Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dresden vs Blake - A Comparative Rant

For a while now I've been turning over the compelling points of a rant I have inside of me about the Anita Blake books by Laurel K. Hamilton. Still, I feel a little guilty commandeering this bookish space for something that's not a review, so I've refrained from fleshing out and posting said rant. However, last weekend I finished the latest Harry Dresden novel, by Jim Butcher, and I realized that if I did sort of a "comparative rant," it would be nearly like a review, and as such wouldn't deviate nearly so excessively from the theme of the blog. Right? Right??

*cough* Justification Stated! Begin rant—er, comparison!

First of all, what do these series have in common? A bulleted list, for your pleasure:

  • Proliferation. Butcher and Hamilton each put out a couple of books a year in their various series, which amounts to about one Blake and one Dresden book a year. The Dresden novels are about to have their 10th book published, while the Blake books are coming in at number 16. The former series started in 2000, and the latter in 1993, so they're pretty similarly paced for churning out books.
  • Genre. It can be argued that Hamilton was a pioneer of this particular genre, which roughly falls into the category of Fantasy-Horror-Mystery. Somewhere around book... oh... 7 or so, Hamilton started wandering more into the Romance-Fantasy-Horror-Mystery genre, but we'll get to that.
  • Character profile. Hard-ass, wise-cracking detective solves crimes, helps out the police, calls on the forces of the fantasy world, believes in the power of Good, makes deals with the bad guys anyway, and is worried their being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. Yup, that about sums up both Anita and Harry.
  • Candy! These books are not deep or thought provoking. Occasionally they can be moving, but they aren't great works of literature. They are pure Candy Fantasy - you suck them down in a few hours, a day or so at most, then blink in confusion when you realize they're all gone already. They're not filling, but they sure were delicious going down.
  • Formula. Both of these series have books that are formulaic. That's absolutely not a bad thing, for reason's I won't go into, but if you'd like a fairly decent argument, check out this blog post. The formulas vary a bit between the two series, but both tend to follow a fairly straight-forward pattern resembling:

1) bad stuff starts happening
2) mystery circumstances appear and develop
3) bad guys materialize
4) clues appear
5) bigger bad guys or worse stuff shoes up
6) events get complicated by extenuating circumstances
7) the showdown goes down
8) everything getting resolved tidily.

Obviously, that's quite a number of overlapping points. Both series have a very similar tone and gritty feel to them. So, what's my problem with the Anita Blake books? It's simple: I flat out despise the latest installments. The last book I found even slightly worthwhile was book 9 (Obsidian Butterfly), and everything from then on has been an utter, useless waste of time. Unfortunately, Laurell K. Hamilton has a fantastic hook to keep drawing me back with... the first 6 books or so were really really damn entertaining, and so I got attached to the characters. I was also a young impressionable 15-year-old when I started them, which probably had a lot to do with it. I cared a lot about the people and the world, so now I can't put it down, even when the whole thing has gone to crap. The latest book (The Harlequin) made a teeeensy bit of progress back in the direction of "actually a decent book" but only the most minuscule of improvements.

Oof - that's just the sort of ranting that I set out to avoid, so let me stop before I really get going and start breaking this down point by point in that comparative fashion I started out with.

Perhaps the most glaring change that has come over the Anita Blake books is that, like I mentioned earlier, they've gone from Fantasy-Horror-Mystery in their genre to being more of a Romance-Fantasy-Horror-Mystery. I strongly resisted the temptation to write "Romance" in all caps. Seriously. Don't get me wrong, the books always included a very strong sexual overtone (kind of comes with the vampire territory, after all), and from the very start there was lots of sexual tension. It worked well with the story, and it made sense. Even in book 6 (The Killing Dance) when Anita finally caved and started doing the nasty, it was still good stuff. People have sex, yay! Books should have romance, sex, and relationships. That's what real people do, so books should do it as well.

...but then the sex started commandeering the plot. In a big way. Sure there's a contrived reason behind all the sex, but honestly book after book after book a greater percentage of pages were just sex scenes. Occasionally the scenes fed the plot; more often they were just gratuitous. Book 12 (Incubus Dreams) didn't actually have a mystery in it. I know, go figure! That's practically a mystery in itself! I went through a romance novel phase when I was 18ish, and there just isn't any differentiation between “Fantasy-influenced Romance” (a burgeoning genre, as it turns out) and the tripe that Laurell K. Hamilton started dribbling out around book 10 or 11. I suppose you might be able to call the shift "series evolution" but I can't really be sympathetic to that argument when the plot is so non-existent. Even shojou manga has deeper plots than this, and certainly more memorable characters - which brings me to my next point:

