Content Warnings: This review of Guilty Pleasures talks about the following content that readers may find disturbing, upsetting, or triggering: racism, internalized misogyny, victim blaming with regard to childhood abuse and sexual trauma, sex worker shaming, connecting sex work with trauma or marginalization (as in the only people in this series who do sex work are people who are broken and/or marginalized and they all need rescuing), gender essentialism.
“Vampires are People, too.”
– The button that Monica Vespucci is wearing when she and Anita first meet echoes a repeated message in this series about how vampires are people too. But people you know… suck. So vampires do too, and not just because it’s how they get nourishment.
Despite it being the first book in author Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Guilty Pleasures was probably the fourth or fifth book in the series that I read. It is um… a doozy of a book.
The plot in this first book isn’t actually as terrible as it could be.
It’s two years after vampires were rendered legal citizens of the United States due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Addison v. Clark and everything’s not as peaceful as it seems on the surface. Vampires are being brutally murdered by someone strong enough to tear their hearts out before cutting their heads off and the master vampire of St. Louis, Nikolaos has no idea where to begin looking for a culprit.
In her quest for a truly neutral investigator, Nikolaos decides to rope Anita into the case. After all, a vampire executioner and hunter is the best person to look to when you need to know who’s killing vampires in a city. (At least, it is in the Anitaverse.).
This puts her at odds with one of the city’s most powerful vampires and the owner of the strip club Guilty Pleasures and causes some serious chaos because Anita’s personality is written so that she doesn’t take shit from anyone, not even characters that’d happily munch on her for a snack.
The first book is set well after the reveal of vampires into the “real” world and so there’s not a lot of that weird introductory stuff that drags the book down. When we’re introduced to Anita, life is already happening around her. It’s the early 90s (part of why this book hasn’t aged well is because it is so quintessentially Nineties that it’s sickening) and vampires have had two years to properly and legally enmesh themselves in the day to day lives of US politics and entertainment.
And yet, there are people like Anita who still have the legal right (and a duty) to go out there and hunt vampires.
As much as I complain about the many (many) things that the Anita Blake series gets wrong, I will always like the premise. Because that was on point. It was so cool and no one was really writing Urban Fantasy like her even when I first started reading her books back in 2004/5. When she was first introduced, Anita was this over the top badass.
When I was first reading the books, I loved them because Anita was grouchy but sensitive and she always tried to do the right thing. Here in Guilty Pleasures, we see her struggling with her humanity, morality, and mortality all at the same time and that’s something that was novel to see in the genre around that time. I think I read a lot into these books because I was this little nub of a nerd and I definitely latched on to characters like Anita who seem super wonderful and progressive at first but then fall to pieces underneath the tight lens of a close reading.
So let’s start by talking about some of the things that are inescapable about this book upon rereading it.
From the start, Anita Blake is framed as a female character that’s not like other female characters. From her usually monochromatic ensemble to the way that she distances herself from other – more stereotypically feminine – characters. In Guilty Pleasures, the women that Anita is positioned against are women like Monica Vespucci who wears makeup and fucks vampires, Catherine Maison, a lawyer who’s getting ready to get married, and Anita’s blonde and perky step-mother Judith.
Anita is “one of the guys”.
She hangs out with cops and bounty hunters and other badasses of the male variety. Anita chooses to surround herself with men even from this point. She also has less patience with women than she does with men (the first time that she talks to Monica in the book, her internal monologue is consistently negative and hostile in a way that directly relates to her discomfort with the character’s femininity – how she performs femininity).
That’s actually one of my biggest issues with Guilty Pleasures, how Anita is framed as a feminine ideal at the same time that she rejects feminine ideals or women that would fall into “typical” gender roles.
Anita distances herself from the other women at the strip club Guilty Pleasures. Their desire for Jean Claude and the other vampires at the club is framed as shameful, almost disgusting. Later in the book, when she and Phillip (a dancer at Guilty Pleasures) go to a club for people who crave the pleasure-pain of being bitten by vampires (to the point where they basically host swingers’ parties for vampire groupies), the way that Anita focuses on the female characters and their scars was incredibly dehumanizing and stressful.
(Anita’s internalized misogyny is going to be a thing across the various books. It doesn’t get better and in fact, it only gets worse as Anita’s female friendships are shattered and she’s surrounded mainly by men who will do what she wants.)
What’s also dehumanizing is how Guilty Pleasures also started a really gross and upsetting trend of sex-worker shaming and connecting sex work exclusively to trauma and marginalization. As we’ll see in future books that have a minor or secondary character that does sex work – including stripping, eroticized vampire feedings, escort work, and pornography – most of the sex workers in the Anita Blake series are connected to traumatic backstories that explain their career choice. They only leave their career if they get a “happily ever after” or they die.
There’s a huge focus in particular on Phillip in Guilty Pleasures who is essentially a perpetual victim (in both life and unlife). As a child, he was attacked by a vampire named Valentine, and it’s stated on the page that that trauma caused him to become “addicted” to the pleasure-pain of vampire bites – and it’s implied that the trauma also paved the way for him working in a strip club.
And, spoiler alert: Phillip doesn’t make it to the end of the series alive.
In fact, not only is he tortured both before and after his death (as he’s brought back to life by a rogue animator), but his suffering is brought up in later books once another perpetual victim is brought into the series in the form of Nathaniel because Phillip’s memory haunts Anita.
(Also, I really have questions for Laurell K Hamilton about her trend of writing characters who have survived childhood abuse (sexual and otherwise) as victims for the rest of their lives because they are, at this point, actually the majority when it comes to abuse in this series.
