Content warnings: this installment of The Great Big Anita Blake Reread talks about rape and racism in mild detail (and they’re connected in my analysis of Hamilton’s writing in this book) that include repeated references to what winds up being the corrective rape of a Black lesbian
Once upon a time, the Anita Blake series used to be genuinely interesting. Hamilton would open the newest novel by introducing a new and weird element of her worldbuilding and Anita, our audience proxy and authorial self-insert would immediately start stumbling all over herself trying to figure it out before saving the day thanks to her inexplicable good luck and all the illegal weaponry and magical powers she winds up with.
Burnt Offerings, the seventh novel in the long-running Anita Blake series, was one of those interesting books back when I first read it a decade ago.
After being approached by a local firefighter to take down a pyrokinetic arsonist before they escalate in the book’s first chapter, Anita finds herself dropped hip deep in a mess of vampire politics and drama as the arsonist begins to turn to vampire victims. This is also the first novel after Anita and Jean-Claude started to sleep together (and I’m pretty sure that means she and Richard are broken up for the time being) and since it’s also set after Raina and Gabriel’s deaths, this means that leopard shifter problems are becoming Anita’s problems for the first time in the series.
This novel introduces several long-running characters who will become an integral part of Anita’s life as the series progresses and I’m going to be honest: like with refreshing myself with Richard, it’s nice to read these characters as they were before Hamilton ruined them. (Even though, this early on, you can see the problems that would later balloon out of control in characters like Asher and Nathaniel as the series progresses.)
So, let’s talk about what Burnt Offerings did decently, what it did poorly, and what I wish Hamilton had left on the editing room floor back when first working on it.
If I had to say one nice thing about Burnt Offerings (and I kind of do), it’s that I like the idea of the wereleopards.
The reality sucks – because they’re no different from the other shapeshifter groups we’ve seen so far and are primarily comprised of rapists and abusers – but the idea of them… it’s nice. Leopards are one of my favorite animals after hyenas and I think that the potential for the species in the Anitaverse was pretty cool.
In the last section of this reread, I talk about monstrosity and whether it’s something that shifters/vampires look for in the people they’re turning or if it’s something that comes along as part of the various viruses. With the St. Louis leopard pack, you see that monstrous connection come up a bunch of times and in Burnt Offerings, it’s genuinely hard to see the pack as capable of being saved.
Half the wereleopards (and it’s not a big pack to be fair) are abusers and rapists. The other half are permanent victims – some of which become abusers and rapists themselves. As much as I initially adored wereleopards like Nathaniel Graison when I first started this series way back when, rereading the series now makes me realize that there’s something fundamentally broken in the wereleopard pack in particular considering the type of beings it churns out.
The wereleopards are in this section because their existence alone isn’t awful. Burnt Offerings introduced some wereleopards that I initially liked and that influenced the way I wrote in my own stories with shapeshifters for the better part of a decade. I liked the pack set up and how the leopards post-Gabriel tried to be better people.
But honestly, Burnt Offerings is a book without much to love about it…
The real plot of Burnt Offerings, the parts about the pyrokinetic arsonist running around St. Louis, should’ve gotten way more focus than the relationship stuff (between Anita’s triad and between Anita and her shifters) and the vampiric power posturing.
This is the same arena where most Anita Blake books fall flat: Hamilton is just so damn busy being dramatic and dragging out simple interactions with characters that should only take up a few sentences that the meat of the story simply rots on the bone.
While the pyrokinetic behind the fires is introduced in chapter seventeen, it takes ages before a) Anita actually figures that out and b) before we return to what’s supposed to be the A-Plot of the novel. (It takes twenty-three chapters before the pyro strikes again…) Hamilton’s pacing and plot direction is always a little wonky, but it’s frustrating to see truly interesting plots get squandered or placed on the back burner in favor of petty squabbling, nonsensical relationship drama, and poorly written villains.
Burnt Offerings would be better if the novel had focused on the pyrokinetic plot, dropping the hints about their identity early on and having Anita chase after him, and then used the council as a B-Plot where they’re not the main focus. Why? Because the council plot doesn’t mean anything. It barely does anything aside from traumatizing decent people.
Honestly, the most important things to come from their visit are that Asher winds up staying in St. Louis, Anita gets to flex her muscles as a necromancer and as someone that has wound up the ultimate alpha female in two separate shifter communities, and scenes where Anita’s triumvirate solidifies their relationship.
Which isn’t exactly a set of small things.
