I have some good news and some bad news about Skin Trade, the seventeenth book in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. The good news is there are only 2 properly defined sex scenes in the whole book, and the bad news is there are only 2 properly defined sex scenes in the whole book.
OK, so I’m conflicted about this series, but I keep buying the damn books soon after their release, just not in hardback anymore.
Anita arrives at her office to find a head in a box sent by the vampire Vittorio (the stripper-killer in Incubus Dreams) from Las Vegas and is on a flight there within hours. When she arrives, she finds that her preternatural reputation has preceded her and she is held for several hours, having to justify her powers, humanity, knowledge and skill to the local law enforcement. Given that she is known for living with the Master Vampire of her city and her ties to the shapeshifter community, the cops’ suspiciousness towards her seems reasonable, but it reads like short, pretty little female Anita manfully holding her own in a pissing contest with the big boys, and it slows down the book’s pacing. My other complaint with this is that it’s a way of delaying progress in the case during the day so that the team is forced to engage with the vampire at night.
After proving herself against the psychic SWAT team, she is joined by three other federal marshals, fellow executioner and sometime mentor Edward (aka good ol’ boy Ted Forrester), serial killer Olaf (aka Marshall Otto Jeffries) and ladies’ man Bernardo Spotted Horse.
This is actually a good move. If you’re one of the many readers who don’t like the direction the ardeur has taken this series, you might be happy to see a return to its roots in preternatural crime solving. Relocating to Vegas allows the story to move away from the shit storm Anita’s relationship with the St. Louis cops has become, which is more conflict than the story really needs.
Secondly, it gets her away from her collection of men and cuts down on a lot of the emotional and sexual conflict that’s been at the forefront of the most recent books. That’s not to say that the ardeur is totally negated, even if there appears to be a concerted effort to redirect the focus of the series away from sex. I compare it to Hamilton having given Anita a chronic condition—it’s unwanted and inconvenient, but it’s there for good and all you can do is make allowances and work around it as best you can.
Also, it creates a new type of tension between Olaf and Anita. In Obsidian Butterfly he developed a crush on her, for being a petite brunette like his favourite victims while seeming to match him in bloodlust and killing ability. For the privilege of feeding Anita’s ardeur, Olaf would be willing to try sex without blood and violence, but only for Anita. Serial killer Olaf was unsettling enough, but seeing him try to figure out how to get someone to date him just goes to a whole new level of creepy.
When Anita finally gets to see the bodies, she smells tiger on them, which means she has to visit the Master of the City’s wife, weretiger queen Chang-Bibiana and engage in preternatural politics. Diplomacy has never been Anita’s strong suit and Chang-Bibi has her own agenda, so the metaphysical fur flies.
Since Vittorio was the one who sent Anita the head, the case is mostly about vampires, even if they take a back seat to the shapeshifter scenes during the day. There are some very important developments in the tug of war over Anita between Jean-Claude, Belle Morte and the Mother of All Darkness.
My issues with the language
Most of the time the writing is good and liberally peppered with Anita’s insights into the human nature and explanations of preternatural culture and powers. She has frequently been accused of being blunt, direct and speaking more like a man, but sometimes the men say some flowery stuff. I get that he’s psychic, but I can’t really imagine a SWAT officer having this much poetry in him:
“God, your aura crackles with energy. It’s like if you let all your shields down, you’d burn… But it would burn black, as if the night could catch fire and eat the world.”
The word “spill” is greatly and irritatingly overused throughout the book to describe anything from the length of someone’s back or hair, or a crowd of people moving in a single direction, or even ejaculation (I guess the condoms broke BOTH times? I’d send a letter of complaint to Trojan about that).
Squicky sex scenes
Some of the sex was somewhat off-putting. In one encounter, Anita was having sex with one incredibly well-endowed, attractive man (aren’t they all?) while another man she’d previously had sex with is giving the new guy pointers like, “Don’t worry about hurting her. She’ll be tight but very wet,” or, “She’s a screamer.” Nice.
Anita admits that although she likes being in a bed between two men, she doesn’t want to curl up with a woman, via the charming expression, “I preferred to be sandwiched between beefcake, not cheesecake.” I hope I didn’t understand what she meant, because the visual I got raised an instinctive cringe.
*** SPOILER ***
On top of everything else, a newly introduced sexual partner is a shy 16-year old virgin. That’s right, he’s only 16! Anita is taken over by someone more powerful than she is and she pops his cherry in one of those orgies she has no memory of. As disgusted as she was afterwards, Anita had other priorities and the excuse was made that 16 is the age of consent in Nevada, which absolutely justifies Hamilton’s inclusion of such a young character in this context in the first place. NOT.
*** END SPOILER ***
Some writers will argue that you should write what you know, which may explain why Anita is a small technophobic woman with dark curls, but I believe that Anita Blake has evolved into a canon Sue.
