Thu
Aug 30 2012 3:00pm

Is Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake the First Urban Fantasy Hero?

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. HamiltonMore years ago than I want to admit (okay, it was eighteen) my friend Meg thrust a trio of paperback books at me. “You have to read these,” she said. “They’re about vampires.”

The books were written by an unfamiliar author—Laurell K. Hamilton—and had the ominous names of Guilty Pleasures, The Laughing Corpse, and Circus of the Damned. Until this point, Meg had mostly cajoled me into reading cozy mysteries, and these books didn’t sound cozy.

They weren’t—not even close. And they blew me away, unlike anything I’d read to that point. Since that time, say what you will about whether or not the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series has veered into “vampire porn,” what we’ve come to know as urban fantasy and paranormal romance owes Anita a nod of acknowledgment.

I wasn’t convinced until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to try and determine if Laurell K. Hamilton had, indeed, “invented” the modern urban fantasy.

I’m a New Orleanian, after all, and I knew Anne Rice had created the sexy vampire more than thirty-five years ago with Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat de Lioncourt. She definitely laid the groundwork for modern urban fantasy, putting Lestat and Co. in a real-world setting and giving them a dangerous, world-weary sexuality. But Rice’s vampire books were more gothic horror than what we consider urban fantasy, and held only a few of the elements we now expect from the genre.

I’d also read arguments for Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks as the first urban fantasy, so I downloaded it and read it. Great book, first of all. It has the human heroine Eddi, the urban setting of Minneapolis, the creatures of Faerie and the Seelie/Unseelie Court, rock music, and a touch of romance. Great UF elements, right? And it came out in 1987, six years before Anita hit the scene. Still, Oaks felt more like contemporary fantasy to me than urban fantasy for reasons I can only pin down as a matter of voice, the nature of the lead character, and the otherness of the Sidhe.

War for the Oaks by Emma BullMaybe I’m hair-splitting, though. I think the War for the Oaks crowd has a reasonable argument for that book as the first modern urban fantasy, but to be sure, I needed to dig out my yellowed, spine-cracked copy of Guilty Pleasures and start reading.

All these years later, Guilty Pleasures felt very, very familiar. Some of the story shows its age: Anita’s internal wisecracks seem clunky in this day of sophisticated snarkiness, and I was struck by the lack of cursing. Had Guilty Pleasures been written today, Anita would have been dropping F-bombs all over the place.

With good reason. The first Anita outing shares a strong horror component with the works of Anne Rice; I still consider Hamilton’s vampire Nicolaus one of the Creepiest. Vampires. Ever.

But there are key aspects of Guilty Pleasures that read like a modern urban fantasy how-to:

  • The first-person narrator. It’s become ubiquitous in urban fantasy, almost to the point where we’re starting to see a backlash into third-person or multiple points of view. But Guilty Pleasures is definitely told in Anita’s voice, and it’s that voice that sets the tone for the whole story.
  • The kickass heroine. Anita is a vampire hunter (later a federal marshal) who’s also a necromancer. Hamilton tries to soften her a little by having her petrified of the vampires she hunts and a collector of stuffed penguins, but she still carries knives and guns and scars and never backs down.
  • The sexy critter. Jean-Claude, a master vampire more powerful than he’s letting on, is morally ambiguous, French, and sexy as sin—and that’s before we learn he’s an incubus. Even Anita, who hates vampires and is afraid of him, isn’t immune to his charms—although she resists him enough that Jean-Claude becomes infatuated with her. Is he using her, seducing her, or helping her? Yes.
  • The world. The series is set primarily in St. Louis, in a world where the “others” live openly among humans, with the now-common human hate groups springing up to declare them immoral and unnatural. The vampires operate night-oriented businesses like bars and nightclubs, and humans get a charge out of frequenting the clubs to get a taste of danger—or just get tasted.
  • The tone. Guilty Pleasures has the noir-ish tone common to modern urban fantasy where the hero or heroine is a member of an anti-paranormal law enforcement force. Anita works, technically, as a necromancer, raising zombies to settle legal cases. But she moonlights as a vampire hunter for the “Spook Squad,” a little-supported arm of the police department, and it is their cases that form the basis for the books.

Sound like the new UF you read last week? Remember, this book is nineteen years old. So after re-reading Guilty Pleasures, I’m prepared to declare Anne Rice as a seminal influence for urban fantasy and Emma Bull’s work as a precursor. But as the first of what we now consider urban fantasy? I’m giving the title to Laurell K. Hamilton, Anita Blake, and Guilty Pleasures.

Pretend you don’t have an opinion on where the Anita Blake series went after Obsidian Butterfly. Are there other books you could nominate for first modern urban fantasy, or do you agree that Anita holds the title?

 


Suzanne Johnson, who writes urban fantasy with a few pesky romantic elements, is the author of Royal Street, first in the Sentinels of New Orleans series. Book two, River Road, will be released November 13 from Tor Books. You can find Suzanne writing about speculative fiction, with and without romance, at her daily Preternatura blog, as well as hanging around on Twitter.