However, the main plot that should serve to evolve our understanding of vampires and move away from the mindless monstrosity on display by the council is… not the main focus. The Anitaverse novels’ main issue is that Hamilton writes like she’s doing a superhero movie in 2018: tons of bloated sub-plots choking out the main plot and too many damn villains in a single book.
Honestly, almost every single Anitaverse book could be broken down into like three separate novels with cohesive plots and character arcs. If only Hamilton was a better writer and her editors could wrangle her more effectively.
You know what else is also bad about Burnt Offerings?
This book is mad racist.
Normally, that’d be something I tackle in the next section of these recaps but y’all, when you read the next section you’ll understand.
Burnt Offerings introduces a bunch of new characters of color that are once again written via Hamilton’s racist lens. It also doesn’t treat established characters of color aside from Anita (and considering that Anita is basically Schrödinger’s POC…) very well at all.
In fact, Rafael (the “darkly handsome, strongly Mexican” wererat leader of St. Louis) literally spends almost half the book skinned. The Master of Beasts (an Indian vampire) stripped the skin off of the back of his body to make a point and prove his power and then kept Rafael’s unconscious body chained to a table with silver chains. The MoB’s only child, his son Fernando, is a biracial Indian wererat that sexually assaults a white vampire on-screen (and in front of Anita and Jean Claude) and assaults two Black shifters on and off-screen. We see the horrid aftermath of what is basically corrective sexual assault with Sylvie (because there are strong implications that he didn’t just rape her because she was a woman, but because she’s a lesbian). It’s so bad (we’re talking traumatic and violent) an assault that Anita, who hates Sylvie, is like “shit I need to do something about this because this is wrong and evil”.
(Also, this isn’t the first time that the Sylvie has been subject to rape as punishment and in case you were wondering, all of the male wereleopards in the St. Louis pack were rapists before the series ever started. Wow and what the entire fuck.)
Burnt Offerings trades in suffering and while characters of color aren’t the only ones suffering, what happens to them is especially awful to witness and read about.
Another related element to this book that reeks of racism? The white savior element.
Like I’ve said in my massive post about Hamilton’s issues with race and representation in her urban fantasy series, Anita’s status as a POC hinges on racism from other people (who are mostly white). Aside from that, she lives her life as a white woman.
So, to have her set up as a savior of all of these suffering characters of color – to the point where they can’t save themselves or get revenge on their own, she has to help them or avenge them – doesn’t sit right with me.
This book is awful and I would like to be done with it.
I’d also like Hamilton to stop automatically reverting to sexual assault as a way to denote how terrible a character is but then not even punishing all of the rapists in the series. She’s so sometime-ish about what rapists get punished and how they get punished. Gregory is a rapist. He’s raped at least one woman (aside from Sylvie, there may be more) and was going to go along with letting his brother get raped on camera.
And Gregory is still alive.
If you’re going to let any rapists live and love in your series, I think you need to stop writing them entirely.
The Just Plain Borked
I don’t know why I keep trying to cling to hope for this series. When I ended my last reread, I’d been like “oh, the next book is about vampire politics so it’s not going to be as bad as the shifter stuff”. Obviously, I’d forgotten what series I was rereading.
One recurring question that I genuinely would like to ask Laurell K Hamilton (aside from “are you sure Obama is what made race relations in the US worse?”) is if there’s something about the process of becoming and living as a vampire that eats away at a person’s moral code or were the truly terrible vampires originally terrible humans.
Because I honestly can’t tell.
(Though I suspect that it’s that all of these pretty and terrible vampires were pretty and terrible people who were further corrupted by the “no shame, no blame” take on what vampires in the Anitaverse can get away with.)
In Burnt Offerings, we’re introduced to a new cluster of vampires who are all awful assholes.
These vampires, like Mr. Oliver in Circus of the Damned, are part of the vampire council that rules from the shadows and pretends that it’s doing something more serious than herding blood-thirsty cats. After all, the vampire council in the Anitaverse isn’t like many other vampire councils that try to minimize harm and visibility, fight for vampire civil rights and justice, and help vampires be accepted in society. This council just seems to want to facilitate more of the same bad behavior they’ve been partaking of for ages.
And there’s a lot of bad behavior on display the second that the Council’s vampires show up.
First, there’s Yvette, a necrophile vampire (and let’s be real, that sounds awfully oxymoronic until you think about it), then there’s the body-snatching Traveler who does not get consent before leaping into a new body (and having m/m sex while in said body and, it’s implied, taking pleasure in the distress caused by making a heterosexual male vampire have sex with a man), and Padma, the Master of Beasts who is a sadist with a truly terrible “calling card”: having a shapeshifter skinned and their human skin mounted with silver nails.
