The supernatural has always been an alluring topic for entertainment. Usually it involves our world, but with superhuman (and subhuman) creatures thrown in to add drama, sex, and danger. There’s been a serious resurgence in supernatural entertainment — particularly that involving vampires — over the past decade, though, that has caused it to expand from a niche market to an all-encompassing fad. The love-it-or-hate-it Twilight franchise, HBO’s hit series “True Blood”, and rumors of a new “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie are just a few of the many examples of society’s affection for all things paranormal. Books are where many of these supernatural franchises germinate, and the ubiquity of fanged heroes and witchy heroines is almost hackneyed.
Ask anyone who considers himself a bookworm (particularly one who enjoys alternative genres like fantasy, horror, and sci-fi) if he’s heard of Anita Blake; no doubt he’ll respond with an emphatic nod followed by an annoyed groan. Laurell K. Hamilton’s long-running series that follows the eponymous necromancer/federal marshal isn’t the first to combine elements of mystery and crime dramas with the supernatural, but it might be one of the most well-known.
The saga of Anita Blake is famous for having fallen victim to one of the many tragedies of serialized tales: overabundance. Overabundance of characters, overabundance of plot, overabundance of sex. Sex is perhaps the thing for which most readers decry the Anita Blake series. Though romance has always been a significant part of Anita’s life, it was a supporting theme to the first few books, limited so that the main focus — the crime, the mystery, etc. — could be at the forefront of the book. As the series went on, the books became increasingly focused on Anita’s love live — or sex life — than on her job. As a way to make certain Anita has sex at every opportunity, the writer even cursed her with a vampiric love disease — the ardeur — that makes her ill if she doesn’t fornicate regularly.
Hamilton defended her books by pointing out that female sexuality is rarely explored in literature, and implied that, if Anita Blake were Andrew Blake, the fuss about all her (his) sexual encounters would be much less intense. I think that’s a fair assessment. What Hamilton seems to misunderstand is that her fans are not angry with her for allowing Anita to be a sexual being. They’re angry because Anita used to be a round character — one who conveyed strength, intelligence, and talent while navigating a male-dominated field — but has been reduced to a sex-crazed cardboard cutout of her old self.
There are two other book series I’ve read that exist in the same genre as the Anita Blake books and that have managed to avoid garnering collective groans from readers. At least so far. While the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris and “The Hollows” series by Kim Harrison have not cultivated quite as much of a following as Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, they at least are still providing solid, profitable volumes that stay true to their origins. Below I compare and contrast the three series in an attempt to determine where Hamilton went wrong, and what Harris and Harrison are doing right.
Strong, but not invincible, female heroines
Much like Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse and Rachel Morgan (the protagonist in “The Hollows”) are supernatural, independent women. Where Anita Blake is a necromancer (among other things), Sookie is a telepath and Rachel a witch. Rachel and Anita are both connected to law enforcement or crime fighting in some way, and though Sookie is merely a barmaid at a small town tavern, she is something of an amateur detective. Like any good protagonist, these three ladies are flawed. They have moments of weakness, they face villains more powerful than they, and they know their limits.
As with any typical hero(ine)-based tale, the three protagonists become more powerful or more knowledgeable as the series goes on. As they face increasingly strong villains and dangerous situations, they learn new things about themselves or the worlds they inhabit. Anita becomes more involved with the Were factions and gains new powers over the dead and undead alike, Sookie constantly learns of new supernatural elements while simultaneously navigating their political structures with the ease of a seasoned diplomat, and Rachel discovers that she has nearly limitless talent in her witchy abilities and has the potential to be an incredibly powerful witch.
No, I’m not talking about Anita’s sexualization — that has little to do with morals, in my opinion. What I mean here is that, as the protagonists “power-up” every time they encounter a hazardous situation, they simultaneously loosen their stance on their moral codes. Anita swore she would never get involved with vampires in any way, and yet she aligned herself with Jean Claude (her vamp beau) early on in the series. Sookie considers herself a devout Christian, yet she’s killed a woman and has exhibited many behaviors that would shock her pastor. Rachel is firm in the first book that she will never practice the potentially dangerous ley line magic (as opposed to her own, safe earth magic) or deal with demons, yet she puts herself in situations in which she must do both.
I don’t mean to say that any of these characters were wrong for the decisions they made that challenged their morals. In nearly every circumstance, the women had no choice but to do what they did in order to survive or save someone. It’s merely an observation.
The villains that appear in Anita’s world are mostly flat. They are bad baddies who do bad things and don’t have a sliver of goodness in them. There are a few exceptions, and Anita has certainly met her share of anti-heroes — people who do bad things for good reasons or who do enough good to counteract the bad. For the most part, though, Anita is able to take out the bad guy (or gal) without much remorse, feeling certain that he or she was too much of a menace to her world to go on breathing.
Sookie and Rachel face more complex villains. Often the bad guy is someone the women were close to, or who were wholesome enough to avoid notice until they went too far. Many of the villains are anti-heroes, meaning the bad things they do for good reasons are just too much on this side of bad to ignore. Most importantly, this means that Sookie and Rachel are much more wounded by the fate of the villains, recognizing their humanity in spite of the evil deeds they perpetrated.
Yes, the meatiest issue is saved for last. This is largely what many readers attribute Anita’s downfall to, and the most potentially controversial aspect. In order to understand why the romance in the Anita Blake series has gone too far, I have to first examine the use of romance in the other two series.
