“Peggy, that’s my wife, she’s a lycanthrope.”The Lunatic Café (Anita Blake #4)
Shapeshifters are people too.
At least, that’s what Laurell K Hamilton is trying to convince us and Anita across the twenty-six books in her Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series: one of the core themes across the Anitaverse is the idea that shapeshifters are people and they deserve the consideration that people get.
It’d be an admirable approach to take if not for how Hamilton sets up shifters and their pack dynamics. Shifter society and the dynamics between members in a particular group towards insiders and outsiders – especially if those outsiders are human – really make you question what she’s actually succeeding at.
For this pint-sized primer, we’re going to be talking about the main shape-shifter groups Anita interacts with across the Anitaverse – wolves, leopards, hyenas, tigers, and lions, the lone prey group in the whole dang thing, swans – and why Hamilton’s worldbuilding and her rationale behind using shapeshifters as metaphor for various marginalized identities remains more full of holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.
Let’s begin by spilling some knowledge about the worldbuilding that is supposed to be a constant across the series when it comes to what shifters are, how they procreate, and what role they have in human and preternatural society.
First, shifters in human form are human and have “human rights” in the United States.
In their part-human or full animal forms, shapeshifters in many parts of the world (including certain Southern and Western states of the US) can be killed on sight without the person doing the shooting getting charged with a murder – especially in the case of a bounty hunter that specializes in shifters.
Second, almost all forms of the shifter virus are primarily passed along through infection instead of genetics.
This doesn’t mean that shifters can’t pass their shifter genes down to their children, but instead it’s less likely that they will because pregnant shifters lose the fetus when they shift and pregnant humans either have human babies or have to abort the baby if it tests positive for Mowgli Syndrome.
Third, all shifters must shift.
Outside of Anita – who is, I shit you not, human passing – all shifters have one obvious tell about them: they shift on the full moon, when they’re anxious or angry, or sometimes when they’re turned on. The urge to shift is one that all but a few (uber alpha) shifters must give in to.
Fourth, all shifters – aside from the swan shifters we’ll talk about in a moment – are predator animals in their other form.
This is supposed to explain why they’re so aggressive and have such weirdly violent reactions to uh… everything.
I’m not going to going into too much detail about the various shifter groups because there are a lot of details to cover, but here are some pertinent (and pretty weird) details about some of the shifter groups that roam about across the Anitaverse.
Wolves are the most represented shifter group across the Anitaverse. The pack in St. Louis, a group that is currently under the rule of Richard Zeeman, is one of the largest packs in the United States with hundreds of members across the entire state of Missouri.
Like many of the other shifter groups, the group is patriarchal in nature, with a dominant alpha male leader who has or is looking for a dominant female shifter to be his mate and co-leader. On her own, a dominant female wolf couldn’t be the head of her own pack because of how the dominance practice and leadership challenges work.
This, by the way, precludes some of the existence of queer shifter leaders because the Anitaverse’s wolves hinge on binaries and so a pack leader – who is by default, thanks to the nature of their pack set up, a dude – can’t be into dudes because he needs a primary female partner for balance within the pack. Lupa, the term assigned to Raina and Anita in the series, is not gender neutral.
Lions are one of the shifter groups that lean in hard on their animal sides – as Hamilton understands them.
They’re yet another patriarchy-focused group that tries to emulate the base animal form in their pack dynamic, something that ignores how lions in the wild actually work. Hamilton’s lion shifters lean in towards a hypermasculine pride leader who takes what he wants from female pack members and weaker male ones and actual animal dynamics are not necessarily present in their portrayal.
Interesting lion facts include Hamilton choosing to give lion shifters some (but not all) of the characteristics of lions in the wild including a new alpha lion systematically going through the pack and murdering the previous alpha’s kids and any males of breeding age (ugh) in order to jumpstart the lionesses breeding season.
Like she can’t make lionesses the most active members of the pack or lion shifter prides basically matriarchies, but she can lean in hard on the thing that means maternal units mourning their dead kids have to be handed off to a dominant alpha male?
(Also, all of the lion shifters she’s introduced have either been weak and soft – a bad thing in-universe- like Noel or the previous pride-leader Joseph or power-hungry jerks like Haven. There’s no in-between, just extremes.)