Anita describes herself as someone who “scrubs up well” rather than being truly beautiful, yet most of the attractive men she meets want to have sex with her and there are very few female characters to compete against her for male attention. Then those rare women are shown to be inferior to Anita in some way (e.g. Belle Morte is beautiful, powerful and fantastic in bed, but is ruthlessly power-hungry and even a “monster” in the eyes of her former lovers). Those fortunate few on the ever-growing list who are granted entry into Anita’s magical hoo-ha are spiritually improved for the experience. Anita’s void is never the only one to be filled by sex.
Anita’s growing powers tend to stretch the bounds of belief. She’s a necromancer, human servant to a Master of the City and head of his own bloodline, human master to a vampire servant, carrier of the ardeur, and has several strains of lycanthropy (with extra strength and fast healing ability) without the downside of actually turning furry. So, obviously, all of the most powerful vampires want to mark Anita as their human servant.
In a clash with the tiger queen/goddess, Anita trumps her by carrying extra strains of tiger lycanthropy, including one that was previously extinct. How could a lowly goddess queen who was actually born of the species possibly compete with that?
A minor point, but if Anita tries on clothes, she usually has to refer to her breast size. After an injury, her shirt was cut off and she had to buy a replacement from a gift shop and commented, “If the T-shirt had fit any tighter across my chest it would have ripped like the Incredible Hulk’s pants.” If she’s really that bloody petite, she shouldn’t have any trouble finding a bigger size. Although come to think of it, have we ever seen Anita lying on her stomach?
But in Anita’s defence, the series is written in the first person, so all we see of the world is what Anita sees, so it can be useful for Anita to have such a well-rounded view of the characters and events. If we like a particular male character, there’s a good chance we’ll get to find out how good they are in bed.
So why the hell am I still reading this series?
Even though there are things that make me roll my eyes in complete disbelief, I still enjoy reading the books for the most part.
One of Hamilton’s strengths lies in the police procedural. There are laws in place made by politicians who are completely out of touch with vampire and shapeshifter cultures and abilities, and there are massive, important gaps in these laws. One example is the Nevada varmint law, where three strikes of any kind will get a preternatural citizen killed as they are a danger to the human population, even if any of those strikes was for a petty crime like shoplifting, and there is debate as to whether or not this type of “criminal” should be legally executed in the public interest.
Similarly, she handles group dynamics well. Each of the marshals have a niche within their little group, but while Anita and Edward have reputations and Olaf has gained some useful knowledge of serial killers through his own extracurricular activities, Bernardo tends to get overlooked, and since he’s a very successful flirt, he’s often perceived as a beefcake tag-along and gets a bit of a chip on his shoulder at times for feeling like he has to justify his involvement. It’s interesting to see the moments when people step out of their proscribed 2-dimensional role and you see how they’ve been largely underestimated.
Even the cops don’t always present a united front. There is conflict between those on the front lines and those with desk jobs, and cops who have seen Anita’s abilities for themselves disagree with their superiors who get their account second- or third-hand.
Whether or not they have merit, I like reading Anita’s insights into why people behave the way they do.
Anita’s relationship with Edward has been further developed, through some combination of his life with Donna and the kids having brought out a softer side, or experience having shown him that Anita has his kids’ backs and his as well. He feels responsible for introducing Olaf to Anita and acts as Anita’s boyfriend to keep Olaf at a distance, even though they have more of a sibling relationship and he is the one she trusts most with details of her metaphysical condition.
And as irritating as Anita’s Mary Sue-ness can be, there is a part of me that likes escaping into a world where I’m desired by all these attractive, hung and skilled men, I’m always right and anyone who doesn’t like me must be jealous, ignorant or both. Anita can be very high-strung and, as someone who over-thinks things on a regular basis, it’s a way for me to relate to her.
Yay or nay?
I’m not sure if there is a definitive answer on this one as opinions of this series tend to be quite polarised and it depends on what you want to get out of the books, but Skin Trade is more for fans of the earlier, crime-based books in the series. If you enjoy reading about Nathaniel, Micah, Jean-Claude, Asher, Richard, Damian, Jason et al, you’ll probably end up disappointed because most of the usual suspects don’t appear in the book at all and those who do play a very minor role.
Skin Trade is published in Australia by Hachette under the Headline imprint. You can read an excerpt here.
Where you can buy this book
AUSTRALIA: Booktopia | Dymocks | Ever After | Fishpond | Galaxy | Great Book Escape | Intrigue | Nile | Rendezvous | Romance Direct | Romantic Reflections | Siren | More
EBOOKS: Books On Board | Dymocks | eBooks.com | Fictionwise | Kindle
WORLDWIDE: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Book Depository | Skin Trade
Books in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series (UK/Australia)
Books in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series (US)