As I’ve dragging my heels on finishing Narcissus in Chains (Anita Blake #10) for the next installment of my reread series, I’ve realized that there’s one small problem with how I talk about the Anitaverse. I keep assuming that you all have already read the series and are familiar with how everything works and therefore I don’t slow down to explain things that are probably confusing to the uninitiated.
So for the next two or three months, I’ll be writing mini-primers to three of the biggest worldbuilding bits that are semi-constant across the Anitaverse that I haven’t explained (but really need to before I keep going any further).
For this month, I’ll be covering the ardeur.
Content warnings for this primer: descriptions of sexual assault, “fuck or die”/”sex pollen” scenarios, rape culture, and sex-negative feminism framed as “sex positive” feminism, homophobia, a reference to an adult having sex with a teenager
“I thought you would be angry with me for giving you the ardeur, the fire, the burning hunger.”
The ardeur is first named in the thirteenth chapter of Narcissus in Chains after Micah assaults Anita in the previous chapter while she’s under her first brush of the ardeur.
In the chapter, after Anita shamefully admits to having sex with Micah (and again, it was rape), Jean-Claude confesses to having hidden this power from her and to denying his own hunger for sex because he know she wouldn’t approve.
Here’s the first of many issues with the ardeur.
Prior to this book, there’s nothing within the Anitaverse that tells us that Jean-Claude has this power hidden within his body.
While Hamilton makes constant reference to Jean-Claude having a voice that seemed to stroke across Anita’s skin like sex, there was nothing about that that was explicitly or implicitly connected to this incubus-lite power that he’s apparently been hiding for as long as he’s known Anita.
The ardeur can be fed in a few ways:
First, the ardeur can be used to feed from a distance without the wielder/user needing to have sexual contact with their target. Jean-Claude teaches Anita how to do this while at Guilty Pleasures, the strip club that lent its name to the first book in the series. It is unsatisfying and unpleasant, described as feeling like drawing silk through/against an open wound.
Second, a “master” can get their human/vampire servant or specific animal to call to feed the ardeur for them via sexual contact, sending the energy up the pipeline so to speak. Damian, Anita’s vampire servant, has done this for her at least once.
Finally, the ardeur can be fed with full-contact sexual intercourse. Orgasms from a partner (or victim) appear to work the best and if from a master vampire or alpha shapeshifter, can even allow the wielder/user to feed from their entire line.
What makes this sudden reveal of Jean-Claude (and now, Anita) having this power is that Jean-Claude makes it clear that this is a hunger that needs to be fed constantly and fed properly.
In this early ardeur-heavy set of books (#10-17, roughly), we have points where Anita literally can’t travel – including to work within the city – without either having the ardeur all fed before she leaves the house or a lover-snack along for the ride. When Anita doesn’t eat actual food – high protein snacks and meals like a shapeshifter would – the ardeur burns through her existing energy faster.
If Anita – and, we’re assuming any vampire with this power or a variant – doesn’t feed the ardeur at least once every twelve hours (as she has to in Cerulean Sins), the following things can happen:
- Anita gets woozy the way people who haven’t eaten a physical meal do and the power can even (counter-intuitively, I feel) drain her to the point of death
- She starts drawing energy from her vampire servant Damian and animal-to-call Nathaniel in Incubus Dreams (later books have her able to accidentally drain any or all of her animals to call if she gets to that point of incredible hunger)
- The ardeur takes control and can compel a partner (who may not be willing and/or interested in women) to have sex with her in order to feed the ardeur
- As time goes on, the ardeur strengthens. The longer Anita has it, the more powerful it gets and the less picky it is about who it feeds on to the point of feeding on victims that even Anita isn’t attracted to..
Anita can’t even go a day or two without feeding the ardeur in the beginning, so how is it that Jean-Claude has gone at least two years without feeding this hunger? How is it that he’s gone this long without even mentioning it or alluding to it at any point before?
We knew through practice that if Jean-Claude concentrated on controlling the ardeur, he could help me control it as well. But when he wasn’t concentrating, the fire burned through us both like some overwhelming force of nature.
If Jean-Claude needs to concentrate so hard on managing the ardeur from Narcissus in Chains onward, why wasn’t this complication a need-to-know element of his characterization before this book? Seriously!
One of Hamilton’s weak points in writing is that she does this thing where nothing exists prior to the book it’s first mentioned in and then it’s the most important thing ever.
Previous worldbuilding or characterization details are thrown out of the window in favor of reinventing the wheel of Anita’s life to be sexier, more shocking, and most importantly: to grant her more power.
(Another example of this in Narcissus in Chains is that pan-shifters (who hold different shifter viruses and can physically shift to multiple forms) didn’t exist before this book either – in fact, the idea of having more than one supernatural virus at a time was shut down ages before this book – but it’s now one of the most important things about Anita’s expanding power base and has been extended to her primary shifter partner, Micah.)
In a nutshell, the ardeur is like a sexy parasitic power akin to modern views of incubi/succubi (especially in the urban fantasy genre). It’s simultaneously something that gives Anita incredible power boosts and disrupts her life/robs her of her agency.
It is also a vehicle for Hamilton to write Anita having sex.
I say this because Anita is a character notorious for being a self-described “prude” who, thanks to her Catholic upbringing, was never really comfortable with sex and being sexual.
In fact, prior to Narcissus in Chains, Anita has only had on-screen sex two times and sex remained an entire obstacle in the relationships she was forging with Richard and Jean-Claude. Anita is flat out uncomfortable with sex…
So Hamilton made it “easier” to write her having it.
That alone wouldn’t be a problem.
I know many writers who, when faced with a romantic lead that won’t do what they want, shift the characterization in order to make the character more open to physical affections.
