I’m still hoping the ardeur is temporary.
The last installment, I told y’all to make sure that you had alcohol ready because we were getting into the really stressful parts of the Anita Blake series. While it’s not as rough as I expected, it’s still something that drove me to crave a drink or two.
Narcissus in Chains is the tenth book in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and the start of what I view as the downward slide of the series’ trajectory.
Set some six months after Obsidian Butterfly, Anita has finally decided that she’s ready to restart things with Richard and Jean-Claude so that their power base isn’t left vulnerable. She makes this decision right around the time that a mysterious shapeshifter starts targeting the people in the various packs that she has sworn to protect. Which is great timing considering the power boost that they all get as a result of her return.
While the official blurb for the book makes it sound like a dark mystery and a battle for Anita’s very soul are bound up in the novel (“Nothing can save Anita from a twist of fate that draws her ever closer to the brink of humanity–to finally surrender to the bloodlust, the beast, and the desire transforming her body and consuming her soul.”), the actual book is… way more boring than you’d think.
I hope you’ve made yourself a stiff drink and are prepared to guzzle it because in this installment of my great big Anita Blake Reread, we’re going to look at the things about Narcissus in Chains that didn’t suck as hard as they could, the things that make me feel like fighting the book, and the big weird things that this book does that piss me off well over a decade later.
Let’s be absolutely clear here, there’s actually nothing good about Narcissus in Chains. I just don’t feel like changing my established blogging set up at the time I wrote this out because Hamilton keeps managing to write books where nothing good happens in them. (Thanks to a couple of my awesome Patrons, things’ll look different for Cerulean Sins.)
Despite that, there are a few things that aren’t truly terrible about Narcissus in Chains and I’m gonna share them with y’all.
First, there’s the way that Anita’s current best friend Ronnie’s endless disgust with/dislike of Jean-Claude pretty much opens the novel. Like many of us, Ronnie agrees that Jean-Claude would be better off dead instead of in Anita’s bed.
As I want to stake Jean-Claude, that’s uh… understandable.
The highest points of the conversation that pisses Anita off?
Where Hamilton has Ronnie bring up a comment that Anita has made about vampires in the past.
“Now that’s an oxymoron,” she said.
“What is?” I asked.
“Vampire ethics,” she said.
I frowned at her. “That’s not fair, Ronnie.”
“You are a vampire executioner, Anita. You are the one who taught me that they aren’t just people with fangs. They are monsters.”
It’s a callback to the quote I used as the introduction to the very first installment of my reread series and it’s another marker of how the series has shifted far from the center.
When the Anitaverse began, Anita’s whole thing was this conflicted feeling about whether or not vampires and other supernatural beings were really human. Now that she’s sleeping with some of them and has had to protect others, she’s starting to see them as people.
Normally, I’d actually be up for anything that minimizes dehumanization even in the context of the Anitaverse which uses supernatural beings as stand-ins for marginalized people (who are queer, “of color”, and/or disabled), but considering how Anita’s realization of supernatural humanity ties into her desire or her protector status… eh.
Having Ronnie remind us why we got into the series at the beginning – even though Anita brushes her off and gets huffy at what she sees as a judgment – is good because it’s like “hey, Anita used to be conflicted in this specific and interesting way”.
Now… she’s not.
Next, is how the most interesting Anita has ever been was when “we” thought she was going to become a shapeshifter.
In the chapters set in the titular club, one of the things that happens in this over-long wonk is that the wereleopard Gregory accidentally claws Anita up after she rescues him, infecting her with his virus.
For much of the book, Anita struggles with the knowledge that she should be turning furry the next full moon. She’s developed rapid healing, overheating in the process, and has a metaphysical connection with Micah’s inner leopard that should only be possible between two shifters.
Becoming a shifter in the Anitaverse equals losing a right to humanity/being treated as humans that other species don’t have to go through. Vampires, after all, look human all the time. Shape-shifters… don’t.
It could’ve been an interesting complication for Anita, but of course, we can’t have that. By the end of the novel, Anita is revealed to “just” have leopards as her animal to call and a new immunity to the shifter virus that no one else has.
Now, I hate the term “Mary Sue” as a pejorative but like…
That’s literally what Anita is?
