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Charlaine Harris

REVIEW: Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

REVIEW: Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

Dear Ms. Harris:

Now that I read so much in digital, I don’t pay as much attention to book covers as I used to. But the cover for Dead Ever After says so much about the book itself, that I’m tempted to tell people who wonder how the series ends to take their cues from the cover. Why? Because Sookie is the prominent, central, and only fully represented character, which is how I’ve always viewed, read, and enjoyed the series. And despite all the controversy about the ending, I feel that with this book the series ultimately stayed true to its initial vision and focus, namely Sookie’s journey toward self-acceptance and a sense of belonging. And while not a perfect read, Dead Ever After satisfied me intellectually and emotionally, to a surprisingly high degree.

 Dead Ever After by Charlaine HarrisLet me preface this review by saying first that I was never a fan of all of the suitor options for Sookie, except in so far as they allowed her to grow more fully into herself. At some point, though (by the time Quinn came into the picture), they started to feel like a distraction to me. Also, the past few books in the series have felt somewhat rushed to me, with everything ramping up for the finale. The last book, in particular, felt jam-packed with preparatory chaos, with Eric and Sookie facing the reality of Eric’s arranged marriage to the (incredibly beautiful) Queen of Oklahoma; the new vampire king of Louisiana, whose second in command is even more ambitious than Eric; Sookie’s fae cousins, who are ultimately removed back to Faery with her great-grandfather, who has (mostly) sealed up the borders between Faery and the human world; political struggles among the shifters that affect both Sam and Alcide; and the terrible promise of the cluviel dor, a one-of-a-kind magical item that will grant Sookie a single wish.

The burden of possessing the cluviel dor (which many would gladly kill Sookie to possess) is exceeded only by the magnitude of the choice she ultimately makes for its use: saving Sam when he is accidentally killed by his ferocious lover, Jannalynn, who, unbeknownst to Sam, planned to usurp (and assassinate) Alcide and take over the Bon Temps Were pack. Sookie’s choice, the result of a split-second reaction, is one that has enormous consequences for Sookie and her future. Dead Ever After is all about playing out those consequences.

What has always kept Sookie going is her innate pragmatism and the desire to be a good person in a world that often challenges her best intentions. During the course of the series she has had to kill, she has been tortured and almost raped, she has been betrayed and manipulated by the people who claim to care about her, and forced into a vampire marriage with a man who loves her (as much as he is able) but who is bound to follow the orders of his maker and marry another vampire who insists that Sookie never set foot in Oklahoma. And yet, as Dead Ever After begins, Sookie is looking forward to her brother Jason’s wedding to Michelle, enjoying the recent birth of Tara’s twins, appreciating the lush beauty of the yard, because Niall enchanted the land around her house, and anticipating the comfort of a financial windfall from her fae cousin Claudine’s unfortunate and untimely death. In other words, Sookie is still trying to balance her extraordinary experiences with the relatively ordinary life she imagines for herself, and to appreciate the sweet that comes with all the bitter in her world.

But this negotiation requires facing the consequences of her decision to save Sam, the most unexpected of which is that Sam seems to be remote, uncommunicative, self-isolating, and not nearly as vocally grateful as Sookie would have expected. Her limited ability to read shifters leaves her uncertain about whether something is physically wrong with him, because one of the problems with using the cluviel dor is that the wisher will pay a price for the wish. And there are many potential prices to pay in Dead Ever After, because a number of enemies from Sookie’s past finally get the chance to get closer to her, in part because Eric’s impending marriage to the beautiful Freyda means that he has basically shunned Sookie (possibly also some punishment for not using the cluviel dor on him), and for a time she is left somewhat vulnerable. Vulnerable enough, at least, that she is framed for the murder of her former friend, Arlene, who is found strangled with Sookie’s own scarf and left in the dumpster behind Merlotte’s, the night after she approached Sookie in the bar looking to get her job back. Arlene has been freed from prison on bail pending appeal of her case, represented by a lawyer she does not know (but anyone who has read the series in full does), setting in motion a series of events that force Sookie to prove her innocence in the midst of trying to figure out her confused relationship issues.