For the longest time in the series, the only tiger shifter we saw was the lone-tiger Christine. Christine is a minor character that appeared in a few scenes scattered across the middle of the series. She shows up in local lycanthrope coalition scenes and generally Doesn’t Do Much. Unlike the tiger shifters we see in the packs later there’s nothing really tiger-ish about her.
Which is why when we do see more of the tiger packs around the country, their existence is so weird.
Many of the tiger shifter packs across the US are primarily run by literal tiger moms – racist, by the way, because the main tiger packs are Chinese(-American). These packs are supposed to be matriarchal, focusing on the power of strong female tiger shifters and blood purity to continue the packs’ dominance. However, all of the focus on the tiger shifters tends towards delicate-looking female shifters (think about how Hamilton writes strong women as automatic competition for Anita) and Anita’s control of/desirability to the male tigers who are almost entirely white-passing in their descriptions.
The most interesting thing about the tiger shifters is that the shifter virus is primarily transferred through blood. Tiger shifters prioritize blood purity, like I’ve mentioned, but they’re also able to enforce that priority thanks to a poorly-explained ability to take on the “beast” of pregnant shifters and keep them from shifting and losing the baby while pregnant.
There’s also a hierarchy of tiger shifters based on the colors of their animals.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: there can’t be that many different colors of tigers to build a hierarchy out of. Well, you clearly don’t know LKH’s dedication to in-book bigotry.
No joke, while there are currently only about six tiger clans known in the Anitaverse right now, there were hundreds of clans: one for every color that the tigers could come in. And now that there are only six clans left – all conveniently located in the mainland US – they can set up a hierarchy that positions them higher than others (including bitten or multi-colored tiger shifters who are less valuable).
Leave it to LKH to make tiger shifters – who should be super cool – really annoying.
We talked a little bit about my hyena feels in my post on Narcissus in Chains, but let’s scream about that a little. Hamilton’s hetero- and cis- centric approach to shifters means that all of her shifters are super freaking problematic. More so than the vampires – who at least are primarily ruled by strong women who take no shit – shifters embody a binary approach to uh… everything and their rulers are basically tied into a heavy reliance on gender binaries.
If you thought that hyenas – who are made for gender fuckery – would be cool and queer in the Anitaverse… well… you were half-right. Hyenas in the Anitaverse are mostly – as we’ve seen so far – queer. In St. Louis at least. In St. Louis, the queer-dude populated hyena pack is run by Narcissus, an intersex man who is pretty darn femme.
What could’ve been a really awesome way to let queer readers know that they’re seen beyond the stereotypical villains and the minimal presence that queer shifters get in this series really just reinforces that Hamilton – at least in that period of her life – couldn’t figure out how to write queer characters.
Or that she is not the best person to be writing them.
In most hyena shifter packs, the head of the pack is a cisgender female alpha who has a group of slightly less dominant female shifters underneath her and then male shifters at the bottom of the pack. One thing Hamilton makes clear is that Narcissus is outside of the norm for his pack by…
Having his pack suffer as a result of him not being the right leader for it.
Hamilton explicitly has Narcissus and his pack suffer because he’s an ineffective leader whose ineffectiveness comes form being a queer man led by his desires. If not for how weak Narcissus was to Chimera’s charms, he and his hyenas wouldn’t have wound up being brutalized.
Narcissus also spends half of his meager appearances terrified of a dominant female hyena shifter showing up and taking his power. Until now, we hadn’t seen any female hyena shifters because Narcissus had banned them from coming into the city.
But in a recent Anitaverse book, Anita gets infected with the hyena virus and adds that to her panwere collection. It’s only a matter of time before Anita takes over that pack as well.
Leopards are the shifter group we see the second most often in the Anitaverse after the wolves.
That prominence across the series is because they’re Anita’s first animal to call among the shifters and her primary partner Micah Callahan is a leopard shifter (… mostly). They’re a small group of shifters whose power and presence in the Anitaverse is due to the fact that Anita is their queen and lives with two of them. They’re all over because well… she’s super close to them in a way that she’s not with the other shifters.
