A Caress of Twilight
(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 across
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
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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