Narcissus in Chains introduces a bunch of rapists and doesn’t manage to kill all of them off by the end of the book.
That the bad guy is a rapist is kind of a given considering how Hamilton tends to take a Mark Millar-esque approach to sexual assault as a marker of badness, but the other two rapists introduced in this book are characters that recur later on.
One, Micah, goes on to be Anita’s primary shapeshifter partner. The other is… Narcissus, an intersex hyena shifter that runs the titular BDSM club.
One of the things I’ll always be angry about when it comes to Narcissus in Chains is how messed up it is that the first intersex character introduced in the Anitaverse is so poorly handled. Every single thing about Narcissus is Bad.
For starters, here’s how he’s described when Anita first meets him:
I don’t know what we would have said, because three men joined us before we could decide. The shortest of the three was only about five feet seven, and he was wearing more makeup on his pale triangular face than I was. The makeup was well done, but he wasn’t trying to look like a woman. His black hair was cut very short, though you could tell that it would be curly if it was long. He was wearing a black lace dress, long-sleeved, fitted at the waist, showing a slender but muscular chest. The skirt spilled out around him, almost June Cleaverish, and his stockings were black, with a very delicate spiderweb pattern. He wore open-toed sandals with spike heels, and both his toenails and his fingernails were painted black. He looked … lovely. But what made the outfit was the sense of power in him. It hung around him like an expensive perfume, and I knew he was an alpha something.
Jean-Claude spoke first. “This is Narcissus, owner of this establishment.”
Narcissus held out his hand. I was momentarily confused about whether I was supposed to shake the hand or kiss it. If he’d been trying to pass for a woman, I’d have known the kiss would have been appropriate, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t so much cross-dressing as just dressing the way he wanted. I shook his hand. The grip was strong, but not too strong. He didn’t try and test my strength, which some lycanthropes will do. He was secure, was Narcissus.
I remember the first time I read this book. I liked the idea of Narcissus more than I knew how to verbalize as a teenager. Here was this openly queer character who was also femme as fuck on top of it and he had power. I remember that for a hot minute, I used to write characters like Narcissus as he was introduced because I was enamored with his very existence.
There have been queer characters in the Anitaverse prior to this book and Narcissus.
Unfortunately, aside from the nods at how Asher’s interest in Jean-Claude was romantic (but turned to hatred at Julianna’s death and his torture), most of the queer characters in the series at this point have been villains and/or predatory stereotypes.
When I was wee, I didn’t realize that Narcissus is both.
I saw a queer, dark-haired babe of a shapeshifter who had ridiculous chemistry with Asher (at the time, one of my favorite characters in the franchise) and I fell headfirst.
I question every single bit of Narcissus’ existence from his high femme existence to the weird “he got pregnant” note in the epilogue (that isn’t resolved until like ten books later), to the fact that he’s one of the Anitaverse’s many rapists that get to live on.
Back when Nikolaus (the master vampire of St. Louis that gets offed in Guilty Pleasures) was the queen of the city, she often loaned Jean-Claude out to other supernatural beings when he was in need of punishment. This loaning is heavily implied to be sexual and against Jean-Claude’s will – as evidenced by the way that Narcissus initially treats Jean-Claude as an object that he should have access to.
I can’t imagine doing this.
I can’t imagine having a character be the only character in a text with their marginalization and constantly mistreat and vilify them across a series. That would feel so wrong to me. Wow.
As of 2019, Narcissus is the only intersex character in the Anita Blake series. He’s introduced as an amoral rapist, broken down to a victim of sexual violence and domestic abuse by the end of the book that introduces, and then turned into a character who’s trying to manipulate Asher (another rapist) into claiming power in the city.
At every angle, he’s a character framed as unlikeable and a potential threat to Anita’s power base and when he’s the only marginalized character with his specific marginalization… That says something about how Hamilton might think about intersex people.
And it’s not a good thing.
Both of Hamilton’s big Narcisuss reveals – that he’s intersex (she uses the outdated and offensive term “hermaphrodite”) and pregnant – happen in the last chapter of the book. Y’all can see for yourselves how poorly handled both those reveals are and how shitty Hamilton is at making Anita a vaguely likable character or a good person.
Narcissus turned out to be a hermaphrodite, and he’s pregnant, too. I’m not sure Narcissus should be breeding, especially knowing who the father is, but it’s not my choice.