Characterizations and character development. If there's one thing that can be said for Jim Butcher, it's that he knows how to make some solid characters (actually, if there’s only ONE thing to be said, it’s that his goddamn hilarious. But that’s beside the point). Honestly, he's a lot like George R. R. Martin (or at least GRRM writing A Game of Thrones): when a character is introduced, he's described from a deep perspective... you get looks, sure, but you also get an immediate grasp on personality, motives, etc. Butcher and Martin both have a knack for making you remember. I'm not entirely sure what the whole of the trick is, but I do know it's something that Hamilton frankly kind of sucks at, outside of perhaps 3 characters. When Hamilton introduces a character, the first thing she goes for is the clothes. It's always the clothes. Don't get me wrong - she really churns out some sumptuous, vivid, brightly colored descriptions of the lovely and amazing things her characters are wearing. Truly impressive mental pictures. But, think back to high school now... can you remember what everyone at your table at prom was wearing? I honestly have to struggle to remember my own dress, much less everyone else's. Hamilton tries to juggle a limousine-full of characters in beautiful costumes... and she fails, because all she told you was what dress Girl Number One was wearing, rather than regaling you with the tale of how Boy Number 2 got all tangled up in his napkin and cutlery.

Hamilton's supreme lack of solid characterization is a problem for mentally managing the many, many, many characters... and it's also a problem because it impacts character development. It's impossible to develop character that were wishy-washy in the first place, so you end up with a cast of secondary characters (and even some primaries) that you just don't give a damn about. Pretty much the only characters that really develop throughout the series are her original 3, and even these three only grow in superficial ways. I suspect the mediocre-to-crappy development also plays a role in point number... er... 4, maybe? I lost count. Anyway, plays a role in the next point:

Their angst just isn't believable anymore. For 9 books now, I've watched while Harry Dresden got the absolute shit knocked out of him (predictably, he always does), and I've watched Bad Stuff happen to people he cares about. And it gets me EVERY time. The people that Jim Butcher has created in his fantasy world are so very real - they change, they mature, they are subject to faults and reconciliations, and stupid decisions or brilliant insights. I know them all really well, so I actually give a damn. After book 7 or 8, Hamilton stopped taking the time to make her characters memorable, so she lost the ability to make the reader care.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that she (the author) doesn't care. She constantly professes in her blog how attached she is to her characters, how good of "friends" they are. I can totally understand the sentiment - I was in mourning for weeks, maybe even months when I finished The Khaavren Romances because I missed the characters so much. The problem in this case is that Hamilton is so attached that No One. Ever. Dies. Period. She started the series off solidly with a major-ish character being offed in the first book, and then that was it. Sure, bad guys die, cannon fodder dies - eeeeevery once in a while someone who could be maybe construed as a tertiary character (in the grand scheme of the series, if not the book) will kick the bucket. But as a reader, you never ever ever have to worry about something bad actually happening to a main character. I think maybe the day Laurell gets over this hangup and grows a pair – the day she puts some bite behind the realities of death in a world as dangerous as the one she's created, -will be the day that the series starts to be good again. At least it would inspire some emotion in me.

Jim Butcher has no such compunctions. Harry's world is a dangerous and bloody one, and people die. That's how it goes. It hurts, and it may be a cheap emotional hook, but it does its job.

Oh my, it seems I've come to the end of the little list I'd compiled. It feels like maybe there are a few things I've glossed over or forgotten, but when it comes right down to it, I'm feeling pretty great now that I've gotten this long-stewing rant off my chest! Let me wrap this up quickly with a couple of final caveats:

  1. Anita Blake isn't all bad. The first few books really were quite good, though their sense of style is getting a little dated now, 15 years later. I mentioned in passing that the last book in the series was an improvement, and that's entirely true. It at least had a good plot line and less romance-novel sex, which is enough to keep me reading "just one more" for now.
  2. Harry Dresden isn't all good. The first book or two really took some time to ramp up while Butcher hit his stride. Still, I can't leave these things alone - I try to space them out to break up other books, especially the un-good ones, but it's really hard to leave them sitting on my stack for long. And hey, who knows, maybe when Butcher hits book 10 in April he'll take a similar downwards spiral. I guess we'll see.

Right! That's it! Congrats if you made it to the end of this REALLY long rant! I'll stop now.

1 comment:

LisaBit said...

As a note to myself, the day after I posted this, the sfNovelists blog posted this article which included the FUCKING HILARIOUS quote "Maybe the genre is just waiting for a breakout poly relationship. (Anita Blake and her Gleaming Orifice That Welcomes All do not count.)"

Oh, gods, I about died.

On a related note: all of my references to "Fantasy" in this article should have been "Urban Fantasy" ....but I'm too lazy to go back and edit now.