This is my relationship with Laurell K. Hamilton. One more tidbit before we get to bitching: She's too good an author to write porn.
Book: A Kiss of Shadows
Author: Laurell K. Hamilton (AKA LKH)
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Readability: Good. And poor. And really good. And really, really poor. Depends on if you like logic with your smut.
What you need to know before you buy: LKH's narrative voice is addictive crack, but she's a con artist when it comes to writing. She baits you with a kick-ass plot and then gums it all up with boring, out-of-place smut. Sex is the answer for EVERYTHING. Also, MASSIVELY NSFW, eyeblinding in a couple of places, and I hope to god you like a healthy seasoning of BDSM with your Mary Sues.
Laurell K. Hamilton wrote a series about a vampire hunter named Anita Blake, before vampires and romance were the modern day PB&J. She and the wonderful and talented P.N. Elrod got me into the whole paranormal romance thing, and for a while, it was a really good relationship. LKH got to have plot-related porn without squicking me out, I got to have thoroughly well plotted vampireish romance involving a smokin' hot werewolf named Richard, Anita and a french vampire named Jean-Claude, who raids Jarath the Goblin King's wardrobe for poet shirts and boots. And if I wasn't in the mood, I could skim the porn. Bloody, violent as all hell and the (snicker) climax usually DID involve sex, but when it did, the porn made sense in context.
And then she lost her mind.
Narcissus in Chains broke me. Not, I feel compelled to point out, Obsidian Butterfly, where the sex scenes involved bodily mutilation, the antagonist vampires were ancient Mayans, and specialized in Creative Uses for Severed Toes (and tongues. and eyelids. Realize this was a book where the antagonist's description could include the phrase his skin was blinking) but the relatively tamer Narcissus, where Anita and Co. all troop down to rescue a wereleopard from a BDSM bar. But the owner won't let them in. Anita has to give one of her friends to the owner for an evening of torture and rough sex. Oh, and the owner is a hermaphroditic were-hyena. And a bottom. He is the one who will be tortured. The rougher the better. But be careful and wear a condom, because he's going to get preggers if you don't.
I swear to fucking god, I wish I were making that up.
So I put NiC back on the shelf and swore, SWORE I would never touch another LKH authored book again. Then someone posted one paragraph from A Kiss of Shadows on a bullitan board I read, and I had to go see if it was real. There it was, five pages in. By which time, I was hooked and had to finish. And because I put myself through that again, I must share with all of you.
Our main character is Merry Gentry AKA Princess Meridith NicEssus (Fancy long-ass name, check) a literal fairy princess (fancy bloodline, check) third in line for the throne, whose royal aunt and cousin are supposedly trying to kill her (more on that later). She is the Only Mortal Sidhe Ever, despite her mother being immortal AND more of a mutt than Merry is (special and unique attributes, check, check and check). Just based on this, border-line Mary Sue. Throw in the stuff that I know happens in the course of this and the next four titles, we're so far in MS territory we're drowning.
Now, this is where I would normally mention her counterpart and love interest, but I can't. Because by the end of the book, she has five. Maybe six. maybe even seven. Because the plot is, real bare bones? Her aunt wants a fertile heir, so both Merry and her cousin Cel have to make a baby. Whoever does it first gets the crown. Merry has to get pregnant. She has a whole harem of guards to help her do this. We are not pretending this is not porn anymore.
Our cover is pretty blah, mostly LKH's name and the book's title, with a couple of legs running down the far right. Heavily photoshopped.
We open with this:
"Twenty-three stories up and all I could see out the windows was gray smog."
Now, you might be wondering why I spend so much time on first lines and opening chapters. Well, the sign of a good writer is usually found in the first couple of paragraphs, because something will happen that grabs your interest. Sure, there are a lot of writers that suck at openings that I love (David Weber) but 99% of the time a good first chapter means a great book.
Our first paragraph is about the weather. Fuck.
Second paragraph, about how Merry is in Los Angeles so she can hide. To make sure we get this, the word "hide" is repeated four times in three sentences. And then the word "home" gets the same treatment, so we know Merry is homesick. She wants to go home. But she can't go home because her relatives will kill her. If she goes home. Are you tired of seeing the word "home" yet? Good. Then you know how I feel right now.