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25 comments
Roxanne Rhoads
1. Roxanne Rhoads
Hell yes LKH rocked it out back then and stick rocks now, yes sometimes her books take a little detour into uber sexville every now and then but the characters, the story, the world- amazing and the fact that almost 20 years later this series still lives and hits the NYT bestseller list regularly....

well who needs to argue anything really the numbers show how awesome her books are

but yes of everything I've read I do think Anita Blake was the first of the kick ass female heroines in what is now a standard formula for urban fantasy

I came to this series late, just discovering it about 5 years ago- same time I found Kim Harrison. Once I discovered them both I read each series from the first book and totally delved into the series. So for about a month I lived and breathed Anita Blake.

Before that I mainly read paranormal romance and erotica with some old fashioned gothics and quite a few mysteries thrown in.

LKH was my introduction to urban fantasy then Kim was my follow up- it's no wonder those two remain my favorite authors- they're a hard act to follow (though Jeaniene Frost is right up there with them).
Suzanne Johnson
2. suzannej3523
I agree, Roxanne--it was fun to re-read Guilty Pleasures after many, many years and see how well it still held up. The only thing that had gotten really dated in it--and did make me laugh out loud--was that Anita can't get used to her new answering machine that actually tapes messages, and she has to stop several times and use a pay phone!
Roxanne Rhoads
3. Roger Simmons 1
First, I agree with your excellent research and conclusion about Laurell K Hamilton. Second, I'm glad that Roxanne mentioned Kim Harrison. Kim was my introduction to urban fantasy. Only now am I reading LKH. Thanks to your read along at Tor.com. So far her vampires are scaring the heck out of me.
Suzanne Johnson
4. suzannej3523
Roger, LKH created some scary vampires, especially Nikolaus. Also love Kim Harrison, as you know...come to think of it, her day-walking demon kind of freaked me out too.
Roxanne Rhoads
5. Book Huntress
Have to agree LKH and Anita laid the foundation. I found them about 6 or 7 years ago and ate them up and dived into the UF pool and haven't looked back. Yes I get that some don't like the newer books, but c'est la vie...

I reread GP a year or so ago and it has held up well, I get why publishers don't like using slang and other pop culture references more now cause some things were dated, but kind of in a good way cause it brought back good memories...

No matter what though Anita still kicks ass!!!
Suzanne Johnson
6. suzannej3523
@Book Huntress...I'm about two books behind, but still buy them. I know a lot of folks quit reading them after Obsidian Butterfly, but I stuck with them too. In fact, the thing that bothered me more than the sexcapades was Richard's self-hatred. At some point, I wanted to say just get over it, already. You're an alpha werewolf. Deal.
Elizabeth Halliday
7. Ibbitts
I am still loyal to the Anita Blake series too. So, the series changes direction a bit. So ... sometimes that happens. I still like the way Laurell K. Hamilton writes. That's why I buy her books.
Suzanne Johnson
8. suzannej3523
@Ibbitts...And I can't even imagine how one could keep a series fresh after nineteen years and twenty-plus books without taking the characters in different directions. Some people won't like the directions, but I've heard the last book swung Anita back to the harder UF of earlier books.
Carmen Pinzon
10. bungluna
I still remember the wonder I felt when I discoverd LKH and her world. I came to it a little late, about 15 years ago, and became obsessed with catching up so I could buy the latest installment. (Yes, I like to read series in order.)

I had read War for the Oaks as I like reading fantasy and this author had been recommended to me. It has some elements of UF, but lacks enough that I don't consider it that, more of a plain fantasy.

To me, UF has to deal with the scary critters living among humans, out in the open due to some EVENT or about to come out for some reason. Usually, UF is narrated in first person by a hero who rests in the edge of the two worlds. Anita Blake exemplifies what I love about the genre and I still buy every book as soon as it comes out.
Suzanne Johnson
11. suzannej3523
@bungluna...I'm glad to see some continuing fans here. We've been doing a month-long read of Guilty Pleasures over at my personal blog, and I was surprised how many folks gave up on the series once the incubus/succubus storyline started playing out. It wasn't my favorite, but I do like the depth LKH manages to get into her characters. You really start to care about them. Well, and then there's the Jean-Claude factor :-)
Carmen Pinzon
12. bungluna
@suzannej3523-I like most of the charactesr ans wanna know how they're doing. Part of the problem of the series, imo, is that there are not enough pages in a book to include every single character every time, though LKH does try! ;-)
Suzanne Johnson
13. suzannej3523
@bungluna...True...I hadn't thought about it before, but holy cow, how many characters have been introduced over the course of twenty-plus books? Makes my head spin!
Carmen Pinzon
14. bungluna
@suzannej-and since it's in first person narrative, they have to have, e'hem, face time with AB to make it into the story.
Suzanne Johnson
15. suzannej3523
To everyone: Someone on Facebook last night threw another possibility up as our first modern UF: Tanya Huff's Blood Book series. The first one, BLOOD PRICE, beat GUILTY PLEASURES out by about a year. The heroine, Vicki Nelson, is a cop who's having to step down because she's losing her vision--an interesting weakness to give a kickass character--and she ends up with a vampire--the illegitimate son of Henry VIII who makes a living writing historical bodice-ripping romance novels. It's a great series, and does seem to fit the criteria for UF. Thoughts, anyone?
Carmen Pinzon
16. bungluna
I don't know. I loved that series and read everything that Tanya Huff puts out, but I consider her more of a horror/fantasy writer. I don't want to spoil the series for those who haven't read it, (and why haven't you?!) but the way it evolves doesn't follow the script of an UF series from my pov.
Suzanne Johnson
17. suzannej3523
@bungluna...LOL, I have read the series, although I didn't read it until the omnibus editions came out a few years ago. It doesn't evolve in what we now think of as a "classic" UF way, although it started out pretty closely. When I wrote this piece, I'd forgotten about it.