This is not that.
In Devon Ellington’s essay “Ardeur’s Purpose” in the 2010 collection Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, she writes that:
[…] the ardeur is tailor-made to challenge Anita by pushing her out of her comfort zone. She is forced to have casual sex to survive, but even more, the ardeur takes away her self-control and forces her into long-term intimate arrangements—all of which forces her to deal with the very issues she’s successfully avoided in her adult life so far. Learning to deal with a consuming kill-or-be-killed lust is just as much of an emotional challenge for her as a physical one.
Ellington frames the ardeur as something that provides Anita with growth because it forces Anita to come to terms with the sexuality she’s repressed for her entire life, to have connections with other people, and to take responsibility to the people metaphysically bound up with her.
While it definitely does the latter things – Anita quickly figures out that she has to feed the ardeur if she doesn’t want to kill those closest to her on accident and she ends up with a good two dozen on-and-off lovers by Serpentine (Anita Blake #26) – it does not force Anita to come to terms with her sexuality in the slightest.
What the ardeur actually forces Anita to do?
It forces her to have sex.
That’s… about it.
Ellington, like Hamilton, is invested in framing the ardeur as this positive aspect to Anita’s life. She positions it as something that allows Anita to be her realest self and make connections with people that she has been holding at arms’ length for several books.
That… isn’t actually true.
Sure, the ardeur and the hunger within Anita leads Anita to having sex with Nathaniel and Damian for the first time in Incubus Dreams instead of dodging them, but… that’s not a good thing.
While Anita had been attracted to Nathaniel for two books before this one, she literally rejected the idea of having sex with him because she viewed him as “too young”, childlike. At that point in the series, I can’t even think of a single sex act between her and Nathaniel that wasn’t marred by some outside force (well, technically internal because it’s either their animals or the ardeur) urging them to have sex.
Almost nine years and seven books have passed since the collection Ellington was in was published. At that point, we’d already hit some of the worst moments of the Anitaverse – some of which including the way that the ardeur was used to force Anita into having sex with characters/people she shouldn’t.
The ardeur has gotten worse in terms of power and has even led to Nathaniel, an already morally murky character when it came to sex, gaining his own version that he then uses to force Damian and Anita into sex acts against their will. This is of course framed as romantic and sexy.
It is not.
In the introduction to Ellington’s essay, Hamilton writes that:
This essay sees in the ardeur some of what I saw in it eventually, but at first I, like Anita, was pretty horrified. We’re both control freaks and the ardeur is about losing control. It is the antithesis of all that hard-won refusal and discipline that Anita prided in herself. But without the ardeur Anita would still be trapped in herself, in her denials. Without it she’d still be able to hide from herself.
The ardeur is not a good thing.
It is a power that Anita gets without her consent that forces her to rape or be raped.
Half the time that the ardeur takes control of Anita, she doesn’t want to have sex.
She goes from zero to “screaming for sex because it hurts” in a matter of moments and rarely, especially in these early books where she’s working on controlling it, does she or her partners consent to having the sex they’re having. At this point, I legitimately cannot tell when she’s having sex for pleasure – as opposed to feeding the ardeur that’s overwhelming them or for politics – because it happens so rarely it seems.
Hamilton, like Ellington, reframes the ardeur as this thing that allows Anita to be a better badass because it lets her have the sex that Merry, Hamilton’s other urban fantasy protagonist, is enjoying immensely.
But the thing about the ardeur is that…
It’s not positive in any way. Not for any of the characters who have it outside of Belle Morte, Jean-Claude’s maker and the head of the group of vampires he belongs to. It rules them as much as it rules Anita and it either makes them into rape victims or rapists.
Hamilton’s introduction goes on to talk about how the ardeur is the real reason for the dissolution of Anita’s friendship with her only female friend Ronnie. Only, she doesn’t blame it directly on it or acknowledge how much her own internalized misogyny sets up other women as threats to her boss status.
She literally decides that the reason Ronnie and Ronnie end their (at the time) 14-book friendship is because Anita is now a rival for men. No joke.
Instead of actually engaging with Ellington’s essay or the horrific acceptance of rape-as-metaphysical-power, Hamilton decides to like… do that.
One thing that really gets me about the Anitaverse is that it’s frequently been called sex-positive when it doesn’t even remotely deserve that label in part because of the ardeur.
In a review for Dead Ice (Anita Blake #24), Starburst Magazine wrote that:
If you’re looking for a sex-positive, kick-ass female protagonist in a novel filled with sexy supernatural monsters, then Dead Ice may well be your thing, but be warned: it is quite long for what it is and it sorely needs more sex and death.
Personally, I wouldn’t call Anita, a character who:
- Is frequently forced to have sex (or else she’ll die or kill someone else)
- Uses the ardeur on a male character who, up until that point, had been a walking feminine gay guy stereotype (and “turns him” somewhat)
- Forces other characters to have sex and enslaves like three of them (they’re called her “brides” and she mindwipes their personalities to suit her metaphysical needs)
- Constantly shames other characters for the sex they’re not having (in the name of internalized misogyny)
- Is sleeping with a recent high school graduate (after they were forced to have sex when he was sixteen)
Anything close to “sex positive”.
The ardeur is a vehicle for Hamilton. It’s a “Get Out of Writing Rape And Calling It Consensual” card. It’s something that honestly ruins the little bit of goodness left in Anita because of what Hamilton decides to do with it.
There’s no nuance to the ardeur, no actual attempt at reckoning with a supernatural equivalent of fandom’s “fuck or die” trope. It’s just an accepted tool used to have Anita have sex that she doesn’t want… because she now needs it.