Serialisation of paranormal romance: a comparative analysis
using the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton as a base for comparison
by Evie Kendal
Kiss the Dead is the 21st book in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, so the first question a new reader should ask before committing to such a long series is: How well does Hamilton sustain a story over such a large number of volumes? To answer this question I believe we first need to explore the prevalence of serialisation in paranormal romance, a rather unique situation within the formula romance tradition. (While Hamilton’s series also fits into the urban fantasy genre, most fans still consider it a paranormal romance first and foremost.) This analysis will demonstrate why the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series does not make it onto my (embarrassingly extensive) insta-buy list of paranormal romances, despite major strengths in the areas of fictional world-building and characterisation.
Serialisation of paranormal romance
Although the appeal of paranormal romance may remain elusive to many literary critics, one thing generally agreed upon is that, for whatever reason, romance readers “tend to crave more romance,” becoming voracious consumers of this genre fiction (Belsey, 192). To supply this market (the largest in the industry), many romance authors produce hundreds of titles over their writing careers, an impressive achievement in the publishing world. In the case of paranormal romances, readers often gravitate to authors they are already familiar with, as this provides additional guarantees that they will enjoy the book. Romance reading is, after all, hardly a risky business – the formula demands that there be a happy ending, so as long as the reader likes the fictional universe of any given paranormal series, money is rarely wasted. For this reason, there is a distinct financial incentive for what “Smart Bitches” Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan observe as “the rise of the interconnected romances,” beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present (109). Such romances, often written by a single author but occasionally being collaborative, exploit the romance reader’s addiction to familiar form, by providing multiple romance narratives that share a common thread. The strength of the connection between the individual narratives varies, however, in what I categorise as weak, medium and high-level intensity series associations (while it is more accurate to describe these levels as existing across a wider spectrum, for simplicity’s sake they will be treated here as discrete units).
Low-level intensity serialisation
In the first instance, authors may construct a “series” by producing multiple novels in which the major characters inhabit the same fictional world, but have no interaction with each other. This method of weak association is particularly prevalent in historical romance series, in which there may be no deeper connection between the individual texts than that they all occur in a specific temporal locality. It is important to note that it is the individual author’s interpretation of history that binds such novels together as a series, under the wider umbrella of, for example, the Regency, Victorian or Medieval historical romance sub-genres. A paranormal romance example using this method of serialisation is Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series, in which each novel has a distinct romantic storyline, but they all occur in the world of The Lore. Benefits of this kind of serialisation include that readers can pick up books from anywhere in the series and read them as stand-alone texts. Deficits of this kind of serialisation include that readers can pick up books from anywhere in the series and read them as stand-alone texts! Hamilton’s series definitely does not fit into this category, as what is “recycled” across the texts is not just the fictional universe in which the various romance narratives occur, but rather the focus is following the character, Anita Blake, as she progresses through life in this unique paranormal world.
Medium-level intensity serialisation
For medium-level intensity series, not only do the characters of each separate novel exist in the same universe, they also interact with each other to some extent. Commonly the major love interests in such stories are friends or family members of the other couples of the series, and there may be some minor overlapping of storylines across the texts. Many paranormal romance series fit into this category, including Katie MacAlister’s Dark Ones series, Kerrelyn Sparks’ Love at Stake series and Lynsay Sands’ Argeneau series. Characters and couples from earlier instalments often make cameos in later books, and there may also be a “bigger picture” serial narrative seen to be slowly developing alongside the episodic romance narratives of each book. For example, in the Love at Stake series, each book focuses exclusively on a particular couple overcoming obstacles and achieving their “happily-ever-after” ending, while in the background the war between Vamps and Malcontents continues. While some over-arching plot developments may be lost on a reader who randomly chooses a book from the middle of such a series, individual novels within a medium-level intensity series can usually be read in isolation without compromising narrative comprehension.
