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A Caress of Twilight

by Laurell K Hamilton

(Ballantine, $23.95, 326 pages, hardback; April 2 2002.)

I have to confess that, the last time I tried to read one of Ms Hamilton's many novels, I got about halfway through and then threw it cover scanacross the room. The book in question was called Narcissus in Chains, and was the umpteenth volume featuring Ms Hamilton's series heroine Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. I had fought my way through about two hundred pages of badly written soft porn (I have no aversion at all to well written soft porn) and had come to a section where various of the loathsome characters were discussing adoringly the genital endowment of a particular historical vampire. This vampire, we were told salivatingly, had been the possessor of a penis so doughty that his erection was a full six inches thick.

That's right: thick. Not six inches long. Not even six inches in circumference. But thick.

This reviewer did not, as might have so many other men, rush straight to the nearest mirror to gaze at and weep over his own deficiencies. He did not even accidentally turn the ruler to the centimetre side while frantically checking. Instead he threw the book across the room and then, remembering the principles of academic rigour, asked a couple of congenital experts on matters penile if such a weapon might be of any practicable use other than being waved around proudly to impress the rest of the guys in the locker room.

Gentle reader, they laughed so hard I wondered if I should call an ambulance. And the book stayed thrown.

A Caress of Twilight is not about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. It is the second in a series of novels about Meredith Gentry, a princess of Fairyland who is also a private detective in our own world, it being the rather charming conceit of this series that the USA has offered a home to refugees from the Realm of Faerie. Meredith -- "Merry" -- is somewhat of a fugitive from the politics of the royal courts of Fairyland, some of whom wish to murder her and with others of whom she maintains at best a relationship of mutual distrust, powerbroking chessplay and hostile alliance. She is guarded by a bunch of other elementals, all male and all of them possessed of six-inch...

Well, no, not quite. At the start of the book, Merry has just finished a threesome with two of the guards, and as the tale -- such as it is -- progresses she samples the rest of them, in each instance for several drooling pages. Two of them proved to be endowed with members of such enormity that, while not six inches thick (oddly, Ms Hamilton gives no precise dimensions concerning such important attributes, neither in US Customary units nor in metric), our heroine has, to use technical phraseology, some considerable difficulty cramming the damn things in.

Now, I wouldn't want to give the impression that this book is nothing but nonstop writhing. There's a plot as well. It's rather problematic to remember what the plot actually is, because it appears only intermittently among the couplings, among lengthy and tedious character descriptions, and among interminable scried conversations with various royals that seem to have little point except to show what complete bastards they all are except our Merry -- who might well be just as much a bastard if she could ever stay upright long enough, but that's just a wild speculation on this reviewer's part, you understand.

Lemme think, now. The plot has to do with a criminal investigation that Merry and her studs are attempting to carry out. There's this ex-goddess of Fairyland who decided years ago to come to Hollywood and be a screen goddess in the human world instead. Someone's out to get her. Someone's also mass-murdering people in all directions, and the police -- one of whom, the lieutenant in charge of the case, is really, really stupid and doesn't think Merry and her pals will be at all helpful, whereas we wise readers know of course that she's the only hope -- the police, as I say, are getting nowhere. The screen goddess wants to have a baby by her mortal husband, but he's at death's door so Merry and one of her gang have to do some detailed proxy banging for the luckless couple. Someone in Fairyland has let loose an ancient terror which is responsible for all the bad things that are going on.

Case solved, out with the measuring tape and back to the fun.

Merry is not the only fun- and dimension-lovin' female in the book's cast, although she's the only one whose fun is described in gratuitous detail. Here's a sample of one of the others being unusually subtle:

"I also never thought you'd be so blessed down below." [The Queen] sounded wistful now, like a child who hadn't gotten what she wanted for her birthday. "I mean, you are descended from dogs and phoukas, and they are not much in that way."
"Most phoukas have more than one shape, my Queen."
"Dog and horse, sometimes eagle, yes, I know all about that. What does that have to do..." She stopped in mid-sentence, and a smile crooked at the edges of her lipsticked mouth. "Are you saying that your grandfather could turn into a horse as well as a dog?"
He spoke softly. "Yes, my Queen."

That's in fact one of the better-written parts of the book; elsewhere we find such delights as "He had managed to keep just enough cover over his groin so that he was covered", to isolate just one. Late in the book we encounter the minor character Bucca, who is supposedly Cornish; in order to prove that he's Cornish his speech is rendered in dialect that veers excitingly between Irish, Scottish, Yorkshire/Lancashire and who knows what else. And so on.

There are also, unless this reader is being even stupider than usual, some puzzling inconsistencies. To select a single example, on page 25 we're clearly told that the penalty for a Raven (a member of the Queen's personal guards) who touches -- I assume this is a euphemism -- any woman other than the Queen is death by torture, yet this is clearly forgotten later on when there is no thought of making it secret from the Queen that our Merry discriminates not one whit against the Raven seconded to her personal entourage.

As stated at the outset, this reviewer has no particular prejudice against reading soft porn (so long as it's well or at least competently written). There is a point of unease, however, when one begins to sense -- probably completely incorrectly -- that a text has teetered from consciously created erotica (or attempted erotica) into the writer's personal masturbatory fantasies. Within fantasy, one strikes that point frequently when reading some of Anne Rice's early, pseudonymous, overtly erotic novels, such as her Sleeping Beauty sadomasochistic cycle; one runs smack into it as into a brick wall in the works of John Norman; and one encounters it again here. It is almost certainly, as noted, a misleading sense, but that doesn't make the reading experience any more pleasurable: one squirms not with lasciviousness nor even a delectable feeling of minor guilt, but with sheer embarrassment, as if a stranger had just asked you to fumble through their used underwear.

What, leaving such considerations aside, of the status of A Caress of Shadows as a straightforward fantasy? Well, of course, there's not much room for yer actual non-erotic fantasy in among all the rest, and most of what there is is pretty mundane stuff: one has read these imaginings many times before, drawn as they are from the genre-fantasy writers' common stockpot. That initial conceit, however -- that the denizens of Faerie are the new refugees in an alternate-reality USA -- is genuinely a pleasing one. It is a great pity that the rest of the book cannot live up to it.

But then that is perhaps not the purpose of Ms Hamilton or her publishers.

Review by John Grant.

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