REVIEW: Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris
Dear Ms. Harris:
There is a point in your newest Sookie Stackhouse release, Dead and Gone, where Diantha, demon niece of supe lawyer Mr. Cataliades, warns Sookie of war brewing among the fairies. This spells danger for Sookie because of her connection to the fairy prince Niall, and like the weres in the last book, fairies are not united under one leader. When Sookie asks Diantha why Mr. Cataliades would potentially endanger himself to warn her, Diantha explains “Didyerbest,” which Sookie understands refers back to the horrific explosion at the Pyramid of Gizeh hotel a couple of books ago. Sookie and Barry the bellhop had searched for survivors among the rubble, even though they knew they risked being discovered as telepaths by law enforcement looking for an edge in crime solving. Together, they found many humans and vampires who otherwise would have perished.
This sentiment – doing one’s best – appears several times in the book, and it has become a hallmark theme for Sookie; she continues to do her best in increasingly difficult and dangerous situations. And she continues to find herself more entwined in the supernatural world, and more vulnerable to its persistent cycles of violence, understanding more clearly that one’s best isn’t always good enough to prevent chaos and collateral damage. Previously, Sookie has been the victim of conflicts among others, and this book is no different, except for the fact that the circle of danger is widening out from her, too.
Sookie has always managed to survive bad things by being straightforward and pragmatic, and in this book, those qualities are pushed to the limit, perhaps beyond the limit. Indeed, really bad things happen to Sookie in Dead and Gone, things that take the series to a much darker place than ever before. Darker, richer, more powerful than perhaps any of the other books in the series save the first, where Sookie discovered a whole new world practically in her back yard. A devastating book, one in which Sookie faces a number of life changing crossroads, Dead and Gone is easily among my favorite books of the series, a work of bittersweet brilliance.
Dead and Gone begins with the public revelation of the weres, an event that has the potential to catalyze worldwide violence. It was one thing to accept vampires, the but existence of more than one supernatural being raises many questions about how many more there might be, especially since weres are not ordinarily recognizable like vamps are. The violence erupts close to home, though, hitting Sam’s mother and stepfather (Sam’s mother is a supe, but she has kept her identity from the rest of the family) and Jason, who already underwent a devastating personal loss in the last book. A dead body in Bon Temps, a crucified were left in the parking lot of Merlotte’s, creates suspicion around Jason and a challenge for Sookie, who is in charge of the bar while Sam is away tending to his family problems.
In the meantime, the FBI has found Sookie, and they come calling with the hopes that she will serve their cause. The new vampire king, Felipe de Castro, has taken a strong interest in Sookie’s unique talents, as well. Eric, in his “high handed” way (there’s a great moment where Sookie has to explain to Eric what that means, and he reacts in typical Eric fashion), deals with the potential threat from Felipe by claiming that he and Sookie have been “pledged” through the blood exchange they performed at the Pyramid (to save Sookie from a worse fate), something that the increasingly independent Sookie has a wee bit of trouble with. How can she trust anything she feels about Eric when the blood bond positively influences her emotions toward and around him? And Bill, who hurt Sookie so badly, continues to show himