Laurell K. Hamilton, The Laughing Corpse (Berkeley Publishing Group, 2003)
Laurell K. Hamilton, Circus of the Damned (Ace Books, 2002)

The Laughing Corpse

'"Do you know of another animator that could raise a zombie that old?" Gaynor asked. Bert glanced up at me, then down at the floor, then at Gaynor. The professional smile had faded. He understood now that it was murder we were talking about. Would that make a difference?'

The Laughing Corpse is the second novel in the on-going Anita Blake series (the first being Guilty Pleasures), and although it can be read as a stand-alone, it’s better if you know the back story. The central plot of this Anita Blake adventure involves a killer zombie on the loose, literally tearing apart families. On its cold-as-death trail are the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, lead by Detective Sergeant Dolph Storr and his generic wisecracking sidekick, Detective Zebrowski. There are three subplots, one involving the machinations of Jean-Claude, the stylish and sexy vampire from Guilty Pleasures, who has now been elevated to Master of the City. Another concerns a woman who in many ways represents the path that Anita Blake might have chosen. Dominga Salvador is a very powerful voodoo priestess, who appears to be a harmless old lady. Her hobby is revealed to be building a better zombie. The third, and major, subplot revolves around Harold Gaynor, crippled crime overlord and sadist, who wants to hire Anita to raise an ancient corpse. Unfortunately, the only way to raise a corpse so old is by using what’s known as the 'white goat'. This is another name for human sacrifice.

'Most people see you covered in blood, they just assume part of it has to be yours. They do not take into account that they are dealing with a tough-as-nails vampire slayer and corpse raiser.'

A great strength of Hamilton’s work is the majority of her characterisation. She pays special attention to the supporting cast, which this time around includes Wheelchair Wanda, a paraplegic prostitute, and Irving Griswold, a newspaper reporter who has the misfortune to suffer from lycanthropy. When added to the recurring characters, the newcomers provide a layer which is often missing from action-oriented novels.

The negatives here are minor and mostly down to personal taste, with the possible exception of the needless aggression displayed by the central character in non-violent aspects of her life. In the U.S., this kind of thing plays as a tough, independent woman, taking no flack from anyone. Readers living outside the U.S., with different cultural values, may perceive Anita as having testosterone poisoning. She is feminine on the outside, but on the inside comes across as needing to prove herself more of a man than any male of the species.

'The rush of power was like the memory of painful sex. Part of you wanted to do it again. Maybe Dominga Salvador was right. Maybe power talks to everyone, even me.'

In summary, if you imagine 24 with a supernatural slant, starring Eliza Dushku, that’s what to expect from Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. Once things kick off there’s hardly ever time to pause for breath. Despite Anita taking more hits than the head of a nail, she keeps on going. Her resilience, coincidental luck, and fighting abilities are often an improbable mix, but also make for a heady, inventive, and highly entertaining read.

Circus of the Damned

'"Yasmeen, no!" It was Jean-Claude coming to my aid at last, but he was going to be too late. Yasmeen bared her teeth, raised her neck back for the strike, and I couldn’t do a damn thing.

This third outing for Anita Blake revolves around a small and dirty local war among the undead of St. Louis. Three master vampires are vying to be master of the city. Jean-Claude, the current master, and Alejandro, a vampire who has survived since the time of the Aztecs, also want Anita Blake as their human servant. The third player, a mysterious figure known as Mr. Oliver, is possibly the oldest vampire alive, and doesn’t agree with newfangled trends. Such as the legalisation of vampirism.

Detectives Storr and Zebrowski are back to investigate the fallout, along with a recurring character from book one, Edward, an assassin of all things inhuman, whom the vampires call Death. There’s also the beginnings of a love interest for Anita, in the form of Richard Zeeman, a science teacher at the local junior high. Zeeman has a tie to Jean- Claude, and an association with werewolves.

'I twisted my neck to see who, or what, was straddling me. It was a what. In the red glow of the rear car light his face was all flat, high cheekbones with narrow, almost slanted eyes and long, straight hair. If he’d been any more ethnic, he’d have been carved in stone, surrounded by snakes and Aztec gods.'

As usual, the pace is frantic and the action sequences enthralling. Hamilton does action very well, and this book includes cinematic and claustrophobic sequences, which for my money are the best in the series thus far. The on-going relationships between Anita and her regular friends and associates, both dead and alive, continue to build. The sexual tension between Anita and Jean-Claude smoulders and threatens to ignite, but does not quite succeed. Mainly because, as the story often reminds us, Anita is dealing with a super-charismatic, very powerful master vampire, whom she finds physically attractive. Yet, she somehow resists inhumanly strong compulsion. I’d have been more convinced if she’d given in to her very human desire, then made Jean-Claude regret it.

'"If our enemies win, then tomorrow night will see a bloodbath such as no city in the world has ever seen. They will feed upon the flesh and blood of this city until it is drained dry and lifeless."'

Toward the end, I got the impression that the author was having second thoughts about how powerful, and therefore less human, her lead character had become over the course of the first three adventures. The plot seemed tailored accordingly. Nevertheless, the prolific bad guy bashing, rollercoaster twists of plot, and character building are all satisfying. Only the climactic conclusion is a little disappointing, in respect of the ease with which one of the main players is destroyed. But overall, this book is a cut above standard action fare, and Hamilton’s writing style produces a compulsive page turner.

[Nathan Brazil]

Laurell K. Hamilton has a Web site, which opens with a stunning photograph of Hamilton sitting amidst a pile of skulls.