A Stroke of Midnight

by Laurell K. Hamilton

Cover image

Series: Merry Gentry #4
Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: 2005
Printing: 2006
ISBN: 0-345-44360-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 385

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the fourth book in the Merry Gentry series. There's a recap of sorts at the beginning of the book, but only of the events at the very end of Seduced by Moonlight and even there it's more annoying than helpful. This series really should be read in order.

The open question for me with this series is if it's going to go the way of Anita Blake. Hamilton started off the Anita Blake series with a nice mix of power fantasy, detective work, and interpersonal conflict, but it's slowly degenerated until now it's almost entirely about angst and sexual positions. The Merry Gentry books started out with considerably more sex, so there was a possibility of a faster slide, but while I see warning signs in this book it so far hasn't happened.

After the first two books spent mostly wandering the outside world, Hamilton has started to focus on the faerie sithen, the politics of the Unseelie court, and Merry's complicated and dangerous relationship with her aunt. This is an excellent move. Merry was an indifferent investigator at best; the best scenes of her story come when she's knee-deep in complicated political turmoil, using her father's advice to not ignore any side, scared half out of her wits, and making spur-of-the-moment decisions that sometimes get her in trouble. Combine that with the awakening power of faerie, which is turning several of the spear-carriers into powers to be reckoned with, and you get a story that's far more interesting than Merry having sex between bits of crime investigation.

Even with that shift of focus, no one is going to mistake this book for subtle psychological fiction about the human condition. Hamilton is writing power fantasy: Merry is the strongest, smartest, and most important person in faerie, with new powers coming out of nowhere at each twist of the plot. It's not exactly subtle, but I still found it engrossing, I think because Hamilton is maintaining a firm grasp on the mythic underpinnings and treating Merry as a harbinger of a restoration larger than just herself. And so far, at least, that restoration has been unpredictable, not amenable to simple solutions to plot problems, and more often than not adding additional complications. It's a delicate balancing act and I'm not sure how long Hamilton can sustain it, but she's succeeding so far. Her grasp of sense of wonder is also up to the task, if barely; despite the steady stream of new discoveries, I still care about the next one. (Other readers, I'll warn, may not be as content.)

The most serious problem, as it always seems to be with Hamilton's writing, is with the sex. Merry has quite a lot of it (although with a better excuse than Anita Blake has), it's apparently important to Hamilton to describe the details of every moment, and the characters talk endlessly about positions and jealousies and angles and sexual practices. Once again, after an excellent middle section dealing mostly with politics and confrontation, we're subjected to a few extended scenes of naked characters attempting to align slots with tabs and commenting on the sizes and texture of the tabs. I enjoy reading erotica from time to time, but when writing erotica there's a fine line between too little detail and too much. Hamilton regularly puts in way too much detail, making the scene either vaguely disgusting or reminiscent of the assembly instructions of a particularly complex child's toy. All the petty insecurities, jealousies, and neediness seem to come out in those scenes too, which makes some sense from a characterization perspective but which makes them doubly boring. I don't care about who wants to have oral sex with whom or how many turns which man gets; I want to get on with the plot and see more of faerie awakening and Merry coming into power.

Thankfully, though, this is far from all of the book. Only two of the sex scenes this time went on for so long that they got on my nerves, and while one of those had me wondering just when the characters were going to start cramping up from lying contorted on a bathroom floor talking, Hamilton does always provide some sort of plot payoff for wading through the sex. Merry's power is legitimately tied up with her sexuality, and usually once people stop angsting, there are serious consequences to each scene. It helps that A Stroke of Midnight is otherwise very well-paced: the entire story takes place in about a day, there are numerous things happening simultaneously, and there's almost always some background tension to keep one turning the pages.

This is not great writing by any stretch. Hamilton does a solid first-person perspective, but her prose is not the greatest and, reading this immediately after an Elizabeth Bear novel, I could see sentences clunk and flop. This is particularly true of the press conference that starts the book; it's a painful combination of adolescent angst and ineffective recap, and I wouldn't be surprised if many people put the book down during it and never came back. The book gets quite a bit better, though, and as fluff (and something of a guilty pleasure), I'm still loving this series. It has the escalating power fantasy that I enjoy occasionally in an old-fashioned epic fantasy, but with much different plot motivations and a more interesting lead character than in the typical bildungsroman. If you liked Seduced by Moonlight (particularly the scenes at the end), pick this one up as well. It offers more of the same.

Followed by Mistral's Kiss.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-12-17

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