A Supernatural Soap Opera: Dead Ice by Laurell K. Hamilton

Dead Ice, the twenty-fourth book in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, opens with a throwback to one of the earliest novels in the series: someone is making zombies with souls still attached, like Dominga Salvador did in The Laughing Corpse, and forcing them to star in porn films.

It’s exceptionally awful, even for Anita; however, she’s also got other problems in her personal life and the power structure of the new American kingdom she and Jean-Claude are heading as king and queen (or co-presidents).

The Anita Blake novels have been a staple in the urban fantasy genre—and one of the forerunners of that genre as it stands today—for more than twenty years; the first book, published in 1993, was one I picked up as a wee teenager. I’ve been reading them since then, and it’s been fascinating to watch the transitions in tone, style, and genre that have occurred over all that time: once more in the vein of the police procedural, these books have shifted over the years toward a mix of “supernatural soap opera” and more traditional mystery/drama tropes.

The problem with that mix, when it is a problem, is balance: maintaining a good connecting thread between the relationship-and-politics stories and the crime/mystery-oriented plots is what makes for a good late-stage Anita Blake novel. The last installment, Affliction, managed to do this—and, honestly, it’s something that tends to waffle between books in the series at this point. Dead Ice is one of the ones that waffles hard and misses the balance, unfortunately; after the zombie-porn-horror mystery is introduced with the FBI, it’s nearly half of the entire book before it’s even mentioned again, and the actual case-work-to-conclusion arc takes place in just the last handful of chapters. Worse yet, it’s one of those cases where Anita doesn’t actually solve it—the solution just sort of happens and the bad guy reveals himself to her. So, the thing that should be the structure or plot of the book ends up feeling very tacked-on.

Nonetheless, for the readers who are still around at book number twenty-four (like me), there’s still enough interesting stuff about the characters and their relationships here to keep them going. It’s just that the interesting stuff kind of comes off like a series of scenes of Things Happening instead of a structured narrative that’s dealing with issues in a logical or even plot-moving fashion. There’s a through-line about Anita’s marriage to Jean-Claude and commitment ceremony to Nathanial and Micah that forms part of the plot, as well, so that has a mild organizing effect. The weretigers want her to marry one of them to fulfill the prophecy that will keep the Mother of All Darkness dead and gone—so, she’s got to figure out if there’s one she can see being with, perhaps another woman even.

There’s also some zombie business, which I found compelling on its own as well; a historical zombie Anita raises turns out to be (a) too, too lifelike and (b) a potential flesh-eater if he can’t control himself. She also, in the course of getting him sorted out, finds out she can call and control ghouls. While we don’t do anything with that beyond acknowledge that she’s getting alarmingly more powerful—and find out that some countries in Europe have started killing people that become too powerful before they do anything wrong—it’s a hint of something to come in the future that I wanted more of. In the course of that and the police-work, we also find out that Larry Kirkland is maybe thawing out toward Anita and that the FBI isn’t so much.

One other thing that I found interesting, though I’m not sure if it was successful, was the brief interlude in which Anita and Narcissus discuss the possibility of attempting sex and partnership for the power structure of St. Louis. That scene seems to indicate that Hamilton is making an attempt to recuperate the initial problematic framing of Narcissus as a character by presenting him—specifically his body and gender—as potentially desirable and at the least natural and acceptable. That matters because the treatment of Narcissus in the earlier novel in which he’s introduced—as a gay intersex man and leader of the werehyenas—is intensely problematic; his gender identity is very much treated in that context as freakish, as if it’s part of the reason he’s a bad person. So, while the “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” scene with him here is still questionable in execution, the intent seems at least to be to do a better job and to treat him as a more rounded character whose gender isn’t the source of his instability.

But the overall feel of Dead Ice is of a “middle-book” rather than a solid novel of its own right—even a solid novel more firmly rooted on the supernatural soap opera side of things than the mystery side would have been a better structured piece of work. On the other hand, this isn’t an uncommon problem with these later books, where Hamilton is attempting to juggle a massive cast of characters, a complex polyamorous relationship drama, supernatural politics, police work, and more general world-building all at the same time. While it’s probably an accurate reflection of how hectic and unstructured Anita’s life is thanks to the same problems, it’s sometimes hard to call a “good book” in many senses of the word.

On the other hand, Affliction managed it fine, and the odds are good that the next installment will be fine also. Like I said: waffling. It’s also hard to believe that anyone is picking up the series at book twenty-four, so the selling point here is not that it’s a stand-alone work but that it gives you another several hundred pages with your favorite characters and their problems with themselves and each other. I appreciated seeing more of Nicky and Anita being the ruthless problem-solving couple; I appreciated seeing more women come into the cast, since that’s long been an issue with these books that I’m glad to Hamilton addressing. I’m also curious about how the Asher situation—which has been a Situation for several books now—will eventually pan out.

So, it has the things that the long-term fan will want to get them through. It’s just not one of the better examples of the series, and it’s not the best Hamilton can do with her sometimes-delightful range of characters. It has a bunch of separate threads and scenes that a fan will find intriguing, but they don’t come together very well this time around.

Dead Ice is available June 9th from Berkley.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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