The Great Anita Blake ReRead: Obsidian Butterfly

Note: this installment covers and talks about racism. sexual violence, and gaslighting in mild detail for the most part. In the final part, I also mention some of the upcoming events in the Anitaverse including a reference to Anita having sex with an underage character and her sexual assault in the next book.


Obsidian Butterfly - 2006 Cover.jpg

Edward had saved my life more than once. I’d saved his more than once. Yet . . . yet . . . I’d miss Edward, but I’d kill him if I had to. Edward wonders why I’m so sympathetic to the monsters. The answer is simple. Because I am one.

I’m going to be perfectly honest with y’all: for many years, Obsidian Butterfly (Anita Blake #9) was the closest I ever came to having a favorite Anita Blake book.

Back when I’d first read it, just a little out of order and after all of the relationship drama and wonky sex scenes of the following books, I’d thought it was a captivating book that managed to push the relationship shit to the back of the book and focus on more human monsters instead of the main plot dealing with how awful vampires and shifters are (but telling us to empathize with them anyway).

Rereading it, I’ve realized that I was mostly… wrong.

In Obsidian Butterfly, Anita travels to Santa Fe, New Mexico after the ever-cryptic Edward – the bounty hunter and killer for hire that we last saw back when Mr. Oliver rolled into town a bunch of books back – calls in the favor that Anita somehow owes him because she… killed his partner at the time, a man who was actively trying to kill her. You know, because that makes all of the sense.

What’s waiting for Anita in Santa Fe?

Only a spate of grotesque murders and mutilations, Edward’s engagement to a woman that doesn’t know who and what he really is, henchmen with an axe to grind for their boss, and preternatural beings that are somehow even more messed up than the ones she’d left behind in St. Louis.

While a lot of things about Obsidian Butterfly don’t hold up almost twenty years after it was published, it’s actually… not that far from what I remembered and all in all, not an entirely un-enjoyable read in part because the main plot is one of the most solid across the Anitaverse to this day.

Strap yourselves in for another ridiculously long installment of my Great Big Anita Blake ReRead. I’ve got stuff to say about everything the novel did really well, what it still sucks at, and the one thing I wish I could carve out of the book with my bare bloody hands.


The Good

One day I’ll understand why Hamilton keeps claiming that the Anita Blake series was a mystery series from the start. At best, it’s a series that began as a police-adjacent procedural and quickly devolved to a relationship focused series. Anita really wasn’t solving mysteries so much as she was fumbling her way into finding criminals and killing them. Much of the time, across the Anitaverse, the person or people responsible for the crime just flat out waltz up to Anita and tell her that they did it.

There’s nothing mysterious about it.

Not even in Obsidian Butterfly.

But it’s not all bad.

In Obsidian Butterfly, I can honestly say that I wasn’t expecting the way that the plot developed or how the bad guys were handle. Sure, some of the minutia was extremely predictable – the bigotry from the cops, hostility from local vampires and shifters, the use of misogyny and threats of sexual violence – but overall, I remember being more surprised by this plot than any of the previous ones.

While I figured out one of the main villains and his motivations pretty quickly, I was still pretty surprised by plenty of parts to the rest of the novel including the real vampire villain. I wasn’t expecting Bernardo Spotted-Horse or the racism that Anita and her author immediately aimed his way. (I also didn’t expect to like him as much as I did despite the hot mess that is the objectifying way that Hamilton writes Native characters. He’s a character I constantly imagine rewriting…)

There’s a scene where Anita and the others realize that the “survivors” in the hospital might not actually be survivors at all and let me tell you, over a decade later from when I first read that chapter, it stillgives me chills. Hamilton is at her best when she’s writing her police procedural-adjacent stuff. She’s at her best when she can go all out with gore and have Anita ride in to save the day with her weapons rather than sexing her way out of a situation. (Which is fine when done right and with some sense of self-awareness because succubi can be awesome heroines.)

The horror of the scene and the immediacy of the horrific violence as Anita and her crew try to save the hospital’s most vulnerable patients from victims-turned-violent will actually stay with me forever. For me, this was one of the few times that the Anitaverse has delivered well-done fight scenes with believable tension and didn’t have victim-blaming show up in the aftermath with Anita dealing with the survivors.

Too bad that rarely ever happens again in the Anitaverse…

The most surprising thing about Obsidian Butterfly was the way that the book didn’t just tease us with the chance to know more about Edward beyond how good he is at killing… it delivered on the promise, fleshing him in a way that almost made him a real character rather than a well-armed sidekick.