Merry's boss comes into her office. We get a page and a half of description, in which the word "grey" gets the "home" treatment. Her very gray boss says she looks gloomy. What's wrong? And then, after a paragraph that does NOTHING for character or plot, Merry answers:
WE GET THE FUCKING POINT ALREADY
Oh, and then Jeremy-Boss compliments Merry's clothes, and we get two and a half pages on our main character's appearance. It contains this gem:
"My hair was a deep, rich red in the reflections of the mirrors. A color more red than auburn, a color that had black highlights instead of the usual brown that most redheads had (I think somebody misunderstood the definition of the word Highlights) It was as if someone had taken dark red rubies and spun them out into hair. It was a very popular color this year. Blood Auburn it was called, in the high courts of fey royalty..."
And be glad I stopped there, because her fucking hair goes on for another eight sentences. And then you get her eye description, three rings of color, gold and greens, and her skin literally fucking glows. Like a fairy. Because she is a fairy. Except she's also, you know, mortal. And then she describes her clothes.
... yeah. YO, LAURELL! Awesome characters are defined by what they do. NOBODY CARES WHAT YOUR CHARACTERS LOOK LIKE. At least not until after their actions prove they are awesome.
Oh, and Merry works as a private eye for Jeremy's PI company. Because you do cool things as a PI, instead of you know, working as a desk clerk or shelving clothes at K-Mart. I guess the day job defines the person. (....FUCK)
Anyway, Jeremy is breaking all his rules (which we have never seen before this moment) and is taking on a divorce case. He's asking Merry to decide if they take it on or not. And no, that's not a typo. That's how the idea is presented. And this is page eight. I'm already counting pages.
Next chapter, we meet the wife and mistress, who have both come in together! This is ... completely uninteresting. We have no context. We DO have three pages of description, including how fucking wonderful it feels to touch Mistress's part-fairy skin, like liquid sex, like sex spun into skin and woven into ... yeah, I'm not gonna go there. Also description of the death spell on the wife, which is actually interesting. Getting Merry out of the death spell (which never actually does a fucking thing to anybody, or gets dispelled from Wife) takes another page. Do you get the feeling there is a shitload of padding in this book, or do I actually need to point this out?
In chapter three, we get to the point. Husband has been draining Wife and many, many Mistresses, all part-fairy, of their life-force and magic via some kind of ritual. Merry will go in undercover to discover what Hubby is doing. In Chapter four, Merry gets wired for sound. There are implications Maury the Sound Guy wants to put the wire up ... yeah. Because, you know, it wouldn't like SHORT OUT or BURN or HURT or something. And we're introduced to Roane, who was a roane whose sealskin was burned. He has burn scars. He can't return to the sea without his skin (this is actually standard mythology, and used pretty well) so he works for Jeremy and struggles with pretty crushing depression, having lost a defining aspect of himself. I really like this character. It's a damn shame he vanishes before we hit the midway point. Merry lets us know that as the Missing Princess Meredith, she is more famous than Elvis.
...yeah. Also, we're told that being in the same room as a fairy is like liquid sex. And god, aren't you going to hate me for that in a minute.
Hubby's name is Alisdar Norton, but we're just going to keep calling him Hubby, because consistency is good and I really miss it. He spends about two seconds seducing Merry, and then they go clomping off to his apartment so Merry can investigate his methods. Basically it's low key sexual assault as a prelude to rape.
Get used to that.
Next, he brings out a bottle containing oil. He spreads it over Merry's bare skin (did I mention they're undressed now?) and Merry realizes it is Branwen's tears, AKA The Magical Potion of Sex! Merry's glamour breaks, she is revealed as sidhe in front of Hubby, and ... something ... happens. Something involving spiders. And almost-rape. It's not real clear. Hubby becomes a red smear and everybody winds up in the police station. Merry is nearly arrested but, you know, not. Because she is The Princess and can get away with whatever the fuck she wants to. But she can't confirm that she is Princess Merry, because the cops would tell her aunt and the aunt would try to kill her. This is actually really good, very tense and HIGHLY interesting ... right up until the police officer tries to rape her. Because she is wearing the Magical Potion of Sex. And then Roane gets her out of there. Because he wants to have sex too.
