(Gollancz e-book 2009)
I must be one of the few people in Britain not to have a television, and as a result I’ve never seen ‘True Blood’, the television version of Charlaine Harris’s ‘Southern Vampire’ novel series narrated by Sookie Stackhouse. I’d seen the books shelved with other vampire novels such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, but had been put off by the rather superficial tone of the blurbs. I downloaded the omnibus version for Kindle since it was quite cheap, and found myself enjoying them very much. There are a few spoilers, since I’m discussing all three books in this review, but I’ll try not to reveal all.
Dead Until Dark (2001) begins with Sookie, a waitress at a bar called Merlotte’s in a small town, Bon Temps, in northern Louisiana, spotting a vampire in the bar. The availability of synthetic blood has enabled vampires not to kill and drink from mortals, and thus has allowed vampires to reveal themselves and to live relatively normal lives in the community. Sookie is immediately intrigued, since he’s the first vampire to have appeared in town; what’s more, as she soon discovers, is that she can’t read his mind, and this is a restful change, since Sookie is burdened with the ability to read people’s thoughts and feelings, however little she wants to. Thus she’s able to help the vampire when he’s ambushed by some drainers (vampire blood is regarded as an aphrodisiac and all-round high for humans) that evening.
The vampire, Bill, fought in the Civil War, and was made a vampire not long afterwards. When she hears this, and tells her grandmother (with whom Sookie lives), the older woman is immediately keen to have Bill come and talk to their society celebrating the Civil War (The Descendants of the Glorious Dead), and to hear what it was like from someone actually there. Sookie begins a relationship with ‘Vampire Bill’ (with her grandmother’s encouragement, which reads oddly), shadowed by the deaths of two women known to have had relations with the vampire community.
Harris’s writing is workmanlike at best, but her characters are delightful: Sookie is very appealing – a bit of a dumb blonde (at least in terms of common-sense), but kind, bookish and likeable – and so are her family and friends. The small-town atmosphere is very well-drawn, with its intimacies and long-standing knowledge, and local reputations. Jason, Sookie’s brother, for example, is something of a womaniser (so much so that he’s suspected of the murders), but he helps his sister out when she needs it, and is devoted to their grandmother. Harris also does a good job with her vampires, too, making Bill, for example, sufficiently other than human to make him seem vampiric, but without losing an essential humanity.
In Living Dead in Dallas (2002), Andy Bellefleur, one of Bon Temps’ police detectives, is drunk in Merlotte’s bar: Sookie takes his keys and has his sister Portia take him home. The next morning, however, she finds the dead body of the bar’s cook, Lafayette, in Andy’s car. It’s unclear why he was murdered, though Sookie wonders if it has anything to do with a sex party Lafayette attended some days earlier.
That evening, Bill (now Sookie’s boyfriend) asks her to come to Shreveport with him: he’s been summoned by the vampire Eric, to perform some sort of service. On the way, however, Sookie and Bill argue, the car breaks down, and Sookie runs off, annoyed: a wild woman, a maenad, accompanied by a wild hog, tells Sookie that she’s to be a message for Eric Northman, and rakes her back with poisoned fingers. Bill hastens to Shreveport with his girlfriend, and Sookie’s healed, though not without some scarring. She is asked to go to Dallas, to investigate something for the vampires there, using her mind-reading talent.
When she and Bill arrive in Dallas, Bill is almost kidnapped, and Sookie has an altercation with a man dressed as a Catholic priest, and to help the Dallas vampires they investigate a new church which hates and fears vampires, The Fellowship of the Sun, and which may be involved in the disappearance of Farrell, one of the Dallas vampires. Also involved is the very ancient vampire, Godric, who is a renouncer – suicidal – and a man addicted to vampire sex. Sookie learns more about vampire politics and social structures, and the investigation is complicated by Eric turning up to nose around in disguise.
The structure of this book was rather odd, with the plot strand concerning Lafayette’s death being completely forgotten about while Sookie was in Dallas, and only being wound up once she returned to Bon Temps. Sookie is developing her powers, and her relationship with Bill isn’t idealised – they have spats, and, often, completely different outlooks on life and relationships. The antagonists of the Fellowship of the Sun are single-minded and scary, and Harris develops the vampire social and power relationships interestingly.
Eric’s attraction to Sookie, and Bill’s resentment of this, form an amusing side-plot, which is developed in the next book, Club Dead (2003).
This sees Bill undertaking a secret assignment which takes him away from Bon Temps, to Jackson, Mississippi. When he doesn’t return, Eric and his business partner, Pam, ask Sookie to search for him: Bill’s assignment may endanger all the vampires, and they’re too well-known to investigate themselves. Sookie does so, with the help of a local werewolf, Alcide Herveaux.
Starting out at a vampire bar, known colloquially as Club Dead, Sookie tries to listen in to human minds to discover where Bill might be held, and discovers that the king, Russell Edgington, is keeping Bill prisoner and torturing him too. After a fight at the bar, Sookie’s urged to come back the following evening. The next day, she and Alcide discover a dead werewolf – the one who had tried to chat up Sookie and been thrown out of the bar – and dispose of the body.
With Eric’s help (he’s in disguise again – it would be a severe breach of vampire etiquette for him to be found in Edgington’s territory without permission), Sookie and Alcide eventually find and rescue Bill, but not without some serious difficulties.
In this book, Harris develops her characters some more: Sookie’s becoming a lot more confident both of her abilities and in her appearance (or her attractiveness – the men in Bon Temps generally think she’s crazy, so she’s never previously been very self-confident), and her relationships with Bill and Eric change significantly. I liked Alcide, too, and his sister Janice, and the change of scene is effective. The story is more straightforward than the first two books – though I worked out who had killed the werewolf long before Sookie and Alcide did – though Harris’s writing is still rather more functional than flowery. Still, it doesn’t impede the flow of the story, and it’s a very enjoyable read, like the first two.
These books, although containing quite a lot of violence and death, feel rather more lightweight than, say, the Anita Blake books (and there’s a good deal less sex!) and are less serious in tone than Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books (though those focus mostly on werewolves rather than vampires). Sookie’s an engaging narrator, she seems entirely realistic (for a telepath) and one can identify with her feelings and emotions. As Fyrefly mentioned in her review of Club Dead, Sookie is a bit of a danger magnet, but she also is not without courage, and herself does rescue others as well as having to be helped herself.
These don’t pretend to be literature, but are fast-moving, escapist fun.