Filler content with vampire hunting

A review posted to the old TTA Press website on 9 August 2007:-

INCUBUS DREAMS by LAURELL K. HAMILTON
Orbit paperback, 736pp, £7.99

The vampire has always exercised a strong attraction for female writers, with Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles the most obvious success story. But with the Queen of the Damned’s discovery of Jesus competition for her crown is intensifying, and Laurell K. Hamilton seems to have edged ahead of the pack.

Hamilton is the creator of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, described by some as what Buffy will be when she grows up. The series is set in a reality where vampires have legal rights just like everybody else and are protected as long as they stick to the rules, but when they fall off the wagon retribution is swift and deadly, which is where Ms Blake comes in, her job to deal with lawbreakers in a manner that doesn’t allow for repeat offenders. Blake is also a registered necromancer and romantically involved with various supernatural beings, which makes for an interesting life.

The character first appeared in 1993’s Guilty Pleasures. Incubus Dreams is the twelfth in the series, and by now bloat has set in, with almost three times as many pages as her first outing and more padding than a DFS sofa.

The plot concerns a group of rogue vampires murdering strippers, or at least that’s what the back cover blurb would have us believe. Blake visits a murder scene early on, but then her investigation is put on the back burner for nearly five hundred pages, after which it is quickly brought to a head with copious bloodshed but no real resolution. There are plenty of subplots, most of which are still hanging by the end of the book. The excitement, the borderline hard boiled feel of Guilty Pleasures, with its snappy dialogue and taut plotting is gone, and in its place we have something akin to soap opera and with an emphasis on relationship stuff, as each and every character takes time out to analyse and critique Blake’s one on one dealings with a whole host of other people, while she doles it out to them with a similar largesse, which might have been interesting at less length, but as is comes over as tedious and repetitive.

And then there’s the sex. Lashings of it.

Regardless of what they put on the back cover, the heart of the book concerns Blake’s learning to deal with the new powers she has gained as a result of forming a triumvirate with werewolf Richard and vampire Jean-Claude. Specifically, she has to learn to curb something called the ardeur, a passion which can only be controlled by regular bouts of orgasmic sex (say every six hours). There is a metaphysical side to all these sexual shenanigans, which is why Blake can’t simply use a vibrator but has to cut a swathe through the male characters, adopting some novel living arrangements (not just one, but two ménage a trois). To trivialise, the moral seems to be, if you’re a guy and an associate of Anita Blake, stick close cause it’s only a matter of time before you get lucky.

Eroticism, of course, has long been a part of the vampire’s appeal, so no surprises there, but the sheer volume of copulation here is something of a distraction, while Hamilton seems uncertain how best to deal with this material, veering between soft focus vanilla sex and more graphic interludes, wanting to be both explicit and coy at the same time. She writes a blow job like nobody’s business, but regardless of the occasional feminist subtext I can’t recall any incidents of reciprocity by Blake’s lovers, a curious omission, albeit my attention did wander at moments. She gives us a detailed exposition on the discomfort women experience copulating with men who are well endowed, but never actually uses the word penis, while people spill rather than ejaculate, which makes everything sound somewhat accidental to me.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of good stuff here. The action scenes are gripping. Hamilton is rigorous in delineating a world where vampires have legal status, working out all the ramifications of that and filling in the fine details, such as the CSI who measure bite marks on a victim or the moral implications of a vampire church. And a lot of the characterisation is excellent, Blake having to deal with prejudice from all quarters – resentment because she’s a woman, because she sleeps with ‘monsters’ and because she is so goddamned sexy. She struggles with her own inner demons too, the questions she has about her role as Vampire Executioner and the guilt she feels about her sexual liaisons (Anita is an old fashioned girl, conditioned not to sleep around, and so is constantly led to question values she long took for granted). By such roundabout means the novel addresses issues of prejudice and attendant matters in our own world, the intolerance and judgemental attitudes that affect far too many people.

But the good stuff is lost in the great sprawl that is Incubus Dreams, a novel crying out for a skilled editor to whisper in the writer’s ear the publishing world’s equivalent of ‘Remember thou art mortal’, to get Hamilton to cut the fat and focus on the essentials of storytelling, to strike a finer balance between the action sequences and the emotional elements.

Never thought I would say this, but less sex would have been nice too. You know, sometimes less really is more, even when it’s metaphysical.

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