Plot involving Hubby and ritual sex cult? My my, what book are YOU reading?
So, Bitch the First: LKH is too good an author to be writing porn books, and too poor an author to write books with sex. She comes up with kick-ass plots that you really want to read, and rather than just writing the kick-ass plot OR working in sex wherever it would fit naturally, she just plops boobs and ass and not-entirely consensual sex in wherever she thinks it would fit, resulting in a plot I really want to read with characters I like in spite of their Mary-Sue-ish-ness, and a book that's annoying as fuck because IT KEEPS GETTING INTERRUPTED BY SEX. It's like she goes "Damn, we haven't had sex, sexual inuindo or sexual tension for FOUR WHOLE PAGES (Jesus I wish I were kidding). This plot must not be interesting. I mean, we're in a CAR CHASE involving OGERS and MAGIC and lots and lots of innocent people about to die, but there is no sex, so it's not interesting. I know, let's have Merry and Random Character B roll around on the back seat for a page and a half. I'm sure nobody will miss the car chase."
LKH has ranted multiple times that people just don't get what she's trying to write. That we're not comfortable with having our envelopes pushed or what-the-fuck ever, and I call bullshit. I read all of Obsidian Butterfly, including the parts that made me want to poke out my eyes with a spork, and enjoyed it. With the Merry Gentry series, as with Narcissus in Chains, I'm not uncomfortable. I'm bored. If you cut the sex and the filler, this book and the next three would make a fantastic novel, one that I would read and read and read until the pages started falling out. Even better, you could probably have nearly the same amount of sex in this hypothetical book that you do in KoT AND IT WOULD MAKE SENSE IN CONTEXT.
So Merry and Roane have sex, and due to Roane being temporarily Sidhe (Merry's kind of Fairy) there are literal fireworks. And lots of flowery metaphysical language that is about as arousing as a dictionary. At the end of it Merry has melted the bedframe and Roane has a new sealskin. He vanishes off to the sea in joy, and Jeremy helps Merry escape, only to be perused by something called "The Host". Sex is worked into the car chase. Merry winds up running on foot with three nighthags on her heels, and is rescued by Sholto, King of the Host, who wants to trade Merry's life for, you guessed it, sex with Merry. I want to know what brand of tampons this girl is using, because DAMN. He takes her to his hotel room. Merry does not immediately jump upon this deal because Sholto is part nightflyer and has a great many slithery tentacles on his chest. She asks him to show her what she's getting into.
Which brings me to Bitch the Second. This is the only sex scene in the book I find interesting. Part of it might be that I'm kinky that way, but I think it's more Laurell's writing than it is me.
The rule in writing is Show, don't tell. Unfortunately for this rule, you HAVE to tell us certain things, like that the flowers are blue, and that the character has picked up her car keys instead of her fillet knife. A writer may tell us:
-what a character is doing
-what a character is wearing
-what things look like
-body language, nervous habits, basically anything you can see on a movie screen, you can tell about in a book.
You may NOT tell us:
-What a character is thinking
-What a character is feeling
-the character's goals, thought processes, or reactions not involving body language.
The reason for this? Everything in the "Show" category will slow down the book's pacing if told to the reader. If shown through body language and actions, it doesn't actually have a presence in the text and doesn't murder your pacing. Also, it's much more effective to let your reader fill in the blanks. Their mind is your best tool.
In EVERY OTHER SCENE we are told that Merry is having a really good time with her partner, that she feels lots of pleasure and is happy. It doesn't connect with the reader at all. In the Sholto scene all we get is a description of Merry's actions, and Sholto's actions and reactions. In this scene, and this scene only, we are allowed to fill in the blanks between what Merry is doing and what she is thinking. And because what she's doing is basically foreplay before sex, I filled in that she was enjoying it.
I get what LKH was trying to do. Merry is actually repulsed by Sholto and is trying to suppress it. But this is the first time in the whole fucking book that we get to stay out of Merry's head and just enjoy the book itself. It works as a sex scene. It doesn't work the way LKH wanted it to work (as presumed by the fact that this scene is never consummated. They don't actually have sex.). And it's also frustrating as hell because damn it, I'm into this one and it gets interrupted by a fight scene.