Nah....I'll stick with Anita :-)
Nonny Morgan
18. Nonny
Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde pre-dated Laurell K. Hamilton (published 1989 according to Wikipedia) but they were never as popular; between low sales and harassment from readers about the books, she stopped writing the series. They're very very similar in tone to Hamilton's early Anita books, though, and are probably what I'd consider some of the first UF. But, I wouldn't disagree that Hamilton popularized the subgenre.
Carmen Pinzon
19. bungluna
@Nonny-I read that series too. I used to read mostly sci-fi and fantasy. Anita for me was different because she went out there and physically kicked ass herself. She carried knives and guns and practiced self defense. These other heroines had adventures but weren't as physical as I've come to expect from my UF heroines.

Lackey also co-wrote a series with elves, Serrated Edge I think, which had many elements of UF but was still, imo, just fantasy or alternate reality. However, I think this one came out later. I can't keep Lackey's output chronologically straight.
Nonny Morgan
20. Nonny
@Bungluna

It's been quite awhile since I've read the Diana Tregarde books but ISTR considering her kickass -- just, using magic instead of physical weapons (though I believe she had her athame). She certainly was capable of self defense! I've seen a bunch of modern UF with women protags that use magic instead so I'm not sure I'd consider physical weaponry a must, though I can see where it's definitely a trend in the subgenre.

Serrated Edge came out a couple years later :) but I didn't mention that because ISTR the main characters were not always women and the tone was also different. Diana Tregarde, tone-wise, was much closer to modern UF.
Carmen Pinzon
21. bungluna
There were several alternate world fantasy series that I followed in the late '80s that had faeries and vampires and weres in them. I don't remember them all, but I do remember the sense of excitement I felt when I stumbled onto Anita Blake. To me, it was totally different than anything else I'd been reading.
Nonny Morgan
22. Nonny
I remember being excited when I found Anita Blake because it was similar to Diana Tregarde, which I loved and had not found anything similar to except maybe Tanya Huff, which leaned more toward horror in tone. I vaguely remember at least one other UF in the 80s with faeries but the tone was very different from modern UF. At least the ones I came across, with the exception of Diana Tregarde, had a more pensive feel to them.

I suppose that's something else too -- the almost action hero-ey detective-y tone. It was like mixing magic and action and thrillers and kickass women, and that was just freaking awesome to me.
Carmen Pinzon
23. bungluna
For me it's all about the tone. You're right, @Nonny, it's the mixture of thriller, action, mystery, horror and magic, all lead by a kicakss woman.
Jena Briars
24. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
The Vaginal Fantasy book club and/or SBTB discussed this - I forgot their original answer though - but I think they all determined that LKH's Anita Blake was NOT the first heroine... :/ **scratches head**
Roxanne Rhoads
25. ToneBuc
As far as urban fantasy centered around a heroine, I'd have to say that the Diana Tregarde series definitely fits. Unlike the Books of Blood by Tanya Huff, the character was an actual user of magic. She was a witch so tended to be more hands off than Anita but she did throw down a couple of times from what I remember. It wasn't told in the complete one person, though, switching between characters. Diana's not got all the snarky attitude of the average modern UF heroine. I think that's because she's been there, done that more than anything (Diana is in her late 30's rather than her mid to late 20's in two of the three books).

Much closer in tone to today's UF is PN Elrod's Vampire files. It came about two years earlier. It had a male protagonist but otherwise has all the hallmarks LKH would make popular. It reads very crime noir, which I think is the biggest defining quality that separates it from the kind of mythic fantasy/magical realism that Emma Bull and Charles DeLint write (their tales are set in urban environments but aren't "urban fantasy, the sub-genre").

(Btw, I've restarted the Anita Blake series recently and am currently re-reading Circus of the Damned. I find that the series holds up really well!)
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