Fleshing Edward out a bit was a great choice for Hamilton to make. Edward is supposed to be one of Anita’s oldest allies and her closest dude friends. By the point in the series we’re at in 2019, he’s the closest thing Anita has to an actual best friend since she booted Ronnie in Danse Macabre. Despite that, it still took us like nine books to find out anything significant about him. For him to make jokes. For us to see him as a person that made sense when it came to being friends with Anita.

Obsidian Butterfly may not give Edward a past that we can easily document and use to understand him, but it does one better: it gives him a family, people he’s motivated to care about and rescue from harm.

The only problem with that Instant Family: Just Add an Assassin approach?

Edward spends a huge chunk of this book – and the rest of the series up until rather recently – lying to his family and gaslighting the hell out of his fiancée as if she’s somehow not observant enough to notice the arsenal he travels with on a regular basis or his robotic way of interacting with people.

The Bad

Now I know I said that fleshing Edward out a bit was one of the good things about Obsidian Butterfly right up there and then turned around to also include it here, but bear with me folks: it’s a good bit of character development done poorly.

Edward is using his fiancé Donna and her two children as a smoke screen for him being (in Hamilton’s words) a sociopath and that’s just a terrible idea. Both calling Edward a sociopath and giving him a family so he can pretend he’s not a serial killer with a badge.

In Obsidian Butterfly, we’re not just introduced to Edward in a way that we haven’t been before. We’re also introduced to his legal alter ego Ted Forrester. Where Edward works in the shadows and carries a big flamethrower, Ted is his mild-mannered alter ego that’s buddy-buddy with the cops and totally hasn’t probably skinned at least one shifter alive.

It doesn’t make sense for Edward, who appears to count Anita as one of his two friends, to withhold his life in Albuquerque from her…especially when he’s also not telling his fiancée Donna anything about his bounty hunter and assassin work.

I get having a secret identity when one part of the character’s identity is like… a serial killer, but the way Hamilton does it is really annoying.

I think at one point, Anita compares him to the Superman/Clark Kent secret identity, but it’s really more like that time when Dick Grayson was the Batman to Damian Wayne’s Robin and the Joker pretended to be creepy crime writer and murderer, Oberon Sexton to get in good with them.

Mostly because the idea of comparing Edward to Superman on any level makes my skin crawl.

Then there’s the part where Tedward’s whole reason for being in a relationship with Donna and her family initially is to have a cover so that people don’t associate him with the brutality of his every day “Edward” life. He’s set up as using the family from the start and even if he comes to realize that he truly cares for them by the end of the novel, it’s definitely an uncomfortable realization that until he had to straight up save the kids’ lives, he could’ve convinced himself that they weren’t that important to him.

“Children make that big a difference to you?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, they do.”

“I never figured you as the maternal type.”

“I’m not, but kids are people, Edward, little people trapped by the choices the adults around them make. Donna’s old enough to make her own mistakes, but when you screw her, you’re screwing her kids, too. I know that doesn’t bother you, but it bothers me.”

Edward is a grown ass man who should know that children shouldn’t ever be pawns in someone else’s relationship or cover for a secret identity. Anita shouldn’t have to tell Edward this and her telling Edward that he’s awful for playing Donna and her kids is not a sign of her maternal side. It’s a sign that just once, she’s remembered what being a decent person is like.

Then there’s the way Hamilton writes the Ted/Edward split.

Sentences like ‘the car belonged to Ted, even though Edward was driving it” make so little sense that I don’t understand why Hamilton’s editor didn’t shake her for them. I understand that Hamilton/Anita need to make a distinction between Edward’s legal identity as Ted and the Edward she knows, but they’re not actually different people.

A better way to write the sentence would be something like “The car seemed to match Edward’s life in Santa Fe, but it didn’t look like something I would’ve pictured him driving before today.”

I’m not the greatest writer out there, but if there’s one thing slogging through an English MA has taught me, it’s how proper sentence structure works and how to get a good sentence down on paper. The way that Hamilton writes to denote the Tedward split is not a great technique to use and it winds up being clunky as heck!

Now, let’s talk about the big bad of the book.

For me?

That means talking about the book’s racism.

Too many characters of color are stereotypes, villains, or both and all characters of color are juxtaposed against Anita, Schrödinger’s Latina and found wanting.

It starts with the henchmen that work for the big bad and who come into a nice Mexican restaurant to disrupt the nice meal Anita is having with Edward’s insta-family. They’re assorted ethnic dudes and Hamilton makes a point of pointing out that one of them has obviously been in prison because of his unevenly buff frame.

