"The Harlequin" is Book 15 in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series and the first one to come out since Marvel started publishing its comic book adaptation of Laurell K. Hamilton's first book in the series, "Guilty Pleasures." That graphic reminder of how good those early novels were, when the emphasis was more on horror and a whole lot less on sex, made me a bit wary when I started reading "The Harlequin," especially given how disappointed I and countless legions of fans have been in Hamilton's recent novles (and not just the Anita Blake ones). But while I have to admit that it could be a case that things have been down so long it looks like up to me, bottom line is that I found "The Harlequin" to be the best Anita Blake novel in years. We also have the nice little irony that in this novel she actually lives up to her title of being a Vampire Hunter, which has rarely been the case in the series.
In virtually every novel our heroine manifests a new power, from the ability to raise an entire graveyard of corpses to forming her own triumvirate with Damien as her vampire and Nathaniel as her beast to call, which makes the main triumvirate with Jean-Claude and Richard even more powerful. Now Jean-Claude has his own bloodline and in the world of vampire politics this is a seismic event and back in the old country the Vampire Council is taking notice of what is happening in St. Louis. As "The Harlequin" begins (and this time the title refers to people rather than a place), somebody is apparently doing something about it and the threat is so bad that if Jean-Claude tells Anita about it they are all going to die. Fortunately, Anita trusts Jean-Claude well enough that she is willing to take his word even though it cuts against her grain not to make her own decisions. There might not be any sex during the first fifteen chapters, but they sure talk about it a lot for people who should be at DEFCON 5 (sorry, I still think in Cold War terms: this century I should be saying Code Red using the Homeland Security Advisory System). Once the Harlequin masks start showing up staying alive is the only thing that matters and sundry reasons for getting into Anita's bed should not even be close to being secondary concerns.
My complaint about all the sex is qualitative as well as quantitative in that since it took several books for Anita to finally choose between Jean-Claude and Richard, that first sex scene in Jean-Claude's bath tub was ultra hot and it has all been downhill from there. The sex scenes in "The Harlequin" are relatively few, short, and to the point: there is way more talking about sex than having sex this time around, and while it is a welcome change and the discourse often touches as much on the vampire politics involved as it does on Anita's feelings, it does slow down the action a bit, which matters since they are in the middle of a major crisis. I understand that at this point Anita Blake has to have sex to feed the ardeur the way Jean-Claude has to drink blood and Richard needs to bitch and moan, so any novel that takes place in more than one day is going to have to have a sex scene. But if the Harlequin are coming to get you I think discussions about whether Anita can give Nathaniel what he needs when it comes to being dominated during sex can wait until the crisis is past. Anita was always a talker and part of the problem is that she has so much more to talk about these days (although she actually manages to put off several conversations in this story, believe it or not). Still, on balance, things are a lot better in this latest novel in terms of the sex as far as I am concerned.
After all the sex stuff my biggest complaint about recent novels would be that the climax, so to speak, almost always involves Anita pulling a new power out of a hat, although at this point I have to admit there are so many dimensions to her power that I am having trouble distinguishing between the old ones and the new ones. I know that it all has to do with Anita being a necromancer and that whatever she is going to be when all is said and done, she is not there yet. Consequently, "The Harlequin" is another part of a bigger game in which Belle Morte will figure prominently. It reminds me of when Anita owed Edward a favor and we waited several years for the bounty hunter to collect, and that was a pretty good payoff. Another strength of this novel is that Edward is one of several familiar faces that pop up again, along with Peter, Olaf, and Dolph. More importantly, unlike the previous novel "Danse Macabre," this time we actually get to the payoff and things hit the fan. Because the end game involves what could be a welcome change in the ardeur and a moment that has been a LONG time coming between Anita, Jean-Claude and Richard, I was tempted to rate this novel even higher. However, despite my enthusiasm for these welcome changes in direction, Hamilton would have to prune down the sexual discourse to truly justify a five-star rating like in the glory days. Still, "The Harlequin" proves that when it comes to sex in these books, less is more.