Peep the dehumanizing language?
“I’m not sure Narcissus should be breeding” is how Anita feels before you take Chimera’s parentage into consideration.
She just doesn’t think he should have kids, period. The kid’s father is just a bonus reason for it.
How fucked up is that?
Narcissus has been brutalized as a result of Chimera trying to take over his clan as an “in” to the St. Louis shifter culture.
The descriptions of what he did to Narcissus and his clan of hyenas are so distressing that I don’t even plan on sharing them. Narcissus literally ends the book with the loss of an abusive lover and finding out he’s pregnant and all Anita can muster is “he shouldn’t be allowed to procreate”.
If Hamilton was consistent about her treatment of rapists that attack Anita and/or her lovers, that’d be one thing. But she’s not and it sucks!
Then, there’s Micah.
I hate Micah Callahan. I hate how he was introduced and how he and Nathaniel are barely characters – as opposed to obvious fantasies for Hamilton. I hate that the first thing he does upon showing up in the Anitaverse is to rape Anita.
I hate that he’s now her primary partner after Jean-Claude.
I hate that Hamilton refuses to call him pressuring Anita into having sex while she was literally denying that she wanted it “sexual assault” to this day.
I talked about this in Urban Fantasy 101: Sexual Assault in the Genre back in 2017: Micah pressures Anita into having sex with him and doesn’t respect her repeated “No”s at any point. He is a rapist and y’all should know my feelings on rapists by now…
They need to die.
While I have complicated feelings on Narcissus and would love to rewrite him, I’d gladly leave Micah where he is or kill him off.
Hamilton tries to frame Micah as a victim because of the pan-shifter villain Chimera has essentially forced Micah into his pack and has him commit atrocities on behalf of his power-grab.
However, the sympathy that Narcissus in Chains wants us to have for Micah is tempered by the fact that literally the first thing Micah does – before we even know his name – is assault Anita.
At this point in the series, thanks to Hamilton introducing a new element of her worldbuilding out of nowhere, Anita is newly “blessed” with the ardeur and has no idea what’s going on. She is in an excruciating amount of physical and emotional discomfort and the one explanation she has for what’s happening to her… isn’t a good one.
Enter Micah and his massive dick.
No joke, that’s one of Micah’s defining characteristics. He has a penis so massive that it knocks the previous Most Massive Member in the Anitaverse (belonging to the oft objectified Bernardo Spotted-Horse from the previous book) down a few pegs.
Aside from how he’s Anita’s height, has increasingly long brown hair, has a face “saved” from being feminine by his jaw or whatever, and has leopard eyes from Chimera’s torture… that’s the most important thing about him.
It comes up just as much as the other aspects of his physical appearance.
(Unlike with Bernardo Spotted-Horse who is pretty much only a sex object lauded and feared for his massive member, Micah is fleshed out somewhat and humanized beyond the pleasure he can provide people who enjoy getting their internal organs rearranged during intercourse.)
I hate Micah so much and I know it’s not happening anytime soon since he’s currently (as of 2019) another multi-shifter, Anita’s main shifter partner, and kind of Jean-Claude’s second in command when it comes to getting the shifters in the US to fall in line, but I want him to get killed off.
The Just Plain Borked
Narcissus in Chains introduces one of the most annoying and most problematic aspects of the Anitaverse: the ardeur.
Out of nowhere in this novel, we’re told that Jean-Claude has gained powers from Belle Morte, his and Asher’s vampire mistress who made them.
Then we’re told that those powers are akin to an incubus’s power and that Anita gains them herself as a result of her deepening her connection with the triumvirate that shouldn’t be.
The thing about the ardeur that I never liked was that it’s a “get out of jail” card for Anita when it comes to her having sex.
From the moment that it’s introduced, it robs Anita of the ability to consent to sex. Not just that, it’s used as an excuse so that she doesn’t have to give or get consent because ~the ardeur~ just rolls over her without warning.
I cut my teeth in the DC fandom.
Sex pollen and “fuck or die” stories are a fandom staple.
So I get where Hamilton is coming from and why it’s so damn problematic.
But I’ve also been writing incubi since I was a teenager and I still managed to incorporate consent and consent play into scenarios that could’ve been truly terrible.
