the supernatural races should not be taken lightly. When Jeremy, Elena and her lover Clay decide to take action to protect their pack, Elena gets kidnapped on the orders of a power-crazed billionaire. While being held captive she learns that while some magical beings are good and some evil, none are capable of more outright cruelty and savage betrayal than ordinary, non-magical human beings.– amazon.

Review: Stolen is very much a transitional novel. While Bitten was stand alone and focused on the werewolves, this book  transforms the series into an ensemble piece with a dozen other magical creatures. Here, not only do we have the werewolves, we’re introduced to witches, half demons with different powers, shamans, sorcerers and vampires.

We get given an introduction to Paige and Savannah, who will go on to become protagonists for later books, as well as a host of other characters including Xavier, Leah, and Cassandra, who will be recurring characters in later books.

That’s quite a hefty task for one novel, and not only does it have to do all that, but it has to tell a decent story. Which it does well. While by far not my favorite in the series (that distinction goes to HauntedBitten and Industrial Magic), Stolen is far more than that boring middle book you’re stuck reading because it sets up the next book; It’s  a good story with a strong climax, and it introduces the new supernaturals in a way which feels natural and not like a big info dump.

Elena is captured by a big organisation experimenting on the supernatural. Her every movement is watched, and there are a whole host of enemies and dangerous characters whom you aren’t entirely clear whether they’re friend or foe. You know that Elena will make it out alive- when does the viewpoint character ever die?- but this novel makes painfully, uncomfortably clear that there’s a lot of other terrible things that could happen to her before then. Each botched escape attempt could result in serious repercussions; not only that, but the fate of the other people trapped in the institution is more uncertain- (and mild spoiler, not every one makes it out alive).

The reason I still read Women of the otherworld, a paranormal romance series, when I hate romance and I hate the ‘protective alpha male’ love interest (and by that I mean douchey stalker with no boundaries) , is because Armstrong is amazing at action sequences. The ending was great, and it had some real morally grey areas. Innocents had to suffer, and Stolen doesn’t sugarcoat the brutality of it.

Ty Winsloe is the main villain, and although he’s only human and not as compelling as say the super powered nasties that occupied Anita Blake‘s rogue gallery (before the series deteriorated into paint by numbers porn), he is still a realistic and unpleasant character you wouldn’t want to be trapped with. Xavier’s intriguingly untrustworthy, and … well, I won’t spoil it, but not only do we have wolves, but wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Paige and the all female witches were a breath of fresh air the series seriously needed. Too often in Urban Fantasy, we have a sassy, tomboyish heroine who’s the only strong female in the entire world who isn’t an evil slutty bitch who’s trying to steal the heroine’s man raaww.

Because of the insanely ridiculous ‘only female werewolf’ thing with Elena -which makes absolutely no sense but that’s a post for another time- this series was in danger of becoming this. I loved that Paige and Ruth love traditionally feminine things and it isn’t treated as inferior.

I loved it when Paige and Elena butt heads and Ruth casually freezes her and starts calmly telling them off for their lack of manners. I’m always a big fan of strong older woman and Ruth was great- reminding me of Grams from Charmed before the later series made her seem like kind of an asshole.

And now, with all the positive, we must get to the annoying element that blights all the Elena books: her taste in men.Fucking Clay- even reading about this man makes me feel suffocated and like I need space. Granted,  Elena is away from him most of the novel and so he’s less of an issue than, but their relationship still does manage to grate on my enjoyment. Here is a choice quote about their relationship:

I had to admit that since we’d been been back together, he really had been working at being less controlling, possessive, and over-protective. Not that he was giving me up and letting me live a semi-independent life. We kept separate bedrooms, but that was as far as it went.

Yes, Clay is needy, controlling, and imposes himself on her every second of the day. But of it isn’t because he’s a creepy, co-dependent douchebag. Oh no, it’s because he’s a werewolf and he can’t help it:

As part of my own relationship-saving efforts, I’d had to admit that this togetherness thing was part of Clay’s nature. Bitten as a child, he’d forgotten ever having been human […] He was more wolf than human. About the togetherness thing, Clay would argue that you’d never see a wolf telling its mate that it had to ‘get away for a while’ or needed ‘some personal space.’

