01/09/2008. Contributed by Jennifer Howell
pub: Orbit. 384 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-602-3.
check out websites: www.orbitbooks.net and www.laurellkhamilton.org
Time was when Laurell K. Hamilton pretty much ruled the fledgling urban fantasy genre, rolling out a series of punchy, gory books about Anita Blake, just your average girl who raised the dead for a living. Time went on, the genre hit a boom. Anita got slightly more sociopathic but it was still good. Right the way up until we hit book ten, in fact and then it got very, very bad very quickly.
Reading 'Micah', a novella set between books twelve and thirteen and the stories in 'Strange Candy' (which also includes 'Those Who Seek Forgiveness', the first short introducing Anita) is somewhat bittersweet. There are several reminders that hell, yes, LKH can or could write like a dream back in the day, but this only ever really applied to her Anita books. There was a reason she never quite made it with her first published novel, high fantasy 'Nightseer' and the stories set in the same world included in 'Strange Candy' ('A Token For Celandine', 'The Curse-Maker', 'Winterkill' and 'Stealing Souls') similarly lack the finesse of her urban fantasy. They're not terrible, just mostly po-faced, unremarkable standard heroic fantasy snippets that start to blend into one another the more you read. 'The Curse-Maker' and 'Stealing Souls' at least have a psycho vampiric sword to keep things vaguely amusing, but that's about it.
The other two traditional fantasy shorts in here are more promising though. 'Geese' is for the most part an evocative, dreamy narrative (and LKH's first person narratives are usually her strongest stories) of a girl hiding in goose form from a murderer and from a geas. The 'defeat evil overlord' plot is fairly cliché, but the setting and the shape-shifting are well-wrought. 'House Of Wizards' is a silly bit of fluff, about a new bride forced to get her scarily powerful magical in-laws in order through her...er...housekeeping skills. It's more substantial (only just) than the other housework-themed story here, 'A Clean Sweep', but mainly just vaguely sweet and faintly amusing.
Of the more contemporary shorts, 'A Lust Of Cupids' is nicely tart and cynical: in a world where cute little Cupids literally fly around targeting potential lovers, a couple would really prefer to be left alone to get on with things by themselves. 'A Scarcity Of Lake Monsters' is a nice little tale of the Enchanted Forest National Park, where a marine biologist is trying to work out exactly how the titular endangered monsters reproduce.
One of the stand-outs is 'The Edge Of The Sea'. A woman witnesses her room-mate murdered on the beach outside their house, but isn't quite sure what kind of monster she saw until it returns for her one night. Not as gorily scary as the premise might suggest, the author mentions in a preface that it was inspired by her own 'fear and longing' of the ocean and that shines through in the wistful, careful narrative, always slightly on edge.
The other three stories are all set in the Anita-verse, although 'Selling Houses' doesn't involve any of the series characters and involves an estate agent trying to work out how to sell a house where a demonic possession massacred very messily an entire family, As it turns out, in a world where vampires are legal citizens, it's all about finding the right buyer. The premise strangely reminded me of one of the characters in Chuck Palahniuk's 'Lullaby', but not quite as insane.
The differences between the roughly sketched Anita in 'Those Who Seek Forgiveness' and the more arch, competent character in 'The Girl Who Was Infatuated With Death' set just before the tenth book are pretty clear, although there's still a lot to enjoy in both stories. It's easy to forget, with all the clutter of the later books, how focused Anita used to be on her job and clients. 'Forgiveness' has Anita trying to raise a corpse who really should have been left to lie, while 'The Girl' is a more thorny moral quandary: an underage girl's mother asks Anita to find her before she convinces her vampire boyfriend to turn her into one of them. Of course, the girl has advanced bone cancer and being turned would avoid the leg amputation scheduled in a couple of days...
Which leaves the first half of the book. I ended up reading 'Micah' last because, seriously, an entire story of nothing but Anita and her were-leopard boyfriend Micah angsting about their relationship really did not appeal. True to form, there is some attempt at a plot where Anita unwittingly becomes a target whilst raising a dead mob witness, but mainly it's just her having yet another tantrum for no apparent reason because Micah is 'too perfect' and being too nice to her. Yes, he is too perfect which is why his character is so insanely dull...
We do find out exactly how Micah became a were-leopard, but frankly I wasn't all that fussed about learning anything about a character whose main function in the books is usually just to agree with everything Anita says. The novella doesn't particularly add anything to the series, unless you really wanted to know how Micah got furry in the first place.
As an omnibus edition, it's really only worth reading for the 'Strange Candy' stories, considering that the novella has all the tiresome flaws of the later 'Anita Blake' books, but overall, they serve as a timely reminder that LKH's recent work is not exactly representative of her talents as a writer.
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