Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
A Kiss of Shadows cover art A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton

Meredith Gentry book one
Ballantine books hardcover - copyright 2000
435 pages

Book read in March 2003

Rating: 3/10  (Not Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Laurell K. Hamilton scored a major commercial success with her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series of novels, up to ten volumes at last count.  A Kiss of Shadows launches a new series, by all indications one that will be just as lengthy, in which the modern world coexists with a host of denizens of Celtic mythology.  A Kiss of Shadows introduces Meredith Gentry, princess of faerie.  Meredith has gone into hiding in Los Angeles, having fled her homeland after being challenged to repeated duels.  She was at a great disadvantage in these duels because, unlike most of her kin, she is mortal.  In A Kiss of Shadows, Meredith will make her way home to face the fearsome Queen of Air and Darkness, ruler of the Unseelie Court of the sidhe, who may offer her anything from painful death to a chance to vie for the throne.

It's not hard to figure why Hamilton's books have been so successful commercially.  Yowza!  My contact lenses kept steaming up while I read this.

       Our protagonist Princess Meredith - aptly called "Merry" by her many male friends - goes at it with the persistence of a bunny rabbit, but no rabbit ever liked it as rough as she does.  In her first encounter, someone slips Meredith Branwyn's Tears, a super-powerful magic aphrodisiac, but before long we realize that the guy needn't have bothered - she's horny as a toad all the time.  Her turn-ons include very tall men, very short men, very pale men, very dark men, men with long hair, men with extremely long hair, and men with low self-esteem because they think their appearance is horrible (typically because, in fact, it is).  Her only turn-off is tentacles growing out of a man's chest, but she can still oblige fellas with that condition with a hummer.

Hamilton is trying to give a new meaning to the term "sexual fantasy."  Even when Meredith isn't in the act of bumping and grinding, Hamilton saturates her writing with sexual tension.  This book is ostensibly about Meredith's return from our mundane society back to the land of faerie (which, come to find out, is a suburb of St. Louis), but it's never really about anything but how many men, faeries, and grotesque creatures Meredith can fool around with before the end of the novel.  There is no element of the story that doesn't involve sex.  Two different attempts on Meredith's life turn on trying to get her to have sex.  When the Queen gets angry with Meredith, she punishes her by requiring her to have sex.  (With enemies like these, who needs friends?)  After reading this book for a while, you get used to the pattern.  You start to wonder what's wrong with the characters in other books you've read.  Don't they realize that the natural thing to do while being chased by fierce bat-creatures is to stop for a quickie?

Still, I am a big believer in judging things on their own terms.  You don't go to a burger joint and complain that the salmon is not fresh.  Hamilton set out to write a fantasy novel that verges on soft-core pornography.  So we must ask: Is this a good pornographic fantasy novel?  This is a tough question to answer.  Legitimate authors don't often write pornography, because they don't want to deal with the backlash it will generate (which backlash will include some asshole writing a review on the internet poking fun at how raunchy their work is).  So it's hard to define what "good pornography" is, but according to the Supreme Court I should know it when I see it.

I didn't see it in this book.  For the most part, I did not find Meredith's escapades, ahem, stimulating.  This book is graphic, not erotic.  Perhaps I don't appreciate it because it is tailored to women, but I don't think that's it.  If anything, the sexual situations in this book smack strangely of male fantasies - no love, no romance, but lots of flesh slapping together.  Meredith doesn't need to feel any great emotional attachment to her men; Meredith doesn't even require foreplay.  At one point, Meredith is delighted to be given access to a harem of a couple dozen attractive men.  The fact that she gets along with only two or three out of the whole group concerns her hardly at all.  Only the extent of description of the characters' clothing disabuses me of the suspicion that Laurell Hamilton is the pseudonym of some adolescent boy.

Hamilton fills her novel with numerous fantasy elements, for which she makes imaginative use of Celtic mythology, but she combines these elements into the story with a distressing lack of discipline.  She makes no attempt to lay the ground rules about her characters' magical abilities and limitations.

Similarly, she makes little effort to combine the different elements of the story into a cohesive whole.  She foreshadows almost nothing about the story, and she fails to introduce key players ahead of time.  A character never mentioned before simply appears, and Hamilton then tells us all about him and explains how terribly important he is to Merry, leaving one with the distinct impression that Hamilton thought him up for the first time the moment she was typing those words into her computer.  Even with five pages remaining in the book, Hamilton was still pulling entirely new characters out of her ass.

Not only does it feel like Hamilton does not know what she is going to write next, she often seems to forget what she has already written.  In one scene, Meredith is badly wounded in a vicious catfight, and we are repeatedly told that she will bleed to death without immediate medical attention.  She does not get this medical attention, yet by the next chapter she is taking a shower and having a chatty conversation.  Meredith only remembers her injuries a couple hours later, when another character offers to cure her by licking her inner thigh - which really irritated me, because that line has never once worked for me.

The book is littered with instances of this kind of careless writing.  Some are minor but jarring inconsistencies.  For example, Meredith comments at one point that a hotel room is too pink for her tastes.  Fifty pages later, we visit her apartment, which we learn is decorated top to bottom in pink.  Other times the carelessness manifests in bizarre repetitions in the story, as when three consecutive encounters with different forms of life end with Meredith allowing the beings to drink her blood.  (At the rate people guzzle blood in this book, I hate to think what goes on in Hamilton's vampire novels.)

Worst of all, Hamilton repeatedly sets up what seem to be major elements of the plot, then forgets all about them.  Early in the book, Meredith is working as a private investigator, and the first six chapters of the book frame an elaborate mystery scenario.  Then Hamilton completely drops this unsolved mystery (she finally rattles off an unconvincing explanation in a few words at the end of the book) and abandons the hardboiled narrative voice she had been using up to that point.  Shortly after that, a man has nearly persuaded Meredith to spend her entire life with him.  Then some people burst into the room, and he disappears for the rest of the book.  Later on, Meredith is anguished to see her best friend enslaved by her despicable cousin.  But, out of sight out of mind, she spares not another thought for her friend for the rest of the novel.  This pattern of forgetful, sloppy plotting continues all the way through, culminating in an ending that is not one whit more satisfying than if Hamilton had just stopped in mid-sentence and written "To Be Continued."

Hamilton's writing is not entirely without redeeming qualities.  In particular, the Queen of Air and Darkness is an effective villain, and the scene in which Meredith finally faces her is by far the best moment in the book.  Sadly, this scene proves to be the Queen's only significant moment onstage, and another element of the story that had potential ends up going nowhere.

          Aside from this one scene with the Queen, the aspect of the novel I enjoyed best was the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone of noir mystery that Hamilton employed early on.  Perhaps Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, about a female detective chasing vampires, sustain the noir feel longer.  I'll have to read one of those.  Ah, who am I kidding?  I just want to check out all that steamy vampire sex!

There are more books in the Meredith (Merry) Gentry series
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com
Copyright 2003 Aaron Hughes

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Our book club's web page for Laurell K. Hamilton (includes Hamilton bibliography):
A Kiss of Shadows

Links to websites about Laurell K. Hamilton, and related topics:
Laurell K. Hamilton Random House publisher website
Official Laurell K. Hamilton website
Laurell K. Hamilton - Wikipedia
In Other Worlds: Hamilton, Laurell K. - book reviews
Locus Online: Laurell K. Hamilton interview (excerpts)
Rambles book review: Laurell K. Hamilton, A Kiss of Shadows
The 11th Hour Web Magazine - Book Reviews - A Kiss Of Shadows

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 27 December 2010