The way that Hamilton uses the ardeur to excuse her characters’ straight up support of rape culture in the series makes me sick.
From the moment that the ardeur is introduced, it’s used as a way to give Anita guilt-free, hands-off sex that is never actually analyzed or addressed by the text. Much of the time, either Anita and at least one of her partners don’t want to have sex but the ardeur makes her need it. It also makes her force them to have this contact.
The ardeur is one of many reasons why I will never call the Anita Blake series sex-positive. It’s also a huge part of why I cringe when I see anyone try to hype the series up as if its portrayal of sex and sexuality as even remotely positive.
Anita is a character that was written to be a prude initially. She’s a character that’s set up to be the sexually conservative girl that needs a nudge in order to be fun for a night or two. Hamilton herself once said that Merry (of the Merry Gentry series) exists because she wanted a character with “an easier attitude about sex”.
So what happens when you like writing sex but have a main character with very conservative Catholic views on it?
You give her a reason to have sex that overrides her upbringing and morals about sex.
Somehow, the Anitaverse gets worse at consent as it goes on and conflates having Anita having constant sex with the series itself being sex positive. But this start: dumping an incubus-lite power on her out of nowhere (“because Jean-Claude was hiding his true self from her blah blah blah”)?
Well, it is pretty awful.
How does this book get much worse than giving Anita access to a “power boost” that forces her to have sex in order to stay alive?
Well, Narcissus in Chains introduces Chimera, the alter-ego of Orlando King, a notable lycanthrope hunter who claims to be turning over a new leaf after surviving a horrible attack.
Orlando King is actually the worst villain that the Anitaverse has introduced this time around. He’s also another villain killed off too soon despite the fact that his influence lingers well into the current books. Frequently, Hamilton does the Marvel thing and kills off a bunch of potentially powerful villains in their first appearance instead of allowing them to earn the reputation that Hamilton wants us to believe they have.
Think about it, the first time we’ve heard of Orlando King is in Narcissus in Chains, but we’re expected to believe that he has been quietly collecting power without anyone finding out or doing something about it for several years. It’s hard to believe that in this world where the government has its fingers in all sorts of supernatural shenanigans, that folks would just miss King’s roving band of violent shapeshifters or the way that he destabilizes local supernatural centers of power.
A better approach would’ve been if Hamilton had dropped references to King earlier in the series and if she hadn’t wrapped up the novel with his death. If King had been a villain gaining power in the background and paralleling Jean-Claude’s own rise to power, he could’ve been interesting enough to almost mitigate the problematic aspects of his character.
However, at the heart of it, Chimera is a villain rife with a nasty combination of ableism, homophobia, and just plain rape-culture-y nonsense. His very existence threatens to break her worldbuilding. (How is he a pan shifter? Wouldn’t the various shifter viruses cancel each other out the way the shifter virus and vamp virus cancel each other out?)
And he’s got no real reason for hurting people beyond “I get a kick out of it”, something which always makes a frustrating villain.
Part of what gets me about Chimera is the same thing that I hate about Olaf to this day: they’re vile villains that ooze toxic masculinity and are canonical rapists.
Narcissus in Chains is a bad book.
Y’all probably aren’t surprised that this is the conclusion I’ve come to.
At this point, it was hard for me to find a relatively nice thing to say about Narcissus in Chains because it’s such a bloated disappointment of a book at this time in my life.
The thing though, is that I vaguely remember this as another Anitaverse book that captivated me when I was a teenager. I remember dog-earing particularly sexy scenes and marveling at the way that that they played out. This book might have even been my first brush with BDSM in contemporary fantasy fiction.
One thing I’ve got to say is that returning to Narcissus in Chains was different for me because I previously reread it in 2017 when I was working on talking about how the Anitaverse doesn’t handle sexual assault well. Because I’d reread it (relatively) recently and so my annoyance with the book was so much fresher than usual.
In contrast, reading the next book in the series, Cerulean Sins for next month/the next installment will be my first time returning to it in maybe four or five years. I remember the rough notes of the plot and that some new and messed up vampires are introduced, but that… about it.
Next installment, we’re looking at werewolf serial killers, pondering the ethics of animal sacrifices, and complaining about the pointlessness of vampire politics.