It’s… a lot.

Then there’s the master vampire in charge of Albuquerque: Itzpapalotl.

“Has this Aztec vamp got a name?”

“The Master of the City calls herself Itzpapalotl.”

“Isn’t that like an Aztec goddess?” I asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Talk about delusions of grandeur.”

Itzpapalotl is an Aztec vampire that styles herself as the goddess she takes her name from – her name can be translated to the very title of the book, by the way. She’s a powerful vampire, one who was potentially worshiped as a goddess, and she doesn’t like outsiders in her territory. Prior to this book, Itzpapalotl literally didn’t allow other vampires’ human servants – or other vampires in general – to come into her state.

I’m pretty sure she killed them all.

As she should.

Itzpapalotl is a vampire-goddess with the potential to have been one of the most interesting characters in the Anitaverse. But of course, because this is the Anitaverse, she’s not given room to be a nuanced character. Instead, she’s a vengeance-focused, anti-white dude vampire, who tortures the men that raped her priestesses back when the Spanish conquistadors set foot on her people’s lands – and the torture involves sexual assault.

Because the Anitaverse isn’t itself without a random rape-condoning villain running around.

There are two Aztec vampire-gods running around in Obsidian Butterfly. One is Itzpapalotl, and the other is the villain responsible for the murders and mutilations in the city, the Red Woman’s Husband. The Red Woman’s Husband, a vampire-god that is awakened from his slumber by the lawless ransacking of multiple archaeological sites by human villain Riker, has no idea what life is like for vampires in the late 20th century and proceeds to do some weird human sacrifice shit that no one needs to know about. He also has a dragon and the fact that it leaves for parts unknown after our vampire god is vanquished is never again addressed either.

He’s another poorly handled Mesoamerican character in part because Hamilton uses him to further her portrayal of ancient Aztecs as woo-woo losers that are too savage to do the right thing/understand how the modern day works. (The Red Woman’s Husband is literally covered in people parts that he and his pulled from the victims. He’s a horror show with legs.)

Hell, you know how he gets got?

Because Hamilton has never written a villain that wasn’t also an attempted or successful rapist, he tries to get it on with Anita against her will. Being that he’s a really old vampire that hasn’t had blood in ages – which… makes no sense considering everything we know about these vampires – he can’t get an erection. He takes like the tinniest bit of blood from Anita and once he’s ready to go and distracted because of it, she stabs him. With (what should be an inconsequential amount of) blood in his body, he dies.

He gets killed because he’s a (literally and metaphorically) thirsty savage and drinks down his own weakness (blood) because it’s the only way to rape Anita… and she kills him for it. But Hamilton made the choice to write him as a rapist on top of the weird skinning and dragon-minding stuff… oh, and a misogynist. Can’t have an Anitaverse villain that’s not one of those too.

This book is really not great to Mesoamerican characters. Aside from the Aztec vampires being mistreated, the shapeshifters are objectified in unbelievable ways – and of course, they’re largely sex pests and gross. It’s a book that’s also meh about Mexican characters – including Anita, whose Latinidad is somehow more nonexistent in a book set in a place that’s apparently filled with Mexicans. The one non-Anita Mexican character that’s not terrible? Wants to fuck her until she reveals her inner monster and then he’s on to be like the rest of the characters in the book… uninterested in her humanity.

Ugh.

I’ve talked about the racism that the Anitaverse directs at Bernardo Spotted-Horse before in “Too White Bread for This Shit: Race and Racism in Laurell K Hamilton’s Urban Fantasy Series” so I’m not going to bring that horse back from the dead in any serious capacity. It’s dehumanizing, objectifying, and always immensely unkind. It isn’t just that Bernardo is “reduced” to stereotypes of a white woman’s perception of some innate Indianness, but that she’s doing it while also trying to make him a Native version of Anita – who is divorced from her ethnicity – but in a way that tries to shame him for it.

Honestly, Anita’s whole reaction to Bernardo is awful. The fact that he’s a site for Hamilton-via-Anita to unload a bunch of her issues about Natives and men onto is disgusting. Like I said in the previously linked piece, Bernardo really only exists to be a super sexualized stereotype of Native masculinity that tempts Anita a bit, but mostly just gets on her nerves.

(By the way: the main reason Edward invited Bernardo in on the case is because he seems like Anita’s “type” and he wants her with a human instead of “monsters” like Richard and Jean Claude.

While I agree with Edward that that Anita should’ve killed Jean Claude before things got romantic between them, trying to tempt her with a Native character that Edward clearly only values for the purpose of being a sexual object – and treats like a toddler the rest of the time – isn’t a great thing to do.)

