The Anita Blake series started off well, continued for awhile, then took a sharp plunge down into the literary abyss of bad porn.
Well, "The Harlequin" scrabbles PARTLY back out of that abyss, but Laurell K. Hamilton's fifteenth Blake book still suffers from a surfeit of squickly sex, constant sexual ramblings, and a promising plot that gets swamped by the sex-with-Anitacentric politics of vampires and weres.
First a vamp cleric tells her of a threat so terrible that he can't name it, then a movie night with Nathaniel leads to a strange warning -- a white mask. Jean-Claude reveals that it's the warning of the Harlequin, a cruel vampire police who can warp their victims' minds. And apparently Anita and her string of adoring lovers (plus the still-upset Richard) have upset them.
And the politics of the situation are getting quite nasty, with alliances between weres and vamps getting nasty as they try to all have sex with Anita for power and influence, and Anita repeatedly getting hit by her various "beasts." And if they don't manage to kill the Harlequin soon, then Marmee Noir will reawaken -- and the Harlequin will be working for her.
"The Harlequin" sounds promising at first -- it's almost a hundred and fifty pages before Anita has sex with anyone. It's been several books since Hamilton could boast a length like that, and at first glance it seems to be promising a return to prior form.
Unfortunately, the sexless parts even duller than actual sex would have been: talking/remembering/agonizing about sex. There's two long chapters devoted to Nathaniel wanting Anita to tie him up and hurt him during sex, and Anita getting squeamish about it. And about halfway through, she starts having public ardeur sex, bloody sex, lesbian vampire dream sex, feathery sex, and Hamilton seems to be paving the way for sex with Edward's sixteen-year-old stepson.
None of this would matter quite so much if the plot were good -- and some parts of it are excellent. Edward's family vs. job struggle, the were politics and their tenuous relationship with the vampires, the fight between Richard and Jean-Claude, and the whole threat of the Harlequin itself is pretty thrilling, and pared down, it could have been a truly excellent book.
Unfortunately, these promising plots are bogged down in -- you guessed it -- sex. Everyone wants sex with Anita, and chapters of arguing about who gets to is just stupefyingly dull. As if that weren't bad enough, Hamilton takes another jab at her former fans, by announcing disdainfully that, "God hasn't forsaken me; it's just that all the right-wing fundamentalist Christians want to believe he has." Nice that now Anita is God's mouthpiece.
And though Anita doesn't come across near the levels of arrogance in books past, she still comes off as annoying, hypocritical (she likes bloody sex, but gets squicked at the idea of tying a guy up?) and ridiculously superpowerful -- turns out that she's also superpowering anyone she has sex with. And few of the long-haired, animeish femme-men do much but adore Anita, and the few who don't are either banished again (Richard) or are pale shadows of their former selves (Edward).
"The Harlequin" takes some baby steps back toward quality, but the obsession with sex and long-winded arguments drown the promising plot points. Better keep the mask on this one.