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Yeah, that’s not how wolves work. If this were a real wolf pack, you wouldn’t get a mate and Elena (Alpha female by default) would start banging Jeremy, so I really wouldn’t pull the wolf card, Clayton. And of course, like with so many other stalking, douche-bag werewolf boyfriends (HAUPTMAN) , he blames it on being more wolf when this douchey behaviour has nothing to do with wolves- which I will go into on another post.

Second of all, as part of our relationship saving moves, Elena had to compromise and accept his stalking, possessive behavior as just how he is? Bullshit. This isn’t a compromise thing, this is HIS problem, HIS issue, HIS shit, not Elena’s, and there is no in between, HE needs to change- and agreeing to compromise is just enabling his behavior. Also, Elena’s making all the compromises. Throughout most of the series (I haven’t completed it, so I suppose it could change although I doubt it), he’s never less possessive, so Elena is just accepting it. Sure, she puts up a few token complaints because she’s a strong independent woman ™, but she never follows through, never forces him to change.

 I really can’t consider Elena as the strong heroine she’s marketed as when she puts up with this and their relationship- as much as I enjoy their snark and banter, their sexuality and rebelliousness, it really stops me from truly enjoying her books. I know I’ve railed on about this, and this is more a complaint about the series as a whole, but this unhealthy relationship dynamic really does ruin the Elena books for me. 

Thank God, the very nature of this plot meant that Clay and his co dependent behavior couldn’t ruin this book- although is it weird that a book where Elena is imprisoned by a pervert who can control her every move felt less suffocating than an average scene with her and her One True Love. But still, even if our heroine was kidnapped, at least she got to spend most of the novel trying to break out by herself without Clay breathing down her neck. And, once SPOILER she did escape, there was too much going on plot wise for Clay’s possessiveness to really cause any problems. 

The only other problem is that again, we have Elena doing incredibly  stupid and wreckless things. In the last book we had her running off alone to rescue Clay (actually running, instead of getting a bus or something- but fuck logic, WE NEED DRAMATIC TENSION!) This time we have her getting captured due to her own wreckless actions. We also have her HIGHLIGHT TO SHOW SPOILERS stopping in the middle of her own escape – still in the danger zone, after weeks of imprisonment and sexual abuse- to fuck her goddamed boyfriend.I mean, come on! A bunny in heat would exercise more control than this. It makes me doubt Elena when she says she earned her position as ‘voice of the alpha’, as I don’t think she’s shown to be responsible enough to babysit a pot plant, let alone… hell, let alone focus on her own escape!

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All the face palms  in the world can’t numb the pain

Gah, but in spite of all these frustrations what keeps me coming back to this series is the fact that Armstrong is an amazingly good writer. Her prose is elegant, descriptive and great at evoking scene and atmosphere while never slipping into any shade of purple.Her dialogue is natural and witty and her action sequences are always intense. If you can put up with the Alpha male douche love interest or *gasp* like paranormal romance, then I’d definitely check this series out, as this is definitely the best the genre has to offer.

Verdict: Stolen does a good job of transitioning women of the other world from a stand alone book about werewolves to an ensemble piece about multiple supernaturals. Not only that, but it’s a good story in its own right and definitely worth checking out if you enjoyed Bitten.

RATING:3 Kick ass she-wolves out of five

 

 

REVIEW: THE TERACOTTA BRIDE- by Zen Cho

BLURB: In the tenth court of hell, spirits wealthy enough to bribe the bureaucrats of the underworld can avoid both the torments of hell and the irreversible change of reincarnation.

It’s a comfortable undeath … even for Siew Tsin. She didn’t choose to be married to the richest man in hell, but she’s reconciled. Until her husband brings home a new bride.