Sookie’s saga is about two parts mystery to one part romance. However, all the events of the books were kicked off by Sookie’s interest in her first love, vampire Bill Compton. While many readers follow the series in order to be a part of Sookie’s adventures, a great majority are more intrigued by which supernatural beau Sookie will ultimately end up with. There is a fairly small amount of sex in the novels, but Sookie is no prude. Despite being a virgin in her early twenties until the events of the first book (spoiler?), Sookie is obviously very comfortable with her sexuality, and is intimate with a handful of men.
Particularly notable about Sookie is that she frequently admits to being horny, to lusting after various men, and to knowing that she is a desirable woman. One minor pet peeve here is that Sookie’s narration is done in a Southern vernacular, meaning that the author (through Sookie) uses demure euphemisms for sex, sex organs, and orgasms. Otherwise, though, Sookie has no shame about her sexuality.
If Sookie is a 2:1 ratio of mystery to romance, The Hollows series follows more of a 5:1 ratio. Rachel does have romantic interests, and she certainly has sex, but the intimate nature of her relationships is not as much of a focal point as the other elements of the story. Her boyfriends drive the plot in a couple of the books, but otherwise they are secondary to other plot threads. When the story moves to a point at which she is pursuing a man, or being pursued, Rachel displays much of the same confidence and self-awareness as Sookie. She knows what she wants from a man and she isn’t ashamed of her sexuality. The writer occasionally gets more personal and describes a sex scene involving Rachel. Everything is done in careful euphemism — not as homespun as Sookie’s, but still reserved — but it manages to titillate nonetheless.
Notable about Rachel is that she is the only one of the three protagonists to question her gender preferences. Anita is very firmly hetero (at least as far as I have read — to Danse Macabre), never including women in her trysts despite seeming pretty comfortable with bisexual male partners. Sookie claims to be fully heterosexual, though she is much more casual about it, only mentioning it once or twice. Rachel, however, starts the series thinking she’s as hetero as the rest of the leading ladies, until her increasingly intimate friendship with bisexual vampire Ivy makes her wonder. I’m not trying to imply that all books need to address alternative lifestyles; I just find it worth noting that Rachel is the only one of the protagonists who considers it.
Then there’s Anita. Her ratio of plot to romance has flip flopped over time, until it favored romance and sex to such a degree that major plot threads from the earlier books were left hanging. What began as a love triangle — Anita must choose between werewolf Richard and vampire Jean Claude — has turned into an orgy of suitors: Asher the bisexual vampire, Micah and submissive Nathaniel the wereleopards/strippers, Jason the werewolf and one-time platonic friend, along with the few she’s bedded merely to curb her ardeur.
It’s almost comical when I list them out like that. Hamilton implies that Anita catches so much flak from readers simply because she’s a sexual woman, and that a man would not be so poorly received. Perhaps, but if the man in question was sleeping with four female strippers, one of whom feeds on sexual energy and one who wants him to dominate her, I’d guess there would be plenty of complaints.
Like Sookie and Rachel, Anita is a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, and that’s definitely something to applaud. However, Sookie and Rachel manage to save the day whether they stop for a sex break or not, where Anita risks succumbing to her illness if she doesn’t carnally feast every few hours. Where her sexual liberation could be seen as empowering, her slavery to her sexuality is degrading. The fact that she can’t do her job, even live her life, without having sex constantly makes it seem as though she needs sex in order to be useful. Turning her sexuality into a disease belittles it.
But enough about the illness, and enough about the similarities and differences. Anita was already very sexual prior to her infection. Perhaps the thing that most frustrates readers is that Anita has abandoned her ass-kicking, vampire slaying roots to become a nymphomaniacal vampire ally. Were Anita able to combine these two facets of her personality, she would be seen as a woman who is both sensual and dangerous, loving and strong. To separate them, to decide that Anita can’t effectively be a bad ass if she spends most of her time between the sheets (or in the shower, or on top of the desk, or wherever), Hamilton is implying that women can only be one or the other: sexually competent or professionally competent.
Rachel and Sookie are women who manage to be simultaneously sexual and professional. Sookie is even victim to the same problem Anita has — that virtually every man she meets is attracted to her — but she still manages to do her job at the bar, solve the crime, and save the day. Rachel has her own relationship problems, not to mention her intriguing connection to Ivy, but she is able to take down demons and vampires alike and would never miss a bust because she was too busy getting busy.
Anita . . . not so much. If the ardeur is on her, or if her romantic entanglements need to be sorted out, Anita can’t be bothered to finish solving the crime. For instance, the 12th book, Incubus Dreams opens a plot line regarding a boy’s murder. Anita doesn’t manage to solve the murder before the end of the book, but says in the epilogue that she’ll help the police with the investigation. So far, through Book 16, there’s been no resolution to this plot line. Yet, there was an entire book — Micah — devoted to developing Anita’s relationship with the wereleopard, including many graphic sex scenes.
If Laurell K. Hamilton wants to write erotic fiction, she can go ahead. She already has, having branched out to a second series following a world of sexual faeries. The Anita Blake series, however, began as a supernatural crime saga and has devolved into a supernatural romance series. It’s obviously Hamilton’s prerogative to write what she wants, but it shouldn’t surprise her when it causes her to lose a number of readers in the process. As evidenced by Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and Harrison’s Rachel Morgan, complex female leads who have active sex lives can exist, and they can even continue to be powerful bad asses. If Anita Blake could regain some of that bad-assery, perhaps those former readers who think of the series with a collective groan can regain interest in the curly-headed, penguin-loving necromancer.