Anita Blake is a lady with a lot of barnacles. She's accumulated many powers in her previous seventeen books, and to a new reader their page-by-page introduction in this one seemed almost ludicrous. Vampire hunter, necromancer, werewolf (sort of) (and were-lots of other things), vampire, another vampire's human servant (and girlfriend), and succubus, she keeps a pet were-leopard and werewolf, and she's a US Marshal.
But imagine reading your first Superman comic: okay, this guy can fly. Oh, and he's super-strong, invulnerable, and shoots lasers out of his eyes. Plus, he has super-hearing, and he's a super-ventriloquist, and even a super-kisser! We're so used to Superman that we hardly question it. What matters is how all the powers coalesce into a character. What's interesting about Anita's powers is that none are free: with each comes new dangers, new feelings, and new responsibilities. She's in constant danger of being overwhelmed by them.
With great power also comes great difficulty in plotting: how to challenge the hero who has everything? In Flirt we see Superman's worst nightmare: friends targeted by supervillains. Mr Bennington wants his wife back from the dead, and doesn't care who dies to make it happen. With snipers stalking her lovers Anita lets herself be kidnapped by a pair of mercenary were-lions. A were-lion witch cuts her psychic connection with her chums, and things are looking grim. But the bad guys have reckoned without Anita's greatest power of all: her ravenous sexual energy!
A few chapters in and this was well on the way to being one of the worst books I'd read in years. The second chapter is dreadful, the banter excruciating as Anita and her gaggle of boyfriends flirt with a waiter and each other in a restaurant. The tone felt familiar - jaunty, forced, creepy - and it took a while to place it: late period Heinlein. Discovering in the afterword that the scene was based on real events made it even worse. What these characters call "playing", other people might well call sexual harassment.
But once Anita's love cult is sidelined the book got much, much better. It develops into an interesting sexual thriller, Anita's respectful kidnappers fighting their own desire to mate with her, and pack dynamics play out in human form as she plays them off against each other. Overall, this is a crisp, pointed novel that doesn't outstay its welcome, and if I could forget that indulgent second chapter I'd be happy to read another in the series, preferably one in which Anita is once again separated from her gormless gang of group-huggers.
Flirt, by Laurell K. Hamilton, Headline, pb, 180pp.
Also published this week: the 19th Anita Blake novel, Bullet, in which Anita must face the Mother of All Darkness, who is after her body... Though not for the reason everyone else is.