REVIEW: From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris
Dear Ms. Harris,
Back in the spring of 2004, I was one of those entrenched historical romance fans decrying the new flood of paranormal romances (if only I’d known how much worse it would get, I would’ve paced my ire a bit). A friend loaned me your first Sookie Stackhouse novel, Dead Until Dark, and despite my prejudices against vampires, Southern settings and small town locations, for some reason I picked it up and started reading.
And I fell in love.
In love with Sookie. In love with your writing, and with Sookie’s utterly unique and endearing voice. Even in love with the paranormal world you created, which quickly expanded from vampires to include shapeshifters, fairies and other assorted non-human beings. You portrayed the effect that Sookie’s telepathy had on her life in the medium homogenous community of Bon Temps beautifully, making it both realistic and poignant.
I devoured the first four books in the series, one after another, and never even began to get Sookie-fatigue. Then I settled down, twitching every once in a while, to wait almost a year for the next book in the series.
Because I read the first half of the series in one gulp, and also due to its serial nature (the events of each book often begin only days or weeks after the end of the previous book), I sometimes have trouble distinguishing one "Dead" book from the next. Yes, I remember that Living Dead in Dallas is the one where Sookie goes to Dallas (I’m quick that way), and that Dead to the World is the one where Sookie gets with Eric (because, ooh la la). But in general, the events of the books tend to blend together. (Also, I forget whole huge important details from one book to the next. But I think that’s more a function of my advanced age – I’m going to be 40! In 15 months! – than anything to do with the books themselves, except for perhaps the fact that each book is pretty chock-full of goings-on.)
I have given each of the first five books in the Sookie Stackhouse series A grades; 2006’s Definitely Dead was an A-, and last year’s All Together Dead earned a B+. One might think that this constitutes a trend and that the series has started to slip for me, but honestly I think the less than stellar grade, at least for All Together Dead, had largely to do with the change of setting (from Bon Temps to Rhodes, the site of the vampire convention). That book just wasn’t quite as anchored as the other books in the series, and thus suffered slightly in comparison (not that a B+ is a bad grade).
For a more coherent synopsis of the plot of From Dead to Worse, I would point to Janet’s review here. To some degree, though, your plots are both fairly irrelevant (except in that their events contribute to Sookie’s emotional growth), and great big messes, anyway. On the one hand, this sometimes gives your books a bit of an episodic feel – at time plot threads are started at the beginning of one book, and then pretty much dropped while the main plot is dealt with, only to be picked up at the end, by which time I have well-nigh forgotten about them. It can make the story feel a little uneven, at least for anal-retentive me, who likes intricate, circular plots that fit together neatly at the end.
But on the other hand, the messiness of the plots highlights the intense realism of Sookie’s world. Yes, it’s odd to say about a world that is populated with witches, vampires and werewolves, but one of the series’ greatest virtues is how seamlessly the mundane and the fantastic are folded together. It doesn’t matter what death-defying hijinx Sookie has gotten to in a day – she still has to go home, get ready for work, and then do a full shift as a waitress at Sam’s bar. She has bills to pay and responsibilities that extend beyond her ever-expanding commitments to the supernatural community.
So the fact that all plot points don’t get wrapped up in one big tidy bow adds to the sense that this is Sookie’s real life we’re reading about. In From Dead to Worse, the aspect that was picked up at the beginning and then semi-ignored until the end was that of Sookie’s newly introduced otherworldly great grandfather. I assume we’ll be seeing more of him in future books. I’m cautiously optomistic about him as a character; Sookie needs all of the help she can get, considering how often she finds herself in peril, and how useless and unreliable her one other blood relative, her brother Jason, is.
I have never been one of those readers bothered by the fact that Everyone Loves Sookie (or rather, every paranormal male seemingly is attracted to her – at one point, I lost count at six men). I adore Sookie, albeit in a platonic girl-crush kind of way, so who am I to say that the men in her life shouldn’t fall at her feet? Which they don’t, actually – if anything, the various men who are drawn to Sookie tend to present more problems than they solve. In any case, Sookie appears to drop one admirer in this installment, and I won’t miss him hugely. The tension of "who will Sookie end up with?" is not, IMO, overplayed in the series, and most of the main contenders have enough virtues and flaws to keep me interested in the answer.
There were some aspects of From Dead to Worse that bugged me. Sookie’s folksy, conversational voice is one of the main draws of these books, but sometimes she repeats herself, reiterating details that have already been mentioned earlier in the book or even in previous books (yes, I know the werewolves are thinking of going public – I swear it gets mentioned four times in From Dead to Worse alone). The many characters that are reintroduced in each book usually get a little blurb from Sookie reminding us who they are and their relationship to her. This is helpful when I can’t quite remember the character, but irritating with characters I’m quite familiar with already. I recognize that there are challenges to writing a continuing series with so many characters and where so much happens in each story. I might prefer a glossary of characters at the beginning for the new reader (not that I would advise that anyone pick up this series in the middle!) or those whose memories need refreshing.
Can I just reiterate that I love Sookie? She feels so real to me that I am invested in her happiness, and when people who should care for her let her down, I feel her disappointment and hurt. I think From Dead to Worse was a return to your classic form, and for that reason, I can’t give it less than an A grade.