The Harlequin, by Laurell K. Hamilton

June 25, 2007

In The Harlequin, Anita and her boyfriends and her lovers and her vampires and her shapeshifters meet, you guessed it, the Harlequin. They’re a secretive, legendary society with the authority to observe, punish, or destroy other vampires. The characters have to deal with this group, work through shapeshifter power struggles, and put up with the usual soap opera stuff.

The last book in this series that I bought was Cerulean Sins, and even that purchase was kind of half-hearted. Since then I’ve been getting Hamilton from the library, and I’ve almost stopped doing that several times. But I just can’t help myself, somehow I always end up on the waiting list for them. I’ve always had a few problems with Hamilton’s writing, but the stories used to be entertaining enough that those issues were easy to overlook. Of course since the series ran off the rails I find myself less forgiving.

The good news about The Harlequin is that Hamilton seems to finally be listening to some of the criticism. Anita learned control of the ardeur, leading to slightly less casual sex. Even better, there aren’t any surprise orgies, which have at times been uncomfortably close to supernatural rape in previous books. Jean-Claude has a couple of “remember me? I’m still a badass” moments and Hamilton spends time fleshing out characters who have already made appearances instead of inventing another handful of hot guys for Anita to play with. She also revisits some interesting plot threads that had gone neglected. And best of all, Edward makes a long-overdue visit.

Despite the progress, this book is hardly a redemption of the series. A couple of the plot threads don’t make much sense. Asking to become Anita’s lover is treated as an acceptable power play. Nathaniel becomes more like all of Anita’s other guys. Richard does something unthinkable, but after the supernatural sex still required to sort almost anything out they treat him like usual. Anita is finally as cold in this novel as people have always accused her of being. She used to want to protect all the weaker characters, but the multiple strains of shapeshifer that she carries have apparently led to more of a law of the jungle mentality.

Hamilton still prods those readers who don’t enjoy the constant makeout party. There’s nothing as obnoxious as the “you’re just jealous” fight from an earlier book that seemed to cast Hamilton as Anita and the reader as Ronnie. But Anita is constantly defensive about her harem, throwing them in the faces of several characters. And Hamilton can’t resist checking another one of Anita’s taboos off the list in a scene made uncomfortable by coercion.

The Harlequin is an improvement, but I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. There’s still too much irreconcilable relationship bullshit and too much boring sex with whoever is available. The series is just bloated. There have been too many characters, powers, and plots introduced for any of them to get a satisfying amount of attention, especially considering how many pages are devoted to either sex or the same old arguments that they always have.

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