Content Warnings: This installment of my reread series contains relatively detailed references to snuff films, sexual assault and harassment (including brief references to these things happening to children), particularly in the “Just Plain Borked” section so please skip that if these are things that may trigger you or otherwise cause discomfort.
First published in 1997, The Killing Dance is the sixth book in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series.
Like the majority of the novels in this long running series, this book is primarily set in and around St. Louis, Missouri. In The Killing Dance, Anita is faced with complications in her triumvirate relationship with Richard and Jean Claude), a visiting vampire master in a similar situation to the trio, and some seriously gross shapeshifter pack dynamics that are coming back to bite Anita in the ass from previous books in the series.
It should be just another beyond busy Anita Blake book, but this is one of the most memorable and disturbing novels in this early run of the series in part because Gabriel and Raina, two of the series’ most infamous abusers and rapists, are in their element here.
There are interesting aspects to The Killing Dance, but as usual, they’re nearly lost thanks to all the weird and upsetting shit that happens and all of the absolutely pointless relationship drama.
There are two things I outright enjoyed about The Killing Dance. One is the introduction of the vampire Sabin and the other two members of his triumvirate (Dominic Dumare, a necromancer, and Sabin’s wolf to call Cassandra) and the role they play in the main, non-shifter plot of the novel. The other, is, weirdly enough… Richard. Not his relationship with Anita or anything like that, but his evolution from the previous book and the way that he sits at the center of all of this intricate pack drama.
First, let’s talk about that second triumvirate. Helmed by Sabin, this triumvirate comes to St. Louis in order to get help with a problem that only Anita and her triumvirate might be able to solve. On the request of Cassandra, Sabin stopped partaking in human blood, something that set off a devastating set of changes to the vampire’s body. Changes that can’t be reversed by him going back to human blood.
(Basically, unlike Louis after all that animal blood, Sabin is literally falling to pieces. He’s a floating bag of vampire goop at this point and it is gross.)
Sabin’s triumvirate is interesting because of the implications it has for the future of the series – if Hamilton ever remembers she wrote it. This is the first time in the Anitaverse that we’re seeing characters with a similar dynamic to the one Richard, Anita, and Jean-Claude have and it’s one of only two that we’ve seen in the Anitaverse that didn’t involve Anita. In the Anitaverse, triumvirates are a mark of a vampire’s power as they literally can’t call up the power to bind both a human servant and a shifter as their animal to call – many vampires don’t even have an animal that they can call.
The appearance of that new triumvirate raises more questions than Hamilton actually answers across the series. I want to know more about what Sabin’s triumvirate was like when it starts. I want to know what vampires get out of human blood that they don’t get out of other mammal’s blood. Why does a vampire’s food sources have to be sentient? Does she know how hard this makes it to plot out a totally petty Anita Blake/Vampire Chronicles cross over?
The thing is that Hamilton makes some genuinely interesting worldbuilding choices across the Anita Blake novels but I also… don’t think much of it is on purpose?
She accidentally stumbles onto these interesting worldbuilding questions that she never answers – that I don’t think she can answer – and while they frustrate me to no end, I also get such a kick out of hitting up against these worldbuilding nuggets because they genuinely do inspire me and shape my own writing. Because the best thing about unanswered worldbuilding questions is getting to answer them yourself!
Like she has a whole ass thing about how she initially flirted with the idea of sickle cell anemia as a reason for why Black people couldn’t be vampires in the introduction to Lyubansky’s essay in that Ardeur collection, and that’s something that could’ve been interesting in the hands of a Black writer (or even one that wasn’t using it as a “get out of writing Black people despite setting my series in a place with a lot of Black people” card). So now, guess what I want to pick at in a later story…
Next, let’s talk about Richard.
I could, in fact, talk about Richard for days. Prior to Blue Moon, he was the clear favorite in the fight for Anita’s love life. He’s a middle school science teacher, a momma’s boy that’s not a misogynist, and uh… he’s a six-foot tall hunk of a werewolf that also enjoys musicals? Do you know how many mediocre original characters I dreamed up specifically to ship with Richard back in the day? (A large and embarrassing amount.)
In The Killing Dance Richard gains power pretty quickly. He goes from having clandestine meetings in his house with other wolves and assorted independent shifters that chafe under the cruel rule of Marcus and Raina (the werewolf alphas) to challenging and killing Marcus and emerging as the new leader of the St. Louis pack. (Oh, and he then joins the pack in eating Marcus because what’s life without a little cannibalism, am I right?)
Early Richard is such a good character because he embodies that conflict between man and monstrosity that Hamilton swears she’s writing with all of the other shifters that show up. He’s a shifter and technically a monster, but he’s also so intensely a regular old dude on top of that. Out of all of Anita’s lovers in the future of the series, he’s literally the most “normal” (at least until Hamilton decides to give him a reboot in a rough direction…).
These early books keep trying to make it a fair competition between Richard and Jean-Claude as they try to win Anita over and I’ve got to say that six books in, they’re not doing a great job making Jean-Claude look like anything other than a major creep. Like I keep saying, Jean Claude is not a good partner and the creep factor inherent in him forcing Anita to do whatever she does with Richard with him is uh… a lot.
I think one of Hamilton’s biggest problems with the Anitaverse is that Anita is always in relationships she doesn’t seem to want or doesn’t have time for. Even when she’s single (which she hasn’t been since like… two books ago), she’s never free from men that think her interest in them or her arousal mean that she owes them something like her time or her body.
From the first book, whenever Anita’s caught wide-eyed staring at a half (or fully) naked man that wanders past her, it’s taken as an advance. She’s seen as interested even when she’s clearly not or she winds up taken aback by the forwardness of the man accosting her.
