“He’s dead, Richard, a walking corpse. It doesn’t matter how pretty he is, or how compelling, he’s still dead. I don’t date corpses. A girl’s got to have some standards.”
— Anita on why she won’t give in to Jean-Claude
Circus of the Damned, the third novel in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, has some serious shapeshifter issues.
Published in 1995, the book introduces Anita and the readers following along on her adventures to several of the powerful (and problematic) lycanthropes that populate St. Louis. After a series of murders committed by an unknown group of vampires sees Anita called in to work with the police force once again, the character is forced to deal with several different, stressful things.
To start, Anita has master vampire Jean-Claude panting after her and trying to do everything in his power to make her a proper human servant. Then, everyone who’s anyone is out trying to find out who the master of the city is. With two of Jean-Claude’s marks on her and a reputation for working in the master’s employ, Anita is basically the woman of the hour. Which leads to shenanigans and even more attempted murder.
Circus of the Damned isn’t terrible (and in fact was one of the better Anita Blake books), but it has some problems that keep it from being close to perfect.
First, let’s talk about the good (or at least, not infuriating) aspects of Circus of the Damned.
For one thing, this book introduces some interesting worldbuilding questions that I wish would be expanded. I feel like a huge ton of Laurell K Hamilton’s problems with this series – aside from her actually being incapable of writing well – is that she doesn’t know her own world beyond how it impacts Anita directly. Everything else feels like she’s flying by night and there are a TON of worldbuilding and continuity errors that I’ve noticed over the series’ run.
I’ll definitely be mentioning this in later installments, but paying attention to her own worldbuilding has never been one of LKH’s strong suits.
Neither of Hamilton’s big PNR/UF series are very well-done when it comes to remembering what came in the books before them. Which is terrible, because Circus of the Damned raises some worldbuilding questions alongside a sparking a desire to know more about the kinds of people that live in this world.
This is a world where vampires and shapeshifters have been walking amongst us for tens of thousands of years. In this actual book, we meet a vampire that is about a million years old and there are even older vampires out there. However, we’re not really told how this shaped the world beyond certain cities (not states, and that’s still weird) where Master Vampires rule secretly and not-so-secretly.
Circus of the Damned raises questions about vampirism and souls that have yet to be answered.
I’m still unsure of the how and why behind religious symbols working on vampires who don’t believe in them (because they’re old as hell and predate most “modern” religions). I have questions about what school looks like in a world where vampires aren’t just pretty predators in Twilight, but people who can and will seduce you to a literal dark side. Things like biology and health classes have to be different in her world when characters have grown up with the open secret that the supernatural is around them.
Anita and the newly introduced Richard Zeeman both have Bachelor of Science degrees in preternatural biology. This is an actual bonding point between these two characters where they talk about classes that they took in order to get their degree and yet we don’t actually know much about the biology changes in this world.
The idea of a preternatural biology degree also raises thoughts about professors and tenure and academic jobs in a world where someone who lived through the Civil War can teach a class on it. I know I don’t want to read LKH’s take on immortal academics teaching a course while struggling with whatever they’d struggle with, but someone needs to write it and answer my hypothetical questions while they’re at it.
I have so many questions about how Anita Blake’s world works and sadly, many of them will never be answered by the author. As long as you ignore the fact that the dangling worldbuilding questions Circus of the Damned raises remain unanswered, the fact that the book raises them at all is pretty neat.
The gorgeous lycanthrope Richard Zeeman was a huge fan favorite back when the series was introduced because, despite the fact that he gets a bit wolfy sometimes, he was still more normal and respectful of Anita’s personal life than Jean-Claude’s entitled ass ever was.
(But then, according to rumors, the guy that Richard was based on was booted from LKH’s life and so… bye-bye consistent characterization for Richard, one of the few werewolves in PNR/UF that was alpha without being an asshole.)
So getting a chance to experience Richard all over again before his characterization goes down the drain and he’s reinterpreted as this hypermasculine, homophobic asshole who forces the women he sleeps with to have sex they don’t want, feels pretty novel.
In the beginning, Richard is great. He’s first introduced in the sixth chapter, naked and sleeping in a bed in the actual Circus of the Damned while Jean-Claude tries to pull a power play that gets derailed by two of his subordinates. This early in the series, you can see that LKH really and truly enjoyed writing Richard and that the character moved her in a way that others don’t.
For me, Richard’s introduction saves the book and that’s something that I probably won’t say ever again.
Now let’s get onto the stuff that Circus of the Damned straight up frustrates me with.
My biggest racism-related beef with Circus of the Damned that almost all of the major characters of color Anita runs up against as villains or obstacles to her goals are characters of color:
- Alejandro the “Indian” vampire (See this actual description from the book for bonus racism: “Short, dark, very polite. Saw one other vampire twice with the boss vamp. He was medium height, Indian or Mexican, longish black hair.”)
- Oliver (a vampire that was already Homo erectus prior to being turned so… probably would be classified as a person of color)
- Yasmeen (Described as “tall and slender with dark skin and long ebony hair that swung around her waist” and as “the dark lady)
But for once, racism isn’t the most frustrating aspect of an Anita Blake novel. Normally, I could go on for pages about the racism in these books and as you can see… I only have a small section on it. That’s rare for one of these books. Trust me, it probably won’t happen very often after this book.
The biggest issue I have with Circus of the Damned is that it’s just both dang busy and nonsensical.
First, you have a rogue vampire killing Humans Against Vampires (HAV) and Humans First (HF) members – members of human-supremacist organizations that want to remove citizenship and rights for supernatural beings.
I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not in the mood to pity any kind of supremacist in 2017…
Then, there’s the return of Edward who’s shown up in order to try and kill the Master of the City. Who he doesn’t even know. But of course, he shows up at Anita’s door ready and willing to get the answers out of his best/only friend. After all, what’s a little torture between two killers.
(Seriously, as much fun as Edward is in this book, especially at the end where he’s at his most extra… I didn’t really care about him and it made no sense for him to take the mission beyond “wow I’m bored and want to start drama”.)
Then, we also see the early start of Anita’s love triangle with Jean Claude and Richard. That definitely shouldn’t have taken as much time as it did and it was also actually gross because Jean-Claude is a creepy bastard.
I always think that love triangles are unnecessary, but this creepshow set up is even more unnecessary than usual. Between the vampire that doesn’t respect her personal agency and the werewolf that will eventually want to remake her as a happy homemaker… Anita’s options suck from the start.
And straight up, while the real meaty part of the plot was about Mr. Oliver and his minions, even that was bloated as hell. Mr. Oliver’s whole thing is that he wants to make it impossible for vampires to gain further legal rights. He’s worried that vampires will somehow wind up overpopulating the world and that they’ll run out of their favorite food source.
So his brilliant plan is to turn public opinion against vampires by… going on a killing spree.
That’s just silly.
First of all, there are billions of people on the planet and maybe a couple million vampires at most. I can’t imagine how “legalizing vampires” would lead to our mass extinction. I can’t believe I’m here arguing on behalf of beings that in-universe are content to subjugate basically everyone, but look: it’s impossible for vampires to overrun the earth unless they’re trying.
And the vampires in this series aren’t trying.
Circus of the Damned is a messy, mostly boring book that introduces some new characters and reaffirms my intense dislike of Jean-Claude’s creepy French ass. As far as these books go, it’s just there. Nothing particularly notable stands out for me aside from how much happens and how few world-building questions are answered.
This was just… meh.
Which I guess is better than having hit one of those Anita Blake books that leaves me ready to launch my kindle into the stratosphere…