Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dead Reckoning: I'm gonna wash that vamp right outta my hair

Warning: Here be spoilers.

All right. It may surprise some of you that for my first ever book review for this blog, I have opted for Dead Reckoning, the eleventh book of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mystery Series since I am always going on about what a literary snob I am. But I love Sookie, and I love True Blood, (though I love them as separate and distinct entities—that can’t be emphasized enough). However, despite my usual pretensions, I have a deep and abiding appreciation for fully realized characters, as well as humor, local color, and all the other goodies which the SVM are chock-full of.

Also, Charlaine Harris’ story, while not quite the writer fairy tale that, say, J.K. Rowling’s is, still warms the cockles of my ambitious little heart. For years, Harris toiled away writing paperbacks, making a modest living in relative obscurity until Alan Ball came along on his white horse and optioned her series for HBO, and now she lives in the white tower of New York Times Best-Seller Land, and gets invited to Comic-Con, and does cameos on her own show, which means she got to meet Alexander Skarsgard—or, more importantly, Allan Hyde (What can I say? I like ‘em pocket-sized).


So—on to the review.

The plot of Dead Reckoning—oh, as usual, the main “mystery” is ridiculous and paper-thin and, really, do we need an excuse for vampirey shenanigans? Sam Merlotte’s bar gets firebombed. Sandra Pelt shows up and stirs shit. Sookie is dealing with her fairy kin, as well as uncovering some old and uncomfortable information about her grandmother, Adele. On the vampire front, Bill is still recovering from war wounds, and Victor Madden, minion to the vampire king Felipe, is plotting against Eric Northman. And Eric and his second-in-command, Pam, are on the outs. Just another day in Bon Temps, really.

But the plot has only ever been, for me, a pretext for settling into this world—a world of characters that I have come to care deeply about.

Never let it be said that Charlaine Harris will be remembered as one of the great stylists in literature. But she achieved something akin to genius in creating Sookie Stackhouse. As all the stories are told from Sookie’s point-of-view, Harris has achieved something authentic and one-of-a-kind. As a person, Sookie is funny, honest, and down-to-earth; she knows herself and what she wants. She makes mistakes and tries to atone for them. In a world populated by vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, demons, witches, and even maenads, she is – despite her bit of fairy blood and her self-described ‘handicap’ – our token human; the stabilizing force by which we, as the reader, navigate the fantastic. And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have at the helm.

In addition to Sookie, Harris has captured a world that is very close to my Midwestern home: Wal-Mart sundresses and Tweety Bird T-shirts, aluminum fold-out chairs, Sonic Blasts, Hairagamis, worn-down cars and pick-em-up trucks with balding tires and aqua swirls on the sides, work boots, trailers and peach tea and chicken fried steaks. Similarly, the other human characters are achingly real—Terry and Andy Bellefleur, Bud Dearborne, JB and Tara duRone. Folks so real, I can smell flannel and sweat.

So Dead Reckoning has left me feeling a bit cheated—I got neither enough of the characters I care about, nor the details that I have come to crave in a Sookie Stackhouse novel.

Most of the issues I had with Dead Reckoning are just lazy writing. For example, Sookie has suddenly started calling the two-natured “twoeys.” When I first saw that, I was all, “The hell? Where did that come from?” I’m all in favor clever shorthand, but that’s just awful. I don’t like that the author can’t even be bothered to keep her own terminology consistent.

Well-established characters are not behaving consistently either. Suddenly, Pam is in love with a human named Miriam—so much that she wants to turn Miriam into a vampire. I’m not saying that it’s far-fetched for Pam to be interested or attracted to a human, I just find it unlikely for her to be so desperately in love with anyone that fast. Pam, while not without her redeeming qualities, has always been depicted as a stone-cold bitch. Miriam does happen to be terminally ill, so Pam has to act quickly or risk losing her forever. I wish Harris could have taken the opportunity to reveal more about Pam’s softer side (if it exists), or that she would have actually depicted the progression of the relationship between Pam and Miriam. As it stands, I don’t buy it. It just seemed like a convenient excuse to make Pam and Eric fight.

Along with Miriam, we get her brother, Immanuel, a human hairdresser—and another heapin’ helpin’ of some uneven characterization. Sometimes he’s nice to Sookie, sometimes he’s not. Which is it? Again, I know that real people can be like that, but again, this just smacked to me of poor writing. Besides, Sookie is a telepath. Shouldn’t she be better clued in to how people feel about her? Or maybe Harris just has her characters behave in whatever way is most convenient to the plot at the time. I prefer characters who act like people.