Benefits of this kind of serialisation include that readers can enjoy unlimited “spin-off” romance narratives, focusing on characters they are already familiar with and invested in. Deficits include the risk that the serial narrative will move too slowly or that the individual texts will become too repetitive. Hamilton’s series again cannot be said to fit this category, because some novels lack sufficient plot to stand alone as episodic narratives. I believe this is a major weakness for the series as some books contribute little to the overall story, but are also not interesting enough in their own right. This is particularly true of the later novels, which sacrifice a lot of the crime-solving plot elements of the earlier books, in order to focus on Anita Blake’s (many) sexual conquests.
High-level intensity serialisation
The best example of a high-level intensity paranormal romance series that I know of is J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, in which all the major characters are intricately connected to one another and there are multiple overlapping storylines present in every instalment. Ward’s reading order must be firmly adhered to for the series, with narrative coherence often being dependent on readers accumulating knowledge about the characters and their unique personal histories in a predetermined sequence. This style of reading is common to serial narratives and aims to preserve the integrity of the narrative as a whole. So while romance reading is often considered a “serial experience” (Malik, 716), inasmuch as romance narratives repeat a familiar form, Ward’s series demonstrates the capacity for romance to be truly serialised, without compromising the romance formula’s demand for an unambiguous resolution at the conclusion of each novel. This is because each individual novel provides one happy ending, while leaving other storylines hanging until the next instalment, romantic and otherwise. Ward thus creates a paranormal romance serial narrative by having multiple unresolved plot threads active in each novel, delayed closure for secondary couples (and thus delayed gratification for the reader), numerous cliffhangers both within and between individual novels, and slow “reveals” regarding characters’ backstories and hidden elements of the fictional world in which the narrative is set. The use of these techniques makes the Black Dagger Brotherhood series very dense, and can also be seen, to a lesser extent, in Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series. I believe this accounts for why these series maintain such popularity and are among the longest currently on the market (for Ward in terms of combined novel-length, for Kenyon, total book numbers). As another long-running series, it is important to see how Hamilton’s writing stacks up against these authors.
Wendell and Tan claim that in spite of the popularity of romance series, it is still “extremely rare for romance novels to have true sequels, [as] the Happily Ever After definitively marks the end of the story arc for the hero and heroine” (109). However, authors of high-level intensity romance series resolve this issue through the use of various narrative seriality techniques, thereby promoting loyalty in their readers and allowing romance narratives to extend beyond a single text. In my experience there are two major ways to achieve such serialisation: enhanced narrative density and sole character focus. Ward’s series is an expert example of the former; Hamilton’s is a sometimes-disappointing example of the latter. Having said this, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a good example of a high-level intensity romance series with a sole character focus, at least not one that exists outside of young adult fiction. This is because in order to have a romance story involving the same character over multiple novels, you need one of the following:
- an over-arching narrative that is so good the reader will continue with the series even if the central couple take many novels to get together (often the limit will be 4-5 novels before risking serious reader frustration);
- a lead character that perpetually breaks up with their major love interest, a device which is only plausible when there is a very good reason supplied (Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead series and Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series have employed this technique with varying success); or
- a lead character that gets together with different people over the course of the series.
For me, the latter yields the least possible satisfaction as a romance series, and loses Keri Arthur’s Riley Jensen Guardian series more points than anything else. My interest in Riley Jensen’s romantic exploits starts and ends with Quinn, the sexy vampire who helps her investigate her brother’s disappearance in book one, Full Moon Rising. Likewise, for Hamilton’s series, any lover of Anita’s that is not Jean-Claude is just wasting my time. So while I have no major objection to the plot of Kiss the Dead, as the 21st book of a paranormal romance series it does not earn a place on my favourites list.
The Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series
As mentioned above, Hamilton’s series follows the life of Anita Blake, a necromancer and vampire executioner, as she solves mysteries and fights otherworldly creatures. In the first novel of the series, Guilty Pleasures, the very powerful vampire Jean-Claude marks Anita, making her his human-servant. While she is angry that this was done without her consent, it does save her life on various occasions and gives her supernatural powers beyond that of any other necromancer. A lot of the series is focused on the discovery of Anita’s gifts and the development of her bond with Jean-Claude. While Anita begins the series believing all vampires are evil and hunting them indiscriminately, throughout the story she develops various friendships and romantic relationships with paranormal beings, including vampires and were-creatures. Over the course of the series Anita goes from a lone hunter to a badged member of the police force, working for the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team (RPIT, pronounced “rip it”).