Yonghua is an artificial woman crafted from terracotta. What she is may change hell for good. Who she is will transform Siew Tsin. And as they grow closer, the mystery of Yonghua’s creation will draw Siew Tsin into a conspiracy where the stakes are eternal life – or a very final death.- Amazon books.

Review: Zen Cho is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, especially when it comes to fantasy. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant Victorian Steampunk and one of the only ones to explore Britain’s relationships with the word around it, while The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo was a fantastic 20s romance written in a style that was reminiscent of the Master of Romance herself, Jane Austen. The Terracotta Bride is another fantastic entry from the author, a 51 page novella that combines the Malaysian/ Chinese afterlife with a little bit of speculative fiction.

I’ve seen a few stories set in the afterlife and usually they are inspired by Judeo Christian mythology (and in one case the Shinto afterlife), but I’ve never seen one set in the ancient Chinese/ Malaysian afterlife before. This in and of itself makes The Teracotta Bride fascinating; in this world, wealth often depend on the fidelity of one’s descendants as material things are burnt in order to give their ancestors luxuries in the afterlife; there are ten hells in this world, and depending on which sin you commit, you do a certain amount of time suffering a certain punishment until you atone for any offences you’ve committed in your past life; the tenth hell, however, is for those who are either wealthy enough to bribe their way up there, or for those who have committed no sins of note, and this is a comfy waiting room for reincarnation.

It’s interesting that none of the people in the tenth hell actually wanted to be reincarnated; if you become reincarnated, you lose all your memories and personallity, all of who you are and it’s unknown how many horrors of the flesh you would have to endure again when you’re reborn. It was also interesting how the world was very patriarchal and corrupt; although our heroine Siew Tsin, was born in a later time period (it’s unclear when, but most likely in the forties onward as she was hit by a motorcar and possessed ambitions), the world of the afterlife is deeply patriarchal to the point her male ancestor is able to sell her to off to a powerful male as his bride.

Another interesting thing is that the afterlife appears to contain the same flaw as the majority of other afterlives: that your age and appearance is that of when you die. This means that authors always end up using protagonists that die young and tend to be surrounded (Eve and Kristoff Nast from Haunted were in their forties, Siew Tsin was only 19). This makes no logical sense though, as since your body has gone, why would you be bound to your body’s age? Why wouldn’t you appear the age of the prime of your life? Wouldn’t it mean that it would be more forward thinking to kill yourself in your late teens/ twenties/ early thirties after an intense exercise boot camp to ensure you spend the rest of eternity in the best body possible?

But this is a minor problem. The ideas in this novella are true to the idea of the afterlife. Heard of the teracotta soldiers buried with the Chinese Emporor. Well, after the emporor is reincarnated and they have no one left to serve, they don’t disappear, but become like masterless ronin and reek havoc. Those paper servants burnt to serve their master? Are they real with a consciousness, or mindless? The Teracotta Bride is a fascinating idea. Instead of copying the idea of the ancients and building teracotta figurines, what would happen if we used our advanced knowledge of technology to create a servant? This novel then goes down the traditional science fiction route with this character and asks the usual science fiction questions. We have a perfect woman created to serve the needs of her male owner. What is she thinking? Can her true will be brought out from behind her smile? Does a robot have a soul? This is science fiction at its most recognizable, but I’ve never seen these questions asked in this context. This gives the story a fresh feel.

The story itself is just very well paced and interesting. Siew Tsin is the passive doormat character (like RGU’s Anthy, The Color Purple’s Celie, or Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price) who observes the action around her. However, when she meets this terracotta bride, she slowly develops a sweet friendship with her and gains a reason to rebel (like Celie and Anthy). Junsheng and Ling’en are not likable characters, as they are so self absorbed, but they are interesting and the eternal marital disputes between them is interesting. Ling’en even relents from being the cold imperious ice queen and is even able to show some compassion for Siew Tsin, giving her more depth and making her a more human character.

VERDICT: With a unique and well realized world, excellent pacing and some interesting characters, The Terracotta Bride is a brilliant novella is an interesting novella which I would strongly recommend.

RATING: 5 artificial girls / 5