And speaking of convenient plot devices, Mr. Cataliades, demon lawyer, is apparently something of a fairy godfather figure for Sookie. In addition to—er, the fairy godmother she already had . . . come to think of it, she has a whole fucking fairy family . . . and she has her friend, Amelia, who’s a witch, who regularly bails her out of trouble . . . and Sookie suddenly has more deus ex machinas than the wicked witch had winged monkeys. I’m pretty upset over this one because I love Cataliades. I’ve always thought he was a fascinating character. Something better should’ve been done with him. Wasted characters like that make the writer in me weep, and I really, really hate the idea of him standing over baby Sookie’s bassinet like the three good fairies in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, lamely bestowing gifts on the blond infant. Seriously, Harris?

In light of this, I’m starting to think – and it pains me to say this – that the series as a whole is starting to suffer from too many characters. Or, more accurately, that Harris doesn’t choose her characters wisely-- who to cut and who to keep. I’m a huge fan of ensemble casts, but they are difficult to maintain. The story arcs have to be planned meticulously, or you have these characters standing around with nothing to do, or worse, you start shoe-horning them into silly subplots that don’t really go anywhere. Characters really can just die, or go away and not come back. Really. (*cough cough* Sandra Pelt *cough cough*) If Harris hadn’t brought her back, I could’ve died happy. Meanwhile, I feel like there’s this moving walkway of characters that pass by so quickly, I can’t be arsed to get to know them, because-- why bother? Ocella? Alexei Romanov? Bellenos? Niall? Claudine? The list of characters that have come and gone in this series is really staggering. Some of them I was happy to see go. Others, I can’t fathom why they stick around. Still others, might've been pretty cool to actually GET to know, y'know?

Overall, I was so disappointed in this book, I thought it would be the last one I was going to read. I became downright disgusted when Sookie finds a letter from her grandmother explaining about her relationship with Fintan, the fairy, basically rehashing information that’s been covered in previous books, and I thought, why, WHY are we going through this again?

I was on the verge of closing the book when Sookie found the gift Fintan gave to Adele—the cluviel dor. It’s an item upon which Sookie may make one wish. (See what I mean about deus ex machinas?) Cluviel dor, which is an anagram for “lucid lover,” or “I do love Eric”-- I still haven’t decided how I feel about that, but while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Sookie and Eric.

I find it interesting that over the course of eleven books, Eric, Sam and Bill are the three longest-running relationships that Sookie has. I assume Harris has done that on purpose—keeping her options open as to which non-human Sookie will ultimately end up with. But now that Sookie and Eric have hooked up, it seems that Harris doesn’t know what to do with them. They don’t interact outside of sex, or Eric acting like a possessive jerk. He’s a bit of a cipher—much as Bill was in the earlier books. I don’t really see an actual relationship occurring here--which, how could there? I imagine a millennial age gap really makes conversation stilted.

Maybe as a feminist, I am fundamentally at odds with certain aspects of the vampire romance. I have never liked Bill, and I have started to dislike Eric—and for the same reasons. For that matter, I dislike him for the same reasons I despise Edward Cullen and Angel. They’re paternalistic, possessive and condescending, and I would expect creatures who have lived more than a century to be a bit more evolved.

I don’t put the blame entirely on them. I like my heroines self-actualized, too. What I’ve always loved most about Sookie was that she’s always been absolutely uncompromising where her relationships with men (dead or otherwise) are concerned. But in the last two books, Sookie has been alarmingly subdued. I realize that part of this is due to some of the trials and tribulations that she has faced—and survived. She’s been forced into some tough positions. She’s had to drink Eric’s blood more than three times which has forged the notorious blood bond, which means that the two of them are constantly aware of each other, and that she is, for all intents and purposes, addicted to him.

And that was the saving grace of this book: Sookie has found a way to shake off Eric’s influence—and no, it wasn’t by using the cluviel dor, as I expected it would be. I’m sure I’m reading way too much into this – it’s not a work that’s heavy into symbolism – but Sookie cut her hair in this book, which, to me, is a powerful symbol of feminine liberation and self-assertion. If I had a daughter, she’d be the sort of heroine I’d want my daughter to pattern herself after.

When Sookie started going all mopey and dependent -- in short, going the way of Bella Swan -- I became disenchanted . . . but now that she’s her own woman again, I cheered. And Charlaine Harris has kept this reader, for at least the next installment, anyway.


  1. I'm loosing my love of the SVM's for similar reasons. But my main one is the wimpyness that Sookie took on. I loved her with Erik in theory, but I don't like her being so dependent. I may have to give this one a try if she finds her strength again.

  2. This book requires a lot of patience to get to that HUZZAH moment when Sookie gets free of him-- and I never thought that I'd be happy to see Sookie be free of Eric. But seriously, Eric has become so one-note. He shows up, they have wild sex, he's all possessive, and he says, "Sookie, move in with me and quit your job," and she says no, and that's pretty much it. That's their relationship. Blah.

    This book has made me realize why I loved Spike and Lestat so much as vampires-- they're the vamps who aren't afraid to change with the times.