Sometimes, these men are ones who will eventually be part of her life as her lovers. They’re literally never leave her alone and she’s always expected to be “on” and interested in some capacity.
Like… I think that’s the thing that straight up angers me off about the solidifying triumvirate.
After The Killing Dance, Anita is never truly alone ever again. Not in her life, not in her bed, and not in her head. She’s always someone’s Anita but she’s literally never allowed to just be an older millennial (she should be in her late thirties in the current book) who likes to have time to herself because she’s got a head and house full of dudes that think she owes them parts of herself.
It’s so aggravating because Anita doesn’t get to be Anita, alone. As of this book, she’s Anita, part of something bigger than herself. And sure, the books are self-indulgent as hell and Anita gets to be selfish, but like… this is the beginning of the suckiest thing about the series: that Anita starts to lose herself and what made the character interesting and engaging enough… and we’re supposed to see it as character growth.
The Just Plain Borked
There’s a lot of sexual violence in The Killing Dance. While, for once, almost all of the abusers and rapists end the book dead, there are so many scenes of sexual violence in this book that it’s going to take up this entire section to air my grievances.
Back in The Lunatic Cafe, we were introduced to two of the nastiest pieces of work to ever walk onto the page of an Anita Blake novel: the alpha female of the local werewolf pack, Raina, and her accomplice in evil and the leader of the local wereleopard pard, Gabriel. These are not villains that should ever and would ever get a redemption arc or anything like that and to this day, I’m glad that they were introduced before Hamilton changed the very soul of the series and decided that monsters got to have happy endings (after getting mind-wiped, of course).
Raina and Gabriel are among the worst of the worst and they’ve seeded – or infected — their respective shifter groups with their grossness. Raina uses her power as the pack’s alpha female to force the more vulnerable and less dominant wolves into performing in pornographic videos that frequently involve violence and degradation. If y’all remember from The Lunatic Cafe, not only does Gabriel star in one of those films, he takes it too far by continuing to participate even when the sex show becomes a snuff film.
Gabriel’s whole thing about being in snuff films actually comes back into play here because at the novel’s most intense scene, he declares that he wants to be in a snuff film with an obviously unwilling Anita where the goal is to fight, fuck, and kill her (and the last two things aren’t necessarily in that order). I read a lot of messed up stuff for fun and I’m a diehard Fannibal, but there’s something just… unnecessarily unpleasant about all of this.
Raina and Gabriel go after (and, to some extent, groom) vulnerable members of their marginalized community of shapeshifters, forcing them to participate in sex work against their will which includes, in the case of the twins Gregory and Stephen, incestuous violence. These are all things that are on the page of the novel as Anita literally walks in on Raina and Gabriel restraining Stephen while his wereleopard brother Gregory tortures him for the camera.
What makes this extra gross is that this is also the book where we’re told that the twins are survivors of childhood trafficking and sexual abuse survivors. Not only is that whole thing where Hamilton writes sexual abuse survivors as either permanent victims (Stephen) or future abusers (Gregory) playing out, but then it’s extra awful to have Gregory tell Anita that, “I wouldn’t let them hurt him. He’d enjoy it if he’d just let himself go,” after basically preparing his twin to be raped and tortured on camera…
There’s a lot that Hamilton doesn’t handle well in the Anita Blake series and sexual assault is one of those things. In the Anitaverse, rapists run the supernatural world and the ones that Anita winds up being close to in some capacity either wind up being redeemed or having their abuses brushed off as if they never happened.
Like that whole awfulness with Gregory and Stephen? Never comes up again even though Gregory is beyond complicit in abusing his own twin and would have allowed him to have been raped by at least one of the two alphas in the room. I want to say that maybe, maybe Hamilton just loses track of who did what in her books because she’s written and published twenty-six Anitaverse books so far, but I… think that’s being too generous.
Now, let’s talk about that snuff film. Not the one from The Lunatic Cafe that is described on the page of the novel, but the one Gabriel desperately wants to make with Anita at the end of the novel. It starts out as, what is for the pack, a “normal” rape and torture fest where a whole ass professional camera crew sits in wait to watch and record Gabriel brutalize Anita, but then Anita goads him towards his real fantasy (the one where she ends up dead at the end) and, despite the fact that it shouldn’t work –
He goes for it. I mean, the lead in to that scene alone is too graphic to recreate in any possible way here, and any serial killer and abuser worth their salt should know better than to fall for such obvious baiting. But Gabriel is too busy thinking with his dick to use the tiny bit of common sense left in his head.
I don’t want Gabriel to survive and in fact, I would’ve preferred for him to die an even more violent and humiliating death. It’s literally that the super sexualized fight scene was not what I wanted and even the one-two punch of his (detailed) death followed by Raina’s doesn’t really make up for everything that the duo did or the mark they left on the series.
I would’ve preferred more of a look at the dynamics between Sabin’s triumvirate than at the totally messed up politics present in the shifter packs of St. Louis. To this day I don’t understand the logic behind the choices Hamilton made to portray her shifters as these awful and depraved beings while also trying to be like “but they’re actually really human and Anita is dealing with her internalized bigotry”.
Y’all… there have been two mentions to snuff films in three books. The only reason the previous book didn’t have any references to them is probably because it was set in another part of the state since Anita was dealing with a straight up pedophile vampire and a fae killing machine.
At this point, I am tired of the shifters and their genuinely pointless sex-power-politics drama and I’d like them all to go to a good therapist and talk things through instead of immediately turning to homicide as a cure for what ails them.
Since the next book is (as far as I remember) about vampire drama, maybe things won’t be so terrible?
Consider my fingers crossed!