The writers I most like to read exhibit strong storytelling abilities, develop their characters and relationships in an engrossing manner, and weave it all together through well-crafted writing. That’s a tall order, quite frankly, and I’ve often said I would rather read an interesting story that isn’t particularly well written to one that features exquisite writing yet reads as deadly dull. Today’s argument isn’t going to compare and contrast story telling and the craft of writing, though. Instead I want to talk about storytelling and character.
Laurell K. Hamilton was one of the first urban fantasy authors I read; I discovered her at roughly the same time as I first read Charlaine Harris. I picked up Guilty Pleasures one day in 2001 when I desperately needed to experience a kick-ass heroine. I breezed through the first seven books in less than a fortnight, bedazzled by a very different world than I’d ever seen, and revved up by the non-stop action Hamilton created for Anita Blake, vampire hunter.
Before I picked up Blue Moon, the eighth book in the series, I remembered that many of my Anita Blake-loving friends considered it to be a very different read than the books previous to it, so I decided to give the series a break. It wasn’t long after that these same friends began to talk about the series jumping the shark, and as a result, I never picked up where I left off. It wasn’t so much the whole “the series went downhill because she’s working out her real-life issues” criticism, or that the books had become ever-more sexual...after all, I like LKH’s Merry Gentry series a great deal, and given its fertility theme, there’s lots and lots of sex in it. No, it was the fact that as exciting as books one through seven had been, there was very little “there” there.
Looking back at my C+ grade for Guilty Pleasures, I’m not even sure why I moved on to book two; generally if the first book in a series doesn’t earn at least a B-, I move on. The novelty of the series, though, and the sheer adrenaline rush of the non-stop action spurred me on and on and on. Burnt Offerings, another C+ read for me, book-ended the series for me because quite simply I’d burned out. I’d gobbled up the books like I was downing one M&M after another, and only later realized that all that gobbling covered up a certain disappointment. The non-stop action excited me and encouraged me to read more, but I also kept reading because I was looking for that total high which accompanies a book featuring terrific story-telling and strong character creation.
Granted, I don’t read urban fantasy for superb character development. One of the reasons I like urban fantasy is that it reads quickly, with a great deal of excitement, and a lack of navel-gazing contemplation. I think so many romance authors are able to cross genres and write strong urban fantasy specifically because of their romance background, which almost by definition means they know how to write characters and relationships. It’s not true across the board, and some non-romance authors manage to create terrific characters, forge strong relationships, and tell a great tale. But Hamilton didn’t do this to my satisfaction in her Anita Blake books.
J.D. Robb doesn’t write urban fantasy, but her futuristic romantic suspense In Death books are as high-octane as LKH’s Anita Blake series. The books more and more feature the police procedural aspect, with lots and lots of action. But Robb’s experience as Nora Roberts, romance writer, keeps me coming back for more because of how she develops the characters over time.
There’s a certain amount of cliche involved in Eve’s nightmares over her abusive childhood, but that period in her life does inform how she feels, thinks, and behaves thereafter. Her characters are so vivid that in my head I can hear Roarke speak in his lilting Irish brogue, and am amazed at the continued intensity of his romance with Eve, and how they make adjustments for each other within their marriage as the series progresses. It’s not just Eve and Roarke, though, that keep the series fresh after so many entries. Robb adds texture, humor, and depth with ten or so major secondary characters, and even manages to flesh out quite a few tertiary characters. The more you read Robb’s series, the more invested in it you become.
Not long ago I wrote about Treachery in Death on my blog. There’s a scene in which the baddies attempt to take down Eve, but her “men” have her back. It’s true that I’ve never actually experienced cops collaring a murderer, but the reaction of one of her team sure sounds authentic to me:
“Drop the fucking weapon, you fucking motherfucker, or I’ll fucking scramble your fucking brains. Hands up! Hands where I can fucking see them, you fucking cocksucker. You fucking breathe wrong, you fucking blink wrong, and I will fuck you up.”
“On your fucking face, you fucking shit coward. Stream my lieutenant in the fucking back? Fuck you...”
“I seem to have misjudged my step, Lieutenant, and stepped on one of this motherfucker’s fingers. I believe it’s broken.”
Given that the book features Eve bringing a corrupt cop—who disrespects not only her badge but her team—to justice, her relationship with her own men plays a big part in her thoughts and feelings throughout the book. It’s all about the respect she gives those who work for her and the respect she earns in return that allows her to trust her team to help her stay safe in a deadly situation. Expect the best and you’ll get the best seems to be Eve’s motto here, and she doesn’t only talk the talk, she walks the walk. The cop screaming at the fucking motherfucker, then breaking the perp’s finger isn’t Baxter or another major secondary character. Hell, I’m not even sure he’s been introduced to the reader before he arrests that fucking cocksucker. But Robb’s ability to integrate her characters—and their growth—within her stories puts her at a different level, at least for me, than LKH in her Anita Blake series.
On the other hand, I’ve continued to read her Merry Gentry books. Does she do a more effective job writing people and relationships, or is there some other quality about this series that compels me to continue reading? The answers to both these questions is yes. I feel connected to the Merry Gentry characters and have an investment in their relationships in a way that eluded me in the Anita Blake books. Even better, the vivid and imaginative descriptions and world-building continues to intrigues me, as does the kinky fertility premise of the series. I mentioned in another article that though the series is filled with sexual shenanigans, Hamilton’s writing is strangely devoid of the erotic jolts such books generally deliver, so it’s not really about the sex. Instead, it’s about what happens as a result of the sex. Merry’s power keeps taking on different dimensions as she sleeps her way through the unseelie court, and her unseelie companions begin to retrieve powers lost long ago, which really appeals to the mythology lover in me.
To this day I remember reading Hamilton’s description of Doyle in A Kiss of Shadows, which kicks off the series, and visualizing him in my head as though he were standing in front of me. She describes his black skin as looking “as if he’d been carved from ebony...all angles and darkness,” with a voice “like his skin, dark,” so that when Merry hears it she thinks of “molasses and other thick, sweet things, a voice so deep it could hit notes low enough to make [her] spine shiver.” She continues with her description of him:
“He was an elemental thing carved of darkness and half-light, armed with a killing sword and moving toward me like death incarnate. In that one moment I knew why humans had fallen down and worshipped us.”
Her description of him in the series’ second installment, A Caress of Twilight, provides an even better visual, I think:
The bedroom door opened soundlessly, and as if I’d conjured him by my thoughts, Doyle eased into the room. He shut the door behind him, as soundlessly as he’d opened it. I never understood how he did that. If I’d opened the door, it would have made noise. But when Doyle wanted to, he moved like the fall of night itself, soundless, weighless, undetectable until you realized the light was gone and you were alone in the dark with something you couldn’t see. His nickname was the Queen’s Darkness, or simply Darkness. The Queen would say, “Where is my Darkness? Bring me my Darkness,” and this meant that soon someone would bleed or die. But now, strangely, he was my Darkness.
Nicca was brown, but Doyle was black. Not the black of human skin, but the complete blackness of a midnight sky. He didn’t vanish in a darkened room because he was darker than the moonlit shadows, a dark shape gliding toward me.
It’s descriptions like these, along with Merry’s increases in power and the return of their abilities to her coterie of men from when, long ago, they were gods, that keeps me coming back for more. Hamilton writes with the same urgency in both series, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Anita Blake while I’ll continue with Merry Gentry if there’s more in store for her.
What’s been your experience with Laurell K. Hamilton, and what components constitute your perfect read ?
Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Be one of the few who visits her at Toe in the Water or follow her may-be-too-political-for-you tweets at @laurie_gold.