Monday, April 16, 2007

Literary Criticism On Such A Starlit Night

In recent years, the two genres that have interested me the most have been erotic romance and urban fantasy. It was Laurell K. Hamilton who bridged the gap between the two genres for me. I began reading her Anita Blake novels back in 1995. I followed gamely along as LKH gradually moved from straight urban fantasy into erotic romance and then from erotic romance to erotica. By now, she's published the fourteenth in her Anita Blake saga and, IMHO, the stories are little more than a series of sex scenes strung together without any visible plot.

Over the weekend, I finished Jim Butcher's White Night, the ninth in the Dresden Files.

White Night was such a satisfying read that it started me thinking about the contrast between the two long-running series.

I had a busy weekend. On Sunday, I met friends for brunch at Hattie's, one of my favorite restaurants (I love their pecan-crusted catfish), got my hair cut, visited the garden nursery and worked in the yard. All the while, in the back of my brain, I was trying to decide what it was about White Night that made it such a good book. While I was pulling weeds, it finally dawned on me.

With many authors who have a successful series, they write as though their jobs are halfway done before they even start a new episode in the series. They use a few often-repeated adjectives to describe long-running characters and then simply dream up new adventures for those characters. The writer makes the assumption that the reader knows the characters and that nothing more is left to be said about them. So the books become increasingly plot-driven rather than character-driven.

Jim Butcher is not doing that; he's not just phoning his manu-
scripts in. Every new book builds upon the last and explores new territory in his fantasy world. He gives equal attention to plot and character.

To quickly summarize the plot of White Night, here's Publishers Weekly's description:

At the start of Butcher's superlative ninth Dresden Files novel, . . . hardboiled wizard detective Harry Dresden learns that someone is killing Chicago's minor wizards. Joined by his police friend, Sergeant Murphy, and his Amazonian apprentice, Molly Carpenter, Harry discovers that his brother, Thomas, is a prime suspect.

Two things I noted: (1) The action is absolutely nonstop, and (2) Even while creating more and more fantastic creatures and enlarging an already huge cast, Butcher continues to peel back layers of each character. He reveals more of their history, writing them in shades of gray rather than simply in black or white, as good or evil. He constantly creates difficult choices and new moral challenges for his characters. He does an absolutely masterful job.

Interestingly enough, his skimpiest character sketch remains one of the most important players--a character introduced in the very first novel--Sergeant Karrin Murphy of the Special Investigations Department of the Chicago Police. In my eyes, Murphy is little more than a place-holder reading "Dresden's sidekick." I know, I know. Butcher introduced her ex-husband and family in a previous book. But compared to the self-awareness of other more richly developed Butcher characters, Murphy is a stick figure.

While there is clearly sexual tension between Murphy and Dresden, I *almost* get the impression that Butcher is afraid to bring the two together for fear of where he would go after that. It's to the point that Dresden comments in this novel that he's been celibate for four years. Eeek!

Each Dresden File character has its own Goal/Motivation/
Conflict. And just about the time you think you understand him/her, Butcher throws a curve ball at you. In this novel, he did it with the Fallen Angel Lasciel, the gangster Johnny Marcone, the West Coast Warden Carlos Ramirez, and Dresden's brother Thomas. He even added dimensions to Dresden's dog, Mouse.

As I've said before, while I still look forward to LKH's Merry Gentry series, I've lost interest in the Anita Blake series. My epiphany on Sunday helped me to understand why.

I believe that LKH wrote herself into a corner with two aspects of the Anita Blake character: (1) Early on in the series, LKH emphasized Anita's strong moral code, which prevented the character from hopping into bed with the sexy vampires and werewolves surrounding her, and (2) LKH got caught in a trap of giving more and more power to Anita in each new book in order for her to overcome her enemies. Eventually, that upward spiral had nowhere else to go. Anita became more powerful than the supernatural creatures around her.

LKH was stuck. How to explain a sudden reversal in Anita's moral code? It was so out of character for her to sleep around. Remember that tiresome inner dialogue Anita held with herself about sleeping with both Richard and Jean Claude? It went on for several novels.

At the same time, how to create new villains with more power than Anita, who now had her necromancer skills, vampire strength and shape-shifter abilities?

That's when LKH came up with the plot device she called the "ardeur," the paranormal passion that demanded Anita have daily sex. In one fell swoop, Anita is now helpless in the face of this sexual need and also free to have sex with whomever she likes whenever she likes--because, of course, the girl can't help it. The ardeur offered a window out of the corner LKH had painted herself into: allowing Anita to sleep around and giving her a weakness she cannot overcome.

The ardeur felt like a cheat to me when it was introduced, and now, endless novels later, the contrivance has become boring and repetitive. I never finished the last couple of Anita Blake novels. For me, that's huge. Once I'm a quarter of a way into a novel, I will generally read even a bad book to the end, figuring I can learn something from where the writer went wrong. But I was so irritated with the last few Anita Blake novels, I couldn't even continue.

Sex without feeling is little more than masturbation, both on the page and in real life. I expect more from a relationship than that, whether the relationship is fictional or real. Anita's bed-hopping has no feeling attached to it and has long since ceased to be either a novelty or . . . provocative.

In contrast, LKH's Merry Gentry series established sexual freedom as a characteristic of her faeries from the very first novel. If you could not accept the casual sex, this was not the series for you. The faeries' sexuality was part of their "other-ness," and was at the same time both alien and integral to their characters. And it freed LKH to explore the emotional lives of her characters apart from their sexuality--which was a novelty. Merry's vulnerabilities, both physically and emotionally, are very much a part of who she is. The next book in the series is due out around Halloween, and I look forward to it.

Just some things to think about when you are plotting a series.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't agree more. I love the Merry Gentry novels and I despise the Anita Blake ones. Anita is a hypocritical prude... who is all 'Poor, pity me. I must have sex'. Merry, OTOH, completely accepted her sexuality and it was a non-issue. Even though the books have sex as a part of them, it's not the focus OF the books. In the later books, there's less sex! And I *like* Merry. She might be "speshul" but she was set up to be that way from the beginning, so you were expecting it. Anita was initially played up as an underdog, but... yeah. I hate Anita. I can only wish that series will stop, but I know it won't.