Rape, torture, and violence are commonplace and accepted in vampire society. It’s normal for vampires to be (mostly) pretty monsters whose smooth, pale faces can barely hide the way that they thrive on delivering pain and subjugation upon beings they see as “lesser”.
Check out this bit of dialogue between Anita and JC out where he all but admits that violent subjugation including sexual assault is pretty much something you have to negotiate to get out of because otherwise it’s normal in the vampire courts:
“A werewolf for a wereleopard might be an acceptable trade to him.”
“Not to me. We are not trading one hostage for another, and I am certainly not giving myself to that monster.”
“You see, ma petite, you will not endure that. You will not risk Jason to save Gregory. I ask again, what will you risk for them?”
“I’ll risk my life, but only if I’ve got a good chance of getting out alive. No sex, absolutely not. No trading one hostage for another. Nobody else gets skinned alive or raped. How’s that for parameters?”
“Padma and Fernando will be disappointed, but the others might agree. I will do the best I can within the limits you have given me.”
“No rape, no maiming, no actual intercourse, no hostages, does that really tie your hands that much?”
“When we have survived all this, ma petite, and the council has gone home, I will tell you stories of my time at court. I have seen spectacles that even in the telling would give you nightmares.”
“Nice to know you think we’re going to survive.”
What the shit??
There’s next to no nuance in Hamilton’s vampire society and its many hierarchies. Vampires, even when they are victims of abuse and degradation at the hands of other vampires, are still obvious monsters. Damian, who won’t be introduced to Anita’s stable of lovers for a few more books, is a Viking vampire and he’s been beaten down for over a millennia. In a recent-ish book, it comes out that he was a rapist back then (“period typical” rapist, is basically how that was framed). Jean-Claude, who was the whipping boy for a noble when he was human and raped by the hyena-shifter Narcissus sometime before the series began (we’ll get to that in Narcissus in Chains), has used his preternatural powers to rape or otherwise sexually manipulate other vampires and humans.
But what comes first: the monstrosity or the monster?
This applies to the shapeshifters and human-servants of vampire masters as well, to be honest. Burnt Offerings introduces (and then kills off) Fernando, the Master of Beasts’ only son, who happens to be a misogynistic asshat of a wererat that takes extreme pleasure in raping Sylvie (a lesbian wolf shifter) and Vivian (a wereleopard and abuse survivor). Both are Black.
(And if you know anything about me, you can probably guess how pissed I am at sexual violence against two Black women – one of which is queer and constantly subjected to the threat and reality of sexual violence because of her queerness.)
We’re constantly introduced to new and more offensive monsters in the Anitaverse and like… is there something about the Anitaverse’s vampire and shape-shifter infections that causes them to embrace monstrosity? It seems as though the only kind of monsters that aren’t accepted in these communities are the ones that infect children. It doesn’t matter what else they do to children – though vampires are legally prohibited from feeding off of people under sixteen in the US – as long as they don’t infect them.
It’s basically the only rule that vampires punish each other for.
Is there something in the water of the Anitaverse that makes monsters the prime host for the vampire and shapeshifter viruses? Or are the human monsters the people that these existing preternatural monsters gravitate towards because for some reason, they can’t imagine turning people that aren’t gross as hell?
Or are these shape-shifters and vampires infecting others with viruses that make decent people into morality free monsters?
The world may never know.
You ever read something all the way through and then at the end, you can’t find a single nice thing to say about it beyond something like “it wasn’t as bad as it could be”?
Burnt Offerings wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but that doesn’t mean it was anything more than a smoldering dumpster fire of poorly paced, plodding plots rife with internalized misogyny, racism, and homophobia with a heaping helping of sexual assault scattered about to spice up the plot.
Seven books in and the Anita Blake series has yet to land on what it wants to be. At this point in the Merry Gentry series, Merry was at least capable of protecting her people and holding on to power even as her strength increases in leaps and bounds. In contrast, Anita is still fumbling her way through figuring out her power and her relationships because the two are inextricably and inexplicably intertwined.
If the Anita Blake books weren’t focused on this “reverse harem” buildup and all the different threats of (or actual) sexual assault on top of wonky preternatural politics, this series could be decent. Maybe even good.
But it’s not.
Next month, it’s Blue Moon, a book that uses a false rape threat against Anita’s ex-boyfriend Richard Zeeman to take Anita out of state and does exactly one interesting thing apiece with Jamil and Shang Da, the only werewolves I care about in this entire series.
Until next time, folks!