Desert Isle Keeper
Narcissus in Chains
I’ve always found Diana Gabaldon’s quote on the Anita Blake covers highly apropos. Despite their different subjects, Gabaldon’s and Laurell K. Hamilton’s styles resonate strongly. Both are phenomenally gifted storytellers, a double-edged sword because the hands of a great storyteller are seldom a safe or comfortable place to be. There are no cosy guarantees that things will turn out as you want; the test of true greatness may be if the unexpected story they deliver turns out to be what you need.
After Obsidian Butterfly, whose ultraviolent story pushed its heroine to a crisis point, I expected Narcissus in Chains to go in one of two directions. Either Anita was going to soften up a bit and learn to compromise, or she would become such a powerful sociopath that she would be impossible to identify with or like anymore. Surprisingly, both predictions were right and wrong: Anita does learn some emotional flexibility, but her powers expand to a point where she’s clearly no longer human. However, this made her more enjoyable to read, not less: abandoning the pretense of human limitations lets Anita explore the inhuman side of her world, taboo fantasies and exotic imagined subcultures, without crippling inhibitions.
If you haven’t already begun the series, this isn’t the best place to start, because it immediately builds on characters and situations established in earlier books. (Don’t start at the beginning, either. Any book between Bloody Bones and Blue Moon will give the flavor of the series.)
Anita, Jean-Claude, and Richard take steps to repair those aura holes Anita discovered in Obsidian Butterfly. The necromancer, master vampire, and top-dog werewolf have merged their powers, but because Anita refused to open to the boys fully, they’ve all been walking around with big gaps in their spiritual defenses. For six months, Anita avoided the fellas entirely, and unbeknownst to her they’ve been paying for it, vulnerable to challenges to their authority. “Marrying the marks” affects them all; Jean-Claude is more human, Richard absorbs some of Anita’s toughness.
Anita, however, is the most profoundly changed. She’s gained superhuman powers, but picked up some impressive new vices. Like Richard, she now has a “beast” inside her, but doesn’t know why. Is it a side effect of marrying the marks? Of her close associations with her pack of wereleopards? Or did one of her leopards infect her accidentally-on-purpose, so she’ll be turning furry come the next full moon? Anita has also contracted the compulsive “ardeur” that makes Jean-Claude such a Vamp-O-Matic lust machine. She can gain power through sexual energy, but she has to feed that sexual compulsion daily, and the ardeur isn’t picky about what, or who, it makes her do. And if that weren’t complex enough, there’s a new guy in town, an alpha-leopard who’s Nimir-Raj to Anita’s Nimir-Ra. She’s deeply attracted to him even though she’s not sure she likes him all that much. Is there room for another name on Anita’s already overbooked dance card?
“Hmm,” you say. “That sounds like an awful lot of sexual content in what was already a fairly erotic series.” And you’d be right. For many Hamilton fans this book will represent a crossroads. Whereas Obsidian Butterfly upped the violence and its deadening impact on Anita, Narcissus raises the sexual ante, pushing the S&M and erotica quotients to new heights. I expect there will be readers who will quit the series for good, and readers who will be entirely pleased. I’m pleased. For the last few installments I’ve been increasingly frustrated, not by the expanding erotic content, but by Anita’s unbending intolerance of it. She was so rigid it felt like she might snap. Now she’s loosening up a little, and I like her much the better for it.
There’s also an action plot with a Bad Guy, but it’s such a secondary concern that it’s pretty much tertiary. Anyone disappointed by Obsidian Butterfly’s detour away from Anita’s romantic life will be pleased to learn that Narcissus in Chains is a full-fledged entry in the ongoing soap opera, As the Werewolf Turns. Shapeshifter politics, vampire history, group sex, dominance and submission – it’s all here.
This is a definite keeper, a book I rank highly in the series and will certainly reread. However, I wish that Hamilton would rein in her make-it-up-as-I-go-along plotting just a tad. An increasing portion of each book dwells on new rules to cover an inconsistency from a previous book, revising vampire powers, Jean-Claude’s age, and so on. Compared to the exhilarating rush of the action the inconsistencies (“retcons” in SF parlance) are forgivable, but they always pull me out of the story. The free-association storytelling presents a more serious problem early in the book, where Anita stumbles from one situation to another in a disconnected way. It takes about eight chapters before the author herself seems sure where the story is going, very disorienting to the reader. It’s an issue that struck me even on a reread, and should have been tightened up in editing. My one wish for the series would be for Hamilton to give more of a sense that she isn’t driving without a map most of the time. However, as with other great storytellers, part of the trick is for the reader to let go, and just enjoy the ride.