The Just Plain Borked

One of the new supporting characters introduced alongside Bernardo Spotted-Horse and Donna and her family is Olaf, a serial rapist and murderer with a type.

Edward brings Olaf in on the case specifically because he’s the only person that Edward knows would be able to do something similar and he wants to rule out the potential that a human could’ve done the dismembering and skinning that has plagued the city.

Here’s the thing: it’s really obvious that there’s a preternatural element to the crimes. The (assumed alive at first) skinned victims look like they’ve been wiped clean of parts of their bodies and the dismemberment on the dead victims looks like someone pulled them apart by their hands (or claws, because I’m pretty sure the dragon did some of it).

We know this because that’s how Anita describes both things.

Maybe Edward was right to call Olaf in at first, but by the time he’s called Anita in, they should’ve known that it wasn’t something Olaf couldn’t help with and that he had no expertise in.

So, why does Edward keep Olaf around? Actually, not just “around” but in the same house that he, Bernardo, and now Anita are expected to sleep in.

Edward is the architect of this entire scenario and he knows that not only is Olaf a serial predator (who brags about the crimes he’s committed), but that Anita physically matches his preferred victim profile because Olaf likes to rape and kill petite women with dark hair.

Anita is his “type” and the fact that she’d put up a fight before he possibly killed her is a bonus on his end. While Olaf starts off the book as a huge misogynistic mess (he tries to attack her because she needles him) that can’t stand Anita, by the end of the book he sees her almost similarly to how Edward does: as a worthy opponent.

Only thing is that Olaf’s endgame ends with Anita dead after he tortures and assaults her.

Because that’s his brand.

If Olaf was a one-off character – like many of the characters introduced in Obsidian Butterfly are – maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. However, not only is Olaf recurring, he’s constantly being rearranged in order to get close to Anita.

This is a character who almost immediately offers Anita violence because she’s a woman and who has raped and murdered manywomen across the years and Hamilton almost immediately starts trying to humanize him across the novel and in all subsequent appearances until the last book where Anita at one point basically has to be like “yeah, I can’t sit on Olaf’s lap because my inner lioness wants to fuck him”.

It’s like Anita forgets that one of the first things she found out about Olaf was that he was imprisoned for a rape that he constantly brags about (and don’t get me started on how the culture of bounty hunters/preternatural assassins is one where a convicted rapist and murderer can brag about what he did and no one shoots him in the face for it).

Obsidian Butterfly doesn’t actually let you forget that Olaf is The Worst.

Not only is he this huge honking threat to women, his awfulness is compounded by the fact that he’s a full on homophobe. At one point has to be held back from going after Anita (who is herself homophobic in this scene and plenty others) for using a not so sly “oh, you must be gay” dig to get a reaction from him after he ignores her.

You know… I guess he had to be homophobic because all of the other things he was… just wasn’t enough. (I wouldn’t be surprised to go over this book again and find where he’s dropped a racial slur or something…)

I’ve hated plenty of characters across the Anitaverse and as I continue on my reread/Hamilton keeps churning out books, I’ll probably find more characters to hate. But Olaf represents so much of what I hate about the series itself and why even in the earlier books you could see that the end of the decent parts of the Anitaverse was imminent.

Olaf is a monster who’s introduced as a monster, never stops being a monster, doubles down on being a monster, and at the end of the day is still treated better and more respectfully than most of the white female characters and characters of color across the series. It’s more likely that Olaf will get some kind of happy ending (or “happy for now” ending) at Anita’s side as her lion alpha in replacing Cookie/Haven than it is that Bernardo will get an update in his characterization and stop being sexy, fun, flirty, and food.

And Olaf is, again, a notorious serial killer and rapist that specifically targets women of a certain appearance but thinks all women are just whores waiting for him to kill them.

What the fuck?

Final Verdict

When I get my time machine, I’m going to go back in time to just after I first read this book and shake myself soundly. Obsidian Butterfly is not a good book. It’s a mediocre-to-awful book with some decent parts that do some things right, but it’s not a good book.

I’m not talking about subjective things like the way it makes the reader feel or the value they put on it. I’m talking about the racism on the page, the weird decision to give Edward a family he doesn’t mention or seem to care about until like the last part of the book, a clunky writing style that distracts from the text and, oh yeah… the serial killer sidekick that gets to ride off into the night like nothing’s wrong with his entire existence.

What sucks is that we’re at the point where the series goes down from here. There are no genuinely decent Anita Blake books after this one.

