I just finished reading "Hannibal Rising," which was a fun book, although not as much fun as "Hannibal." But that isn’t really fair: "Hannibal" might be the most entertaining book of the 00s.
"Hannibal Rising" is basically the "origin" of Hannibal Lecter, and it can't be much more than 70,000 words, tops, but that’s somewhat misleading since the entire novel can be distilled down to these 14 words on page 159: "He is growing and changing, or perhaps emerging as what he ever has been." Harris doesn't ascribe this description of Hannibal to any character; instead he has the narrator say it, which means we can take it as authoritative. And yet, it's equivocal. Why do you suppose that is? Because Harris doesn't know? Doesn't care?
It’s hard to say if he does. "Hannibal" was his authoritative take on the character; "Hannibal Rising" is basically just an entertaining addendum, or perhaps footnote, to that book, probably written more as an exercise. When Harris has a character say "Are you looking for sympathy? You'll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis" in the middle of a climactic scene on page 277, I think he's offering his own commentary on the book, and the idea of an "origin" for Hannibal. But all good heroes need an origin, right?
The reaction to the book has been interesting. Most of the reviews I've seen have been negative. But then, I read a lot of negative reviews of "Hannibal," too. Check out the amazon pages for each book; the main knock against them is that Hannibal isn't the same as he was in "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs." Of course he isn't! He was incarcerated in those two books! He was a different person. RD and TSOTL were completely different- those two were horror novels, while H and HR are literary, using elements of horror, parody, satire, word games, allusions. I don't think "Hannibal" is as good as "Lolita", but Harris is a Nabokovian writer, and “Hannibal” was deeper and stranger than either of the previous books.
The thing to remember about Hannibal Lecter is that he is not a villain. Each novel had its own villain, while Lecter has either been immobilized and unable to act out (and therefore used as a resource for the protagonists), or he's attacked people only to escape, exact revenge, or to punish someone's poor taste (but he would argue that's a form of self-preservation).
I'm surprised it's taken people so long to figure this out. Hannibal is the HERO, which is probably why (if he had any reason at all), Harris wrote "Hannibal Rising." There's really no way to see Hannibal as anything other than the hero in this book. He kills to get revenge for his murdered (and cannibalized) sister. And his uncle.
The main problem with "Hannibal Rising" can be summed up with one word: “Dexter.” Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter novels, took Hannibal Lecter and burdened him with a step father who teaches him to channel his murderous impulses toward “good,” killing only those people who “deserve” to die. In genre fiction, the idea tends to be more important than the presentation, so superficially at least it seems that “Hannibal Rising” is a couple of years too late, but only if you look at it as a horror novel.
I would have liked “Hannibal Rising” more if Harris had tried to outdo the outrageous final scenes from “Hannibal,” although I don’t know how you top the ending of that book. But then again, that might not have been true to the character.
For now, I’m looking forward to season two of “Dexter.”