The fictional world created for this series is definitely one of its major strengths. It provides an interesting mix of the kind of old vampire mythology (complete with religious iconography) that is often lacking in contemporary paranormal romance. It is also a world that is constantly changing. For example, when vampires become legal citizens, Anita is no longer able to execute them without a warrant. This provides a new obstacle she needs to overcome when investigating violent crimes involving non-humans. There are also descriptions of new technologies created to deal with paranormal beings, and the evolution of both human and non-human cultures are explored well.
Anita’s character also changes steadily throughout the series, as she comes to terms with her not-quite-human status. However, while I liked the representation of a physically and psychically powerful female lead, when reading Kiss the Dead I couldn’t help thinking it was a shame she was destined to die of syphilis. As noted earlier, as a sole character focus serial narrative, the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series commits the unforgivable crime of having the female love interest constantly falling in love with new characters. However, what really alienates me from Anita is that instead of the serial monogamy common to such romances (with the occasional threesome thrown in), this character simply “collects” more lovers as the story continues. Kiss the Dead is quite the orgy, with Anita often reflecting on her many lovers (Jean-Claude, Micah, Nathaniel, Cynric, Asher, Nicky, Jason…) instead of actually doing her job.
Kiss the Dead
The plot of this book focuses on the search for a kidnapped teenage girl that Anita believes will be turned into a vampire against her will unless the RPIT team can find her first. As the case continues, Anita discovers a group of rogue vampires who are willing to martyr themselves for the cause of freedom, which they consider to be life (undeath?) without a Master, like Jean-Claude, exerting power over them. The exploration of vampire culture and politics is quite interesting, however, while the detective element of earlier books made for an engaging read, even in the absence of a satisfying romantic resolution, the police procedural drama of Kiss the Dead is a bit flat. One of the best elements of the book is when Anita uses her newfound psychic abilities to interrogate undead suspects, and then reflects on her fears that she is becoming a “monster” herself. These moments show a good level of characterisation and secure reader sympathy for the protagonist. For me this sympathy evaporates as soon as Anita starts a conversation with one of her lovers though. Just because I have no interest in any of her relationships that don’t involve Jean-Claude, doesn’t mean I enjoy reading about how badly she treats her other “boyfriends.” I also don’t find the potential for an eightsome particularly romantic.
Compared with earlier books in the series Kiss the Dead is also a lot simpler in terms of narrative structure. One of things that both frustrated and enticed me while reading Guilty Pleasures was that it sometimes felt like you were only getting one side of telephone conversation. Events were alluded to but not expanded upon, rules were listed but not explained – it was as if the author had been constructing a narrative in her own head and only remembered to write half of it down. Figuring out the gaps and piecing everything together was significant interpretative work, but it was worth it. Kiss the Dead on the other hand holds mystery only so far as Anita’s lack of knowledge about her supernatural abilities. Most everything else is predictable, with the plot seemingly existing solely to prop up a tale of a vampire hunter and her (many) star-crossed lovers.
The writing style of Hamilton’s series is sophisticated, the fictional world is original and the level of characterisation mostly good. Despite all this I don’t recommend picking up Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter unless you have a high tolerance for never-ending series that consistently fail to give narrative closure and deliberately frustrate readers. Excepting such masochism, this series is also suitable for anyone who does find the potential for an eightsome particularly romantic. However, if you have already read books 1-20 of this series, there’s no reason not to read Kiss the Dead – after all, the damage is already done. But if you are looking for a new series to sink your fangs into, many of the other series mentioned in this review make for better reading.
Belsey, Catherine. “True Love: The Metaphysics of Romance.” Women: A Cultural Review 3, no. 2 (1992): 181-92.
Malik, Rachel. “Horizons of the Publishable: Publishing In/As Literary Studies.” English Literary History 75, no. 3 (2008): 707-35.
Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside, 2005.