I mean this series constantly brings up their trauma in order for Anita to go “look, this is why I need to protect this character! They couldn’t protect themselves as children and they can’t protect themselves now”.
It’s really gross because while few are treated as badly as Phillip who dies twice in this book before being memorialized as the one victim Anita could never save (from themselves~), they’re all used the way women in epic fantasy series tend to be used – as motivational tools to make the strong and powerful hero(ine) a better person.)
Another big issue – and one that I have throughout my reading to the series – is how race is handled. From Anita’s barely-there biracial identity to the lack of Black characters in St. Louis to holding Jean-Claude up as the actual ideal of vampirism, Guilty Pleasures is rife with racial missteps and outright racism.
I know I yell about this literally every month, but there’s never going to be a need to position whiteness as the ideal for vampires (or any type of character, really).
And yet, here in St. Louis where the population is well… very Black, the white vampire rules supreme. From Nikolaos right on down to Jean-Claude, who Anita claims ” looked like a vampire was supposed to look” before putting emphasis on his pale skin and blue eyes.
There are some other worrying aspects to race in the Anitaverse.
Let’s start with this initial description of Anita in chapter 3:
I was wearing black jeans, knee-high boots, and a crimson blouse. My hair was made to order for the outfit, black curling just over the shoulders of the red blouse. The solid, nearly black-brown of my eyes matches the hair. Only the skin stands out, too pale, Germanic against the Latin darkness. A very ex-boyfriend once described me as a little china doll. He meant it as a compliment. I didn’t take it that way. There are reasons why I don’t date much.
This is… This is just a mess. Anita is biracial.
Sadly, it’s rarely brought up beyond “My Mexican grandmother taught me voodoo”, “I experience racism despite how well I pass as a 100% white person so you shouldn’t be racist to wereanimals and vampires,” and “my ex-fiancé dumped me because his parents were racist”.
But even her POC-ness is still done in a way that centers whiteness.
I mean for real, most of the times she brings up her biracial status, people are startled and then nod sagely before remarking that they could just “tell” that she wasn’t “100% whitebread”. Her stories about her biracial identity are all tied into whiteness. There’s no celebration of her Mexican mother and her culture (beyond the voodoo thing which is just… a problem) and no joy inherent in being Mexican-American.
It’s all about white people doing x which made her aware of y and like I keep saying, pain is a part of our lives as POC but that doesn’t mean it should be the only thing you focus on when you write us in your world.
Anita for me is Mexican in the same way that the protagonist in the very racist Pain Slut is Black. To me, both characters’ characterization is done in such a way as to get “points” or leeway to use a character of color as a mouthpiece for problematic behavior.
Anita uses her Mexican heritage more often than not to invalidate valid concerns about wereanimals and vampires. The MC in Pain Slut uses his Blackness to excuse racism in the kink community.
And if that’s not enough, here’s how Rafael, the king of the wererats is described the first time he’s seen in human form and not as a well-endowed half-shifted beast (and yes I am so aware of the really disgusting racial implications in writing a Mexican character as a rat. LKH isn’t, but I am):
He was tall, at least six feet, dark brown skin, with thick, shortcut black hair, brown eyes. His face was thin, arrogant, lips almost too soft for the haughty expression he gave me. He was darkly handsome, strongly Mexican, and his suspicion rode the air like lightning.
What does that even describe aside from LKH’s really poor grasp of characterization and the lack of understanding that people from the same place don’t all look alike. Mexico is huge and there are so many different cultures and ethnicities coming from the country and yet –
What’s notable about Rafael is that he’s darkly handsome and also apparently looked super Mexican??
Look, there are a lot of interesting questions raised in Guilty Pleasures and the plot premise is full of potential, but this book is a major mess. This book bugs me because it could’ve been so great and so many of the concerns raised in Guilty Pleasures are never addressed in the series in any satisfying way.
Not the weird racism. Not the misogyny. Not the generic supernatural world-building stuff.
I have questions about the way the world has changed because of the presence of preternatural beings who were positioned as the power behind the throne. I have thoughts about Animators and the culture of raising the dead and how it’s become commercialized in this universe. I want to know what the political climate of the world looks like. Hell, the whole twist (that is sadly transparent) where Zachary is the bad guy and a member of the walking dead himself raises so many concerns about what the afterlife and undeath look like for people like Anita and Zachary.
These are all things that could’ve been incorporated into later works but well—
As I was doing my reread, I was absolutely overwhelmed by how many avenues Hamilton could’ve taken. I remember reading the book and just frowning so hard because there’s so much missed potential here.
I think that Guilty Pleasures has a lot that could’ve gone so differently.
Even the problematic aspects of this book could’ve been mitigated by later books but unfortunately, no one thought to tell LKH that she should rethink what she was writing. No one thought that they should mention that there’s a fair amount of racism in the first book so that she could maybe… work on that before we got to book twenty-three with racism still along for the ride.
The one thing that this reread reminded me of the most, was that there was a time where the Anita Blake books, while still incredibly problematic in their portrayals of women who weren’t Anita and characters of color, had cohesive plots that made you want to pick up the next one.
Guilty Pleasures ends with Anita visiting Phillip’s grave and remembering that vampires, despite their attempts at copying humanity, exist outside of it and view humans as disposable food sources (like with Spike’s “Happy Meals with legs” comment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The last lines in the book hold a message that seems to have been lost in the twenty years since the first publication of this novel:
I know who and what I am. I am The Executioner, and I don’t date vampires. I kill them.
Guilty Pleasures and the Anita Blake series as a whole originated as a series that asked Anita to think hard about her humanity and what it meant to be human. Her struggles with her humanity continue well into the current books, but I think her protest is a token one now.