Narcissus in Chains
Laurell K. Hamilton
New York: Berkley Books, 2001.
$23.95, 424 pages, ISBN 0425181685.

Megan O’Neill
Stetson University

For a girl who's a prude at heart, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, sure gets around. Since the beginning of Laurell K. Hamilton's addictively hard-boiled series, Anita has been walking the knife edge of desire, alternating between two luscious non human lovers: Jean-Claude, Master Vampire of the City of St. Louis, and Richard, alpha werewolf of the local Lukoi pack. Anita's compulsive moral code – not to say her obsessive moral code – conflicts with her passions for the amorous Jean Claude and the magnetic (yet reluctant) Richard. Although Anita has refused thus far to make it a real ménage à trois, in Narcissus in Chains she goes well beyond the limits for someone who until recently didn't even own a black bra. Now she's wearing leather, engaging in public acts of sex and magic, and taking on not one new lover but two, giving her a grand total of four. And let's not forget that she's also sleeping with (although not technically having sex with) Nathaniel, wereleopard and SM submissive, and werewolf Jason, Jean-Claude's blood puppy. Ah, vampire hunting. It's a hard life, but someone's got to live it.

Anita's personal life has always been complicated, but until two novels ago, Hamilton kept her heroine at least marginally involved in her job as a zombie raiser, which Anita prefers to call animating. Raising the dead for money is a good business, and Anita is one of the best animators in the country. She's also a licensed vampire hunter, and her reputation in the vampire community as a stone cold killer has earned her the nickname The Executioner. Her expertise and her college degree in preternatural biology make her opinion worth having, so she trains young animators and consults for the local Spook Squad when they happen across something abnormal (which seems to be quite often). Her requisite contact on the police force, Dolph, tries to humanize her, which provides its own illuminating conflict, because Dolph can't stand her friendships with the creatures of the night: as he tells her at one point, "fucking the undead makes you one of the monsters." Dolph would rather see her with Richard, who daylights as a junior high school science teacher. So would Ronnie, Anita's only close girlfriend, who calls Jean Claude Fang-Face. Previous exploits in this compelling series have centered around the complex cases Anita gets, but in this novel, Anita's love life comes to the forefront. Any semblance of a day job exits stage left, while a serious threat – that she may have contracted feline lycanthropy – enters stage right. Readers coming first to this novel will have no idea of the essential background, so completely does it vanish from the scene.

Fortunately, Anita's personal life makes great reading. Peopled with vampires, assorted wererats and wolves, and the occasional wereswan, Anita's life often seems to revolve around her reluctance to be sexual, her inability to decide between Richard and Jean-Claude, and her growing predilection to shoot first and ask questions later. This woman has power over the dead – any of them, including vampires – and her deep emotional involvement with at least three vamps is heightened by this innate, inescapable power that seems to grow stronger with every novel. Her power extends to the werewolves, as well, since being Richard's sometime girlfriend means she is the alpha female of his pack. Something magical happens when Jean-Claude, Richard, and Anita are together – their powers combine, each feeding off the others, and together, they are a magical force to reckon with, particularly because of the sexuality that suffuses their unity. To get swept up in Hamilton's increasingly erotic storytelling is to read with one's eyebrows frequently rising to meet one's hairline.

If it were only sex Anita had to worry about, perhaps her personal life wouldn't be quite so engrossing. Unfortunately for her (but not so for the reader), Anita is also into dominance and submission, although at first accidentally. Two novels ago, Anita took out a bad guy, the vicious wereleopard and sadist Gabriel – only to discover that having killed him, she was then responsible (despite her being human) for his abused pack of "kitties," male and female wereleopards who, like all lycanthropes, demonstrate their animal behaviors even when in human form. Anita may have a nurturing side, but she's also prudish – so their casual feline sensuality and insistently submissive behavior rub her the wrong way. She doesn't like playing dominant, but she is, in fact, rather good at it, something she's learned slowly and only with great reluctance. By the time Narcissus in Chains opens, Anita has resignedly learned how to touch her pack of cats without being overly sexual with them: five or six can sleep in a big naked pile, and when one of the men gets an erection, everyone tries to ignore it. Finally, Anita's life is almost in balance: she's reached an uneasy peace with Richard and with Jean-Claude; her magic is strong and controlled; and she's interviewing an alpha male wereleopard, known as a Nimir-Ra, to take her position as leader.