Sookie’s peril brings a number of old friends (and enemies) to Bon Temps, which is both a strength and a weakness of the book. It’s a strength in the way we (and Sookie) get to see how extensive Sookie’s support network really is, but a weakness in that it sometimes makes the stage ridiculously crowded, drawing even more attention to the final-act nature of the book. Because so many characters from past books made a cameo in Dead Ever After, some of the (too many) plot strands did not come fully together for me (the devil sub-plot felt particularly clunky), and there was an abruptness to some of the relationships that was clearly a function of trying to wrap so much up in the course of one book.

At the same time, though, the focus is on Sookie the Survivor. From the first book, where Sookie’s beloved grandmother is murdered in her kitchen, through all of the other bodies, betrayals, and awful decisions Sookie has had to make, she has endured and she has gotten stronger and wiser. I still remember the first scene from the first book, Dead Until Dark, where Bill Compton walks into Merlotte’s and changes Sookie’s life forever. In some ways, Sookie hasn’t changed much; she’s still trying to be the best person she can, to live up to the example she thinks her grandmother would have expected. In other ways, though, she has grown so much, her naiveté winnowed both by sorrow and elation. And for me, this process has always stood as the heart and soul of the books, even while Sookie’s voice was telling a bigger story about what it means to be part of a community, and the ways in which petty, ignorant prejudice unnecessarily divides and discriminates.

In some ways, Sookie always stood in the middle ground between being part of Bon Temps and being an outcast, and she ultimately served as a kind of ambassador between the full-humans and the supes (and the hybrids, like her and her brother). I like that Harris always imbued the micro communities with complexity – the vamps, shifters, and fae, for example, were not unified nor all good or bad – and that she showed progress during the series in terms of acceptance, but still acknowledged that the problems were larger and deeper than 13 books could solve.

Which is another reason I was satisfied with the way the series closed out in Dead Ever After. Without revealing major spoilers (although I am happy to discuss them in the comments), will say that I think the book struck a nice balance between larger social issues and the individual focus on Sookie’s happiness and emotional growth that bore and carried the weight of the series. In the end, the focus is on Sookie, and on her alone – whatever the fate of her romantic life, which is quite ambiguously represented – no longer an outsider, but never merely ordinary, either. B

~ Janet

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REVIEW: Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

REVIEW: Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

Dear Ms. Harris:

I must admit to a bittersweet experience reading Dead Reckoning, in part because I know there are only two more books to come in a series that has given me such reading pleasure for almost ten years now (I came to the series a couple of books in). Sookie is one of my favorite fictional characters – her blend of ordinary and exceptional, vulnerable and tenacious, pragmatic and idealistic has made her more realistic and sympathetic to me than many other series heroines. Also? The last few books in the series have been, in my opinion, a tour de force of plotting, thematic development, and emotional complexity. Which may be why Dead Reckoning seemed almost anti-climactic to me, despite the immense crisis that occupies the book. In fact, I had to read the book twice and both times my almost sedate experience of the book belied its frantic aura of instability and danger.

 

Dead Reckoning by Charlaine HarrisWARNING: SERIES SPOILERS AHEAD

 

Dead Reckoning begins with Sookie deciding to clean out her attic, an act which sets a tone for the book and, it seems, the series at this point – a clearing of the decks, so to speak. The last time Sookie had been in the attic was right after her grandmother was murdered, and she now decides it is time to face the past and make something new of it. Again, a theme for the book.

