Hamilton, Laurell K: Incubus Dreams

Sex or Mystery – You pay your money and take your choice.

Inevitably, any review of the twelfth book in a series will mainly address established readers. It’s certainly not the point for a newcomer to start, but if you’re one of those, do stick with me to the end of this piece. For established readers, I suspect this is the point in the series where you are going to find yourselves dividing.

For those who haven’t read these books, Anita Blake is a vampire hunter, a licensed executioner and latterly a federal marshal, dealing with preternatural cases. Along the way, she has acquired friends and foes in law enforcement, an increasing array of lovers among the undead and lycanthropic communities, and a kind of sexual vampirism of her own. There has always been a tension in the books between the whodunit/thriller plots with their supernatural and monstrous elements, and the on-going complications of Anita’s personal life, exploring the nature of desire, the power balances within relationships and issues of honesty with oneself and one’s partners. These aspects play off each other throughout the series, with both the horrific and the erotic graphically illustrated.

However, in recent volumes, the relationship elements have come to predominate. This is even more the case in Incubus Dreams. While the story opens with a dead girl outside a strip joint, apparently murdered by vampires, Anita’s domestic complexities rapidly thrust themselves to the fore, to the exclusion of pretty much all else for several hundred pages. An interlude revisits Anita’s day job reanimating the dead to settle legal disputes and then explains why asking the zombies of murder victims who killed them is a bad idea. After that though, the relationship issues take up where they left off. After another few hundred pages, the initial murder is swiftly resolved in dramatic fashion that shows how the path to a legally sanctioned undeath can be as lethally paved with good intentions as the fabled road to hell. Anita is left with new clarity in her love affairs as well as the prospect of pursuing the vamps that got away in some subsequent book.

This is a skillfully written book, not merely as regards the accomplished prose. The pain caused by deaths natural and untimely is powerfully evoked, as are the reactions of all those concerned. Abuses of power and abrogation of responsibilities within non-romantic relationships are examined with uncompromising clarity. The erotica is woven around an astute examination of lust versus love and the problems of unbalanced needs within any partnership. Anita is called to the initial murder scene from a wedding, where she has opted to wear a tuxedo rather than a pumpkin orange bridesmaid’s dress. This is apt given so much of the subsequent discussion centers on just who wears the trousers in her highly unconventional household.

However, the psychosexual aspect is not what drew me to these books in the first place. I would rather still be following a supernatural murder case in step-by-step detail. I enjoyed the practicalities of a society where were-creatures face prejudice that makes panic over AIDS look like a minor fuss. I find the eerie implications of actually being able to raise the dead for benign and mundane matters fascinating. Now these things are only touched on in passing, and I feel rather let down. What has happened over the threatened extinction of the Smoky Mountain Trolls? When it comes to Anita’s love life, frankly, there are only so many possible combinations of two, three or more people and their various appendages and orifices in a bed or anywhere else. Once you rule out those that have already been tried, it’s no great challenge to anticipate the next couplings. It’s a measure of the extent to which this book just wasn’t gripping me that I could do this.

This is a personal response but I hope it will be of use. If this trend towards emotional discovery is one you’ve welcomed in the series, you should definitely enjoy this installment. If you prefer your supernatural adventure with more action and less sexual angst, you may decide to look elsewhere on the bookshelves. There’s certainly no lack of talent in this burgeoning sub-genre, which indisputably owes much to Laurell K. Hamilton and Anita Blake. If you haven’t read this series and are now wondering what to do, I would certainly advise you take a look at the first volume, Guilty Pleasures. I’ve found few people who could put it down once they started reading it. As the series develops and the emphasis shifts, you can make your own choices.

This review originally appeared in Emerald City.

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