Trust Hamilton to toss Anita another ticking grenade: an accidental scratch from one of her leopards means Anita might be Leopard Queen for real by the next full moon, an idea she refuses to consider despite all the considerable evidence pointing that way. She begins to feel a Beast within her, something she recognizes from seeing her leopards and the werewolves change shape; she begins to feel the ardeur, the bloodlust of the newly made lycanthrope; and, most tellingly, the puritan Anita is unable to resist the sexual pull of the visiting Nimir-Ra, Micah. In a very explicit scene, Anita and Micah are mated for life – and that mating will perforce involve her in Micah's pack of wereleopards and their problems. That little accidental scratch has thus forced her into active and hungry sexuality, which has consequently heightened the already intense sexuality driving the power triumvirate she forms with Richard and Jean-Claude. As Anita says at one point, "My personal life just can't get more complicated."

What balances the activity in her all too active love life is Hamilton's somewhat over-boiled prose. Anita's voice approaches Sam Spade's in its emotionlessness, but she also lacks a sense of humor, something Hamilton's efforts can't redeem but which her grim world would seem to require. Further, for all the action (sex and magic on virtually every page!), the characters rarely come vitally alive: Jean-Claude, for instance, should be gripping, charismatic, compellingly French. Certainly Anita seems to find him so. And yet the reader's attention is drawn too often to the off-putting marble whiteness of his skin, his too frequent use of her pet name, "ma petite," and, jarringly, Anita's almost juvenile admiration for his butt. Richard's outstanding attributes seem to be his perfectly chiseled face and his pecs, which Anita reacts to even when he's just taking off a bloodied shirt. Unfortunately, his looks and obvious sex appeal pale when the reader comes up against his unrelenting ambivalence about his inner Beast. Richard is clearly passive-aggressive, and it's annoying to read about it for too long – but once he's reconciled himself to the need for bloody discipline among his pack, he seems to grow teeth.

Hamilton's careful observations of lycanthrope body language are, however, consistently superb – the wereleopards lick the back of Anita's hand "delicately, a quick swipe of greeting," while the wolves' dominance rituals are drawn in striking resemblance to canine behavior. The sex scenes are scaldingly hot, disturbingly so when Anita encounters outright sadism and rape (as opposed to the consensual SM her leopards practice). And Hamilton's careful outlining of various pack hierarchies – and the inevitable D&S implications – is highly consistent, not something that can be said of all her novels.

The novel’s plot isn't so much a plot as it is a McGuffin. The alphas of the local were-packs are going missing, but ongoing discrimination against the lycanthropes means nobody's reported anything to the police. When Narcissus himself gets involved (by kidnapping one of Anita's kitties), he and his werehyenas seem like the villains, but eventually Anita figures out whoreallydunnit and kills him (Anita's very reliable about killing, after all, I'm not giving away anything here). The tissue thin story is no real support for the sexual and magical high jinks that go on, but that's not the point. The point of this plot is to have some guise of mystery or thriller to cover the fact that Narcissus in Chains is really SM erotica. The ongoing emotional question Anita faces is whether she will have to permanently give up control of her body to the Beast. And there's graphic sex, blood, dominance, submission, and unprecedented pleasure as she explores what that might mean. As critic Mario Praz once said, lycanthropy is only another name for sadism. The literary metaphor – the Beast – perfectly captures Hamilton's primary theme: losing control to bloodlust.

Hamilton's genius here is her blend of sex, magic, power, and violence. Because she's been building each theme slowly, by the time we get to this novel we're ready to see it all mystically entwined. And Hamilton delivers, in a blurry rush of scenes all intense, dramatic, and earthshaking, ringing the changes on the D&S theme. By the end, Anita's been sexually and magically bound to her lovers, and they've been bound to her. Further, her close retinue – three vampires, two lycanthrope lovers, and assorted submissive in-house wereleopards – has become unwieldy to say the least. Poor Anita has actually had to buy a bigger kitchen table, because "the old one wasn't big enough for all the wereleopards to have their bagels and cream cheese." Not bad, considering Anita started out this series isolated, prickly, pious, and rigidly chaste. She still believes in God, and God apparently still believes in her, but like the plot to Narcissus in Chains, it’s a thin excuse for an SM scene.