The Nighthags attack Merry JUST as she is about to give Sholto a blow job, and in the process of surviving Merry discovers that she has magic. The Hand of Flesh, which will turn whomever she touches into a quivering basketball with their heart on the outside. Then she is rescued again by Doyle, AKA Darkness, who is a hot Sidhe male with no tentacles, except for the important one. Bye, Sholto. Oh, but first Merry has to kill the Nighthag she turned into a screaming beachball. Because when magic is awakened it must be seasoned with blood or something like that.
... why is this in the book?
So Doyle has to bring Merry to see her homicidal aunt, who doesn't actually want to kill Merry. Instead, she protects Merry by having Doyle kiss her, with tongue. This would have a natural result (cue porn music) except that Doyle, as one of the Queen's guards, is sworn to celibacy unless it's with the Queen. And because the Sidhe are monogamous, the only person she's screwing is her husband, who is not Doyle. So Doyle hasn't had sex for a thousand years.
Doyle discovers that Merry is wounded. On her upper thigh. And he heals her. Except his magic is in his tongue.
...cue porn music. Then they both sleep before flying out to the Fairy Mounds in Missouri.
... why are the fairy mounds in Missouri? No, no, I get the book's reason. Hell, I think I've been to that location IRL, and there are lots of weird mounds there. I want to know LKH's reason. Missouri? Really?
So skipping the nonsense, Merry gets a ride home in the Black Coach, a magical vehicle that has turned itself into a limo. She almost has sex with ANOTHER of the queen's guards in the back due to a magic spell tied to one of the Queen's gifts. The penalty for sexing up a guard is death, so if Merry and Galen the Guard had actually consummated their friendship, Merry would be dead. It's Assassination by Sex! OMG! There are two hundred pages left! TWO HUNDRED PAGES! IT"S A FOUR HUNDRED PAGE BOOK!
Oh, and the Queen's ring is a fertility test. If it sticks to the girl's finger, she can get preggers, and if it reacts to a guy he can make her preggers. It left the Queen's finger because she is barren. Congratulations, you've found the plot!
Also, we meet her psycho cousin Cel, who ... doesn't appear all that psycho. Sadistic, yes, but not psycho. We're supposed to infer his craziness by his behavior towards Merry and the fact that he was behind Hubby's sex cult in Los Angeles (did you forget about that? I know I did.) but because none of this, including Merry solving the sex cult case, happens onscreen, Cel is one long wha? moment from start to finish. Oh, and he has one of Merry's future boy toys tortured. Lots of little butterfly fairies eat his groin. She saves him by letting the butterfly fairies drink HER blood.
Anybody else seeing vampire Tinkerbell?
Merry, Doyle, wounded Galen, a very pale guy named Frost and one or two others whose names I can't fucking remember all go into the throne room. Merry is immediately hit by another assassination attempt, this time not involving sex. She twists her ankle. Somehow we are supposed to believe that this fall into a level floor would have killed her if Doyle and Frost hadn't caught her. The Queen is irate and starts screaming, Merry is carried to her chair, the healer looks at the swelling ankle and says that Merry needs to take off her thigh-high stocking. And then, with the Queen screaming and her son screaming back and various nefarious schemes floating to the surface ... everything stops so Galen can take off Merry's socks. With his teeth.
It takes a page and a half. Cue the fucking porn music.
At the end of the scene, Cel is dragged off to be coated in the Magical Potion of sex and left alone for six months of forced celibacy. This will drive him mad. Two of his guards and one of Merry's new sex toys try to kill her. She turns guard and sex toy into a gigantic beachball of flesh and the beachball gets dropped down a doorway to nowhere, and Merry gets another sex toy to replace the one she just murdered. (am I the only person who thought about ben wa balls here? I mean, given the traffic it'd probably fit...) Everybody goes home. End of book.
Seriously. End of book. No punchline, no real resolution. By the end of the book you feel like you've been all revved up and then dumped in a cold shower Info-Dump. Cel is suffering the horrible fate of no sex for six months, Merry gets busy four or five times a night, Roane comes back from the ocean with a sea-shell for Merry, the plot is over in a corner somewhere crying and the reader is going "BUT I'M NOT DONE YET!!!" while LKH rolls over and goes to sleep.
... Well, as long as somebody had a good time.