As readers know by now, any attempt Sookie makes at constructing a life of normalcy does not last long, and Dead Reckoning presents no exception. A firebombing later that night at Merlotte’s almost destroys the bar and kills everyone inside, including Sookie and Sam. Who could be gunning for Sam? There is already a new bar off the highway that is siphoning business from Merlotte’s, although Sam hardly seems like the kind of guy to really piss anyone off. To make matters worse, Eric has been incredibly stressed and brooding, while he and Pam are in some kind of tense standoff, but Sookie does not know why. She suspects, though, that it has something to do with her, because Pam keeps making loaded statements about Eric and Sookie’s marriage and Eric makes over-reacting gestures to keep her quiet. Pam, in the meantime, is miserable because Victor, Louisiana’s new regent and uber-adversary of Eric, will not give Pam permission to turn her leukemia-struck lover before she dies. And speaking of Victor, guess who owns the bar taking business away from Merlotte’s – as well as a vampire bar not too far from Eric’s own Fangtasia? Victor, it seems, is all sorts of trouble. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Sandra Pelt is out of jail and is, from all reports, crazier and angrier at Sookie than ever before.

Reading Dead Reckoning is like watching a chess match, a two-layered chess match. The first layer concerns Sookie, Pam, and Eric, all of whom have been made abjectly miserable by Victor, who is becoming more and more aggressive in his attempts to provoke Eric into an injudicious attack (giving Victor an excuse to kill him). Sookie is also feeling hunted – literally – by Sandra Pelt, who simply wants Sookie dead, as soon and as violently as possible. Sandra, however, is something of a nuisance when compared to the danger Victor presents, and it is clear very early on in the book that all the strategizing between Victor and Eric is ultimately going to leave only one of them alive. Should either strike out unprovoked, however, that vampire would answer to King Filipe, with no guarantee of justice or mercy.

There is a great deal I cannot say about the plot of Dead Reckoning, because to do so would spoil the series of revelations and surprising outcomes the book has to offer. And they are numerous. Because in the same way that various characters are plotting against each other in the novel, so can you sense the book’s authorial hand moving characters around, positioning everyone in a certain way, revising past history and revealing past “secrets” in a way that feels very much like the moment before a very decisively executed climax.

 

WARNING: SOME BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD

 

For example, a secret regarding a long association between Eric and Sookie’s fairy grandfather Niall is revealed by Terry Bellefleur after the firebombing, and while I have not gone back to previous books to check, it does not seem to jibe at all with the existing series timeline. However, the information makes it seem as if Sookie was involved in fae politics much earlier than she was even aware of her own fairy streak. This is important because one of the subplots in Dead Reckoning involves the fate of all the fae trapped on the human side of the portal Niall closed at the end of the Fairy War. The fight between Pam and Eric involves the political machinations of Eric’s maker, Appius Livius Ocella, who re-appeared in Dead in The Family. The demon lawyer, Mr. Cataliades, is revealed to have a special relationship with Sookie that was never revealed when they met during the settlement of Hadley’s estate, five or so books ago. This relationship is revealed through a secret letter from her grandmother Sookie uncovers during the attic clean-out, a letter that attempts to smooth out the rough edges around the revelation that Sookie’s God-fearing, straight-laced grandmother was the lover of Sookie’s fae grandfather, Fintan.

There is also a lot of movement in the ranks of current, past, and potential mates for Sookie. Eric has a secret that threatens his future with Sookie. Bill declares his undying love for Sookie again in this book, with the added bonus of actually being there to help her during at least one crucial incident. Sam is dating Jannalynn, Alcide Herveaux’s pack enforcer, and while he seems happy, neither Sookie nor Jannalynn have many good feelings for each other. One thing Sookie and Sam have in common is that they each believe the other deserves a better mate. And both are probably correct. Amelia and the now-human Bob also show up in the book, and among other things, Amelia has found a way to break the blood bond Eric effected on Sookie without her consent. Amelia is also involved in an incident that results in a decisive moment in any potential future Alcide and Sookie might share.

