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.
WARNING: 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+