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It sounds pretty hardcore: a severed head appears on Anita Blake's desk, and she goes on a hunt through Las Vegas for a depraved, insane vampire serial killer. For most authors, it WOULD be hardcore.

Guess what Laurell K. Hamilton does: sex, angst and endless bickering. The seventeenth Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novel "Skin Trade" starts with promise and has moments of potential brilliance, including a menacing new villain. But between those points, she packs it with icky sex, endless whining and bickering, rancid misogyny, and constant reminders that her Mary Sue is the most awesome person ever.

Anita receives the aforementioned head in the mail, and learns that it's from Vittorio, a vampire she allowed to get away because she was too busy having sex. He's killed a bunch of cops, and he wants her to come to Vegas for a showdown.

So Anita heads to Vegas with her arsenal of phallic weapons, the assassins Bernardo and Edward, and psychopath Olaf. Of course, the local cops and SWAT team are unimpressed by her and her reputation as a lover of all things furry/undead, but naturally Anita silences all critics with her manly demeanor and snarky remarks. And when she investigates the bodies (with Olaf's revved-up help), she senses the presence of tiger in the wounds.

It's a pretty touchy situation, since the tiger queen of Vegas wants Anita to have sex with some new tigers -- and Anita's rainbow of internal tigers is selecting hotties left and right to feed the ardeur. Unfortunately the MOAD is also on Anita's doorstep, intent on getting a new body since her old one is broken -- and it turns out that Anita has underestimated Vittorio's true power, and his ancient nature. Cue sex.

"Skin Trade" is one of those books that sounds awesome in theory, but the actual plot (what little there is) is tissue-paper thin. While Hamilton sprinkles in some metaphysical disasters and supernatural threats to keep things interesting, most of the book is long chapters full of bickering, whining, and Anita proving that she is the Biggest Toughest Strongest Butchest Macho Man ever to squirt testosterone out her ears.

And halfway through, the plot dies. Instead we get a steady stream of sexual negotiations, icky sex scenes with a half dozen new boytoys, and Anita's endless whining about her internal zoo (very Freudian!). The chapters leading up to the climax actually introduce a genuinely spooky new villain, and a potent thread to Marmee Noir... but apparently Hamilton gets sick of actually having a villain, so she flushes a promising storyline right down the tubes.

And her writing has gotten no better -- the weretigers' powers are described as having "crunchy goodness" like a Snickers bar, and her dialogue ranges from pompous ("The grenades aren't what make me scary, Shaw." "What does?" "That I'm willing to use them") to hilariously horrible ("My Queen, if by my flesh or my seed I can feed you, then feed" -- like a pornographic version of "Lord of the Rings").

And Hamilton dials the rancid misogyny up to eleven: all women are evil and/or nasty, lines like "Stop being a girl!" are casually tossed off, and the one strong woman we see is degraded and tortured. But the most disgusting event in this book is a weretiger orgy where Anita has sex with a sixteen-year-old... which, Hamilton claims, is okay because he's "legal."

As always, Anita has all the charm of a power sander (but fewer brains), countless convenient magic powers, seething hatred of both men and women, and a tendency to snarl accusations of sexism if someone even looks at her wrong. Hamilton tries to give her some fears and vulnerabilities, but these are forgotten almost instantly -- she's clearly more interested in letting us know that her Mary Sue is the rarest kind of tiger there is, AND the potential queen of them all.

None of the other characters really seem like more than cardboard standouts, especially since none of Hamilton's regular characters makes more than a cameo appearance at best. As for the vampire brothers Wicked and Truth, they seem to be there to fuel Hamilton's fantasies of a threesome with Legolas and Aragorn.

"Skin Trade" has a few moments of potential brilliance, but their presence only makes this sad drippy swamp all the more desolate. Disgusting, boring and frequently laughable.
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