All this maneuvering is somewhat ironic, since one of the novel’s main themes is the question of how much Sookie is acting upon the world around her and how much she is being acted upon. Eric, Amelia, Niall, Bill, and even Claude and Dermot have all acted upon Sookie over the years in ways that have had drastic consequences on her life, from Bill’s orders to settle in Bon Temps and acquaint himself with the telepath to Eric’s arrangement of the vampire marriage that now both protects and vexes Sookie. On the one hand, Sookie knows that she cannot shirk responsibility for her actions, and that those actions mean, “My determination to survive, and to ensure the survival of those I loved, was stronger than the religion I’d always held so dear.” But there also seems to be a kind of fatalism closing in around Sookie, a sense that the very nature of her being has brought her to this place. And yet, free will is still a central theme in the series:

 

When I went in the kitchen with a tray full of dirty dishes, I thought, This is happiness. Last night wasn’t the real me.

But it had been. I knew—even as I thought this—that I wasn’t going to be able to fool myself. I’d changed in order to survive, and I was paying the price of survival. I had to be willing to change myself forever, or everything I’d made myself do was for nothing.

 

Change is another heavily handled theme in the novel. Sam and Sookie have a very pointed conversation about whether people can change who they really are, and both agree that one may be able to change habits, but character was character. Which raises the question of what kind of character Sookie is. One answer in the book comes from Mr. Cataliades, who insists that humans like Sookie “who are born with the essential spark are born to experience or perform something wonderful, something amazing.” And yet when Sookie reflects on her feelings for Jannalynn, she must confront the irony of her own judgment:

 

…It was my personal opinion that Jannalynn was not good enough for Sam.

Of course, I kept that to myself. Glass houses, stones; right? I was dating a vampire whose kill list would top Jannalynn’s for sure, since Eric was over a thousand years old. In one of those awful moments you have at random, I realized that everyone I’d ever dated—though granted, that was a short list—was a killer.

And so was I.

 

Sookie clearly does not share the alternative morality of the supes, despite her own fairy blood and her recent life experiences. In fact, all of the true villains in the series have been deliberate predators, suggesting a differentiation within both human and supe categories. Victor, for example, is a “corrupt vampire” not only in his ruthless and violent ambition for power, but in the way he treats humans as vessels for food and orgiastic sex. However, the relationship between good and evil is no longer so black and white as Sookie once imagined, and her desire to be a “good person” has become complicated, not only by the things the world has visited on her, but by the autonomous choices she has made. The sum of these actions weighs heavily on how Sookie defines herself and with whom she will ultimately choose to identify. Communities can be welcoming and supportive or divisive and exclusionary, often at the same time. And yet being alone never seems like a wise or happy option. This philosophical pondering of the series has always been one of its strengths, in my opinion, and has, over the course of eleven novels, become wonderfully nuanced.

Clearly, Sookie is at a crossroads, as her change comment above indicates. And clearly that change is going to coincide with the end of the series. Although I have never been particularly invested in Sookie being in a relationship with The One, there has always been a bittersweet quality to Sookie’s relationships that is distilled in one exchange she has with Bill:

 

“I love you,” Bill said helplessly, as if he wished those magic words would heal me. But he knew they wouldn’t.

“That’s what you all keep saying,” I answered. “But it doesn’t seem to get me any happier.”

 

It now seems unlikely that in the next two books Sookie will find lasting happiness, especially given Sookie’s own grappling with who she is, where she belongs, and with whom she belongs. One of my favorite things about this series, though, has been watching Sookie grow stronger and more confident in herself – to see her take that unfailing pragmatism and use it to find her own strengths. She is the mastermind of something in Dead Reckoning that should reveal to her the depth of her intelligence and will to live. Where that will take her I’m not certain, nor am I completely comfortable contemplating the end of the series in a mere two books. However, I think Dead Reckoning is really the first book in the series where I felt that the thematic concerns of the book – as strong and compelling as they are — overrode its plotting and characterization, and where I felt so keenly the manipulations of the authorial hand, especially when those manipulations seem to conflict with earlier books.

I read every installment in this series, including Dead Reckoning, with engaged appreciation for the ongoing saga of Sookie’s life, but I wish the behind the scenes machinations were less visible in the book. B-/C+

~ Janet

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