Leopard shifters are kind of… a staple of the genre. There aren’t many really novel facts about them/how they set up their pack dynamics because for the most part, Hamilton tends to play it safe with them and just give us this kind of content where they’re basically cat-people. If you grew up reading fan fiction about sexy cat-people, you’ve already got a better grasp of Hamilton’s leopard shifters than she probably does.
One interesting fact that I’ve noted about the leopard shifters – that might be limited to Anita’s pard – is that the St. Louis leopard shifters are very… moldable. They’re constantly being led by one leader to another. First the St. Louis pack had Gabriel who was a pretty awful monster that molded them into his fucked up desires and shaped the pard accordingly. Then with Micah and Chimera – introduced in Narcissus in Chains – you have a leopard pack led by another monster and you could see how that shaped Micah’s pack even as he tried to get them away from Chimera’s influence.
Other shifters have sketchy and flat out fucked up leaders that shape their pack dynamics, but the leopard shifters across the Anitaverse have pretty much never been seen as able to survive without a monster holding their leadership. And yes, I’m including Anita in this.
Outside of swan shifters there are no prey shifters in the Anitaverse.
Swan shifters are a minority within a minority. The result of a curse that is passed down through genetics, we’ve only met a handful of swans across the Anitaverse. One was a rapist – because, Anitaverse -, the other was the Swan Prince of Denmark (just kidding), and the other three were nameless victims of sexual violence. Because, again… this is the Anitaverse.
Swan shifters are so far the only shifters that can have sex in partially shifted or god forbid, full-shifted form without infecting their partner. The reason we know that is because of the rapist swan from the early books whose pelt (or the avian equivalent) is up on Anita’s wall and the events that led to that scenario.
Aside from the fact that they’re pretty big anomalies in the worldbuilding that Hamilton has set up (by being cursed/the descendants of cursed people and by being prey in a world of predators) I think the most interesting thing about the swans is that the leader of the group has feathers instead of hair?
That’s pretty cool.
I’m also… interested in how Hamilton will make these shifters about Anita at some point.
Metaphor Falling Flat
Across the twenty-six books in Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, there’s been one big constant that’s hard to overlook: despite the fact that Hamilton wants us to believe that shapeshifters are just regular people unfairly maligned and stereotyped (she’s compared her shifters to people of color or people living with HIV) for something they can’t help, she does a shit job of showing us that.
Hamilton isn’t the first of her genre to use shapeshifters as metaphorical stand-ins for marginalized human identities. She’s not going to be the last either. (Unless her next Anita Blake book comes out right at the time the world is ending…)
But there’s something especially awful about how Hamilton sets up the metaphor for her books’ shifters. In a lot of urban fantasy series, when you see a shifter being used as a metaphor for a marginalized group, that group probably doesn’t exist in-universe. In the Anitaverse, you do see characters of color, queer people, and the like on the page alongside the shifters who are being treated better than them in the narrative while also claiming marginalized status.
Like I said in Urban Fantasy 101: Weird Ass Werewolf Tropes:
When writers like Laurell K Hamilton explicitly connect the fear of a being that can and might well eat them with the unwarranted and invalid fear that Whiteness has of people of color, it once again connects violence and lack of control with a marginalized and frequently oppressed group of actual people.
Narratives that coopt the oppression of actual people so that white characters (and ostensibly, white audiences) can get a taste of what it feels like to be oppressed, are beyond messed up.
We’re constantly told that shapeshifters are people too and therefore they deserve to be treated as people and not distrusted – even though the narrative crossing the Anitaverse is that the only beings more dangerous than shifters are vampires. Even though half of the most vile and violent murderers across the series are shifters.
It’d be interesting to experience a narrative that explored how monstrosity and humanity are two sides of the same coin in shifter series, but –
That’s not what Hamilton gives us.
At almost every single step of the way, we’re told how vulnerable shifters are. We’re told that they don’t deserve anything that’s happened to them in terms of oppression and that people hating on them are wrong.
But these words are juxtaposed against written description of incredible and horrifying violence that shifters enact on other people – humans and fellow shifters – that humans simply couldn’t enact on each other.
People can be monstrous, yes.
But not that monstrous.
Not in the ways that Hamilton’s shifters are monstrous yet still receive the benefit of the doubt and personhood.