Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

My Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.00 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.94 / 5.00

Welcome to Bon Temps, Louisiana!

Sookie Stackhouse seems like a fairly normal twenty-five year old, although she does keep herself to herself. She is a waitress at Sam Merlotte’s bar; she has a brother, Jason, and she lives with her Gran. She is pretty enough but she does not date much and everyone knows that she is a bit ‘different’. The truth is that Sookie is a telepath, constantly inundated with the thoughts of everyone around her. Occasionally this is helpful, but mostly it gives her headaches and makes it very difficult for her to be comfortable around people. She has given up on the idea of ever finding love, but then Bill Compton walks into the bar.

Bill is a vampire. He is a tall, dark southern gentleman who ‘died’ during the Civil War and his thoughts are a blissful blank. When Sookie is with him she ‘hears’ nothing, and can relax totally for the first time in her life. She is drawn to him and saves his life from people determined to drain him of his blood, which is a powerful aphrodisiac and narcotic drug to humans. As the two are drawn to one another, they must fight anti-vampire prejudice that is further fuelled by a series of murders of women who were known ‘fang-bangers’. Sookie fears that she might be next, although Jason is one of the main suspects.

I first read this book a few years ago after seeing True Blood on HBO and loved it. Since then I have read more Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance and so I was a little disappointed when I reread it for my book group.

Sookie inhabits a world where Vampires have come out of the coffin because of the development of True Blood, a synthetic blood that means that they can survive without feeding on humans. As part of their attempts to be accepted they have created the myth that they are simply humans suffering from a virus, but the human population is still very wary of them. Some humans, called fang-bangers, enjoy being fed on, whilst many others want to see all the vampires given the ‘true death’ by stake, sunlight or shotgun. Unusually, Ms Harris’ vampires are allergic to silver whilst garlic is just an unpleasant seasoning for their food. There are other mythological creatures lurking in plain sight as well, although they have decided to stay quiet about their existence. Also, we never find out what exactly Sookie is and why she can read minds.

One aspect of the novel that I do like is the setting. Although we are in Louisiana, we are a long way from New Orleans. This is poor Louisiana, where Sookie makes ends meet only because she owns some land that she inherited from her dead parents. She still lives with her Gran and her friends inhabit trailer parks and low-rent apartments: this is not the French Quarter. Along with the poverty we find plenty of prejudice. Merlotte’s is basically a ‘white’ bar, so LaFayette, a black homosexual, stands out like a sore thumb. When three vampires visit the bar there is one of those moments when everything goes quite and the music stops: not because they are vampires, but because one of them is a black woman. As you might expect, this community is not very open to anyone different, so Sookie is seen as the town freak and vampires are rejected on principal. This means that the murder victims get a lot less sympathy than you might expect because they are white trash who ‘asked for’ their deaths by being promiscuous and hanging out with vampires. Surprisingly, the most open section of the community is the Descendants of the Glorious Dead who are swept away by Bill’s accounts of the Civil War and his remembrances of their ancestors. As Sparky says at Fangs For the Fantasy, we are given a very deep sense of the community that has shaped Sookie’s attitudes, and we see her own prejudices in her comments about other people.

The plot moves along at a decent pace, and we are kept in the dark for much of the book, just as Sookie is, because this is related in the first person from her point of view. There are twists and turns, with a few red herrings thrown in, so that the final revelation is a real surprise that is not hinted at earlier in the book. Of course, quite a lot of the book is given over to Sookie’s developing relationship with Bill and her introduction to his world. We see a wide range of vampires. There are Eric and his offspring Pam at the club Fangtasia, who are cashing in on the human craving for all things new and dangerous, providing a place for people to see vampires and even offer themselves up as willing meals. Then there are Diane, Malcolm and Liam, who make no pretense at playing nice, and treat humans as food items and playthings. However, probably my favorite Vampire is Bubba, who was once a very famous singer, but who didn’t transition very well and is now a little ‘off’, with a taste for cats.

I guess my biggest problem with my reread is that Sookie reads much younger than her twenty-five years. She is supposed to be a pretty blonde with a decent figure and she tends to wear figure-hugging or revealing clothes. However, she is constantly amazed that she provokes lust in men. I found this a little too naïve to believe, because not only has she dealt with this for the last ten years or so, but also she is telepathic, so you would think that she could hear precisely what they are thinking about as they leer at her. I know that she does not have much dating experience, but she works in a bar and has been in contact with lots of horny, drunk men for years, so I found that this did not ring true for me. If I had been told that she was a few years younger, I could have accepted this more easily.

Of the other characters, my favorite is Gran. She is a wonderful old lady with lots of southern charm but a sensible attitude to life that I found very refreshing. She is a truly wise lady. I also really like Sam, and the sequence where Sookie discovers his secret is priceless, especially when you reread it knowing what the secret is. In many ways I would prefer to see Sookie hook up with Sam, but he is too safe for her, and the sexual attraction she feels for Bill is well played out. Fans of the HBO series tend to split themselves into Team Bill and Team Eric, and I have to admit that I find Eric a much more attractive character, and seeing him portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard certainly helps his cause! However, looking at this book alone, it is totally understandable that Sookie falls for Bill. He is everything a young woman looks for in a man: he is solicitous and protective but also exciting without the fear that he will rip her throat out.

One major problem I can see would be people being disappointed after seeing the HBO series. Hannah at Once Upon a Time mentions that the series is much more layered than the book, which is understandable because it has to fill a whole lot more time than the book.

I can also recommend the review by Ana and Thea at The Book Smugglers

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