Dead in the Family

I read the first Sookie Stackhouse novel (Dead Until Dark) mostly because I had shelved it about twenty million times at the library and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I was hooked by the fantasy/romance/Southern gothic combo, and proceeded to eat my way through most of the series. It started out fluffy but enjoyable, but the quality has started to thin with the latest books.

The Plot: Sookie Stackhouse, a small-town waitress in northern Louisiana, has always struggled to hide her telepathic abilities. When vampires reveal their existence to the modern world, she discovers that their minds are refreshingly closed to her. Sookie’s involvement with the vampires leads her into danger, intrigue, and romance, and brings her into contact with other supernatural beings, including werewolves, witches, and faeries.

The Author: Charlaine Harris was born and raised in Mississippi. She has been writing mysteries since the 80s, including two previous series. She began publishing the Sookie Stackhouse novels in 2001.

Why It’s Awesome: Sookie is what really makes the series work. The books are all told from her point of view, and she has a great voice: observant, self-analytical, kind but practical. I found it refreshing to read about a heroine who (especially at the start of the books) isn’t well-traveled, highly educated, or sexually experienced. She’s a small-town Southern girl who’s happy to drink her morning coffee on the porch and watch the bees in the peach trees. She also has a strong moral sense, and spends time worrying over whether it’s moral to have sex without being married or okay to kill a person, even if they’re trying to kill you (both thoughts rarely occur to characters in supernatural romance novels).  Her life and narration have a Southern twang to them without laying it on too thick.

Harris also has a nice take on vampires. She follows the fairly traditional mythology — no sunlight, no garlic, super strength, drinks blood — without making anyone sparkle. She has some fun solving the practical challenges of immortality in the modern world, and her vampires worry about money and staying computer literate as well as whether they look dark and broody enough.

The books are romance/mystery combos, so naturally Sookie falls in with at least one hunky guy per book, and Harris writes in some steamy scenes without letting them take over the narrative. They’re part of the story rather than the story’s entire point.

Why It’s Not Awesome: These books were never going to be Shakespeare, so I can’t fault Harris for a little predictability and a lightness of subject. They’re meant to be for-fun reads, and for the most part they are.

That said, the quality was better in the first few books. By the ninth volume, the series bows under its own weight. There are just too many supernatural groups to keep track of, and massive amounts of text become devoted to simple exposition as Harris tries to weave vampires, werewolves, werepanthers (it made sense in the book), witches, shapeshifters, faeries, and humans into each volume.  This stifles Sookie’s narrative voice and too often turns her into the simple relayer of the plot, rather than the analyst and active participant she played in the earlier volumes.

Unsurprisingly, Harris has already planned out an end to the series.  I feel devoted enough to the characters to read to the end (my personal hope is that Sookie ends up with Sam), but the last few volumes definitely won’t make my re-read list.

A Word About the TV Show: The series has been made into an HBO TV series called True Blood.  I’ve never watched it, but I understand that the plot veers pretty heavily away from that of the books.

Final Judgment: The first few volumes make great beach reads, but the latest volumes are lacking in quality.

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