My friend Lyana (from Intersections in the Darkest Visions) recently sent me the following tweet on one of my many observations about the Anitaverse:

Do you ever ask yourself, “Why do I look at this series? Why do I never do an in-depth, over the years look at a good urban fantasy series that doesn’t feature rape every book?” 

Do you ever feel like giving up?

In the moment, I was all like “sometimes, but this is cathartic” which is mostly true.

The thing is though… we’re approaching some of the worst books I’ve ever read. Books that make excuses for abusers and rapists, books that manage to be sanctimonious about everything from orgies to polyamory, and raising kids, books that make Anita a monster and praise her for some seriously sketchy behavior.

In the next book, Anita will be raped (she said “no” repeatedly, he ignored her) by the were-leopard that will become her main lover in the rest of the series.

Within four books from the next installment, Anita won’t have any female friends left that she interacts with. In six books, Anita and a teenager are forced to have (thankfully offscreen) sex. (He comes to live with her in St. Louis a couple books after that and has to be unsubtly aged up from sixteen to nineteen even though three years don’t pass.)

In eight books, Anita will mind-wipe an assassin and make him into one of her “Brides” (a la Dracula), essentially enslaving him for life.

Thirteen books from now, Anita will dump her Chinese girlfriend (who’s dealing with centuries of trauma and abuse) for a white woman that does what she wants, essentially punishing her for having trauma.

I know all of these things are coming up and I dread them immensely.

But I can’t stop reading them.

Some people’s special interests are things they like. Some people can put down a series like the Anitaverse and move on. For some reason, I’m not one of those people. There is something about this series that makes me red with rage and yet, I can’t stop writing about it, talking about, and of course… reading it.

The Reread series is cathartic to me on some level, but it also keeps me from having all of my criticism and thoughts locked up in my head.

This series is still so popular that folks have recommended it to me when I’m asking for recs for diverse urban fantasy. This racist, homophobic, and super rape-y series! She just got a book deal that includes at least one other book in the franchise. It’s never going to end.

But I can’t stop myself from feeling like I need to be there if it does.

And dragging y’all along for the ride.

It took me years to give up on Anne Rice. I only stopped reading her new work back in 2014 with Prince Lestat because that book was actual garbage (and I’ll never do a “reread” of her older work unless I’m actively getting paid for it). Maybe someday, preferably before I get to the really fucked up books in the series, I’ll give up on Laurell K Hamilton.

But until then…

Next month we’re on the tenth Anita Blake book: Narcissus in Chains. We’ll be talking pointless preternatural politics, how to build a better BDSM subplot, why Micah Callahan is the worst thing to happen to the series (yes, he’s even worse than Olaf on some levels), and how Hamilton’s treatment of queer intersex character Narcissus is one of the worse things I’ve ever seen in my life.

Start picking out your drink of choice in preparation for the next installment of the Great Big Anita Blake Reread because you’re gonna want to be sloshed for it.

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About senzavoi

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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3 Responses to The Great Anita Blake ReRead: Obsidian Butterfly

  1. cheerfuloptimistic says:

    It will only get worse, I see.
    Have the people who rec these books as diverse actually read them? Or do they not notice how much racism there is?

    Like

  2. lkeke35 says:

    I think the main reason I was so obsessed with these books, AFTER I stopped reading them, was because of the POTENTIAL for these books to be so much better. I kept seeing the kernels of a good book in all of them right up until Narcissus. OB was the last book I ever fully read, and it’s got some nice elements in it. There’s some good writing in there. Say what you want about her, LH wrote some very good action scenes, in that book. I loved the firefight scene in particular. I remember that scene even though I haven’t read the book in years. It was also one of the last books that had good editing, or any editing really. After OB the plots became completely incoherent for me.

    When LH was firing on all thrusters, she was very good, and it was those bits and pieces of excellent writing, the little paragraphs here and there, the occasional turn of phrase or character description, that kept everyone coming back, and endeared her to her fans, only those bits and pieces became fewer and fewer, the writing became more cliche, Anita became more unlikable,and she surrounded herself by even more unlikable people that she claimed to love.

    When I spoke about this to fans ,we used to say it would be one thing if LH was writing about the fall of a heroic character into villainy, through her personal weaknesses, but that’s not what happened, and every opportunity LH had to be progressive, or turn the story in a useful direction, was squandered to make Anita more powerful, or more corrupt, and playing that off as strength of character, which it clearly wasn’t.

    I think it was hard to let this series go because in all our heads was the series,that she kept teasing us with, that it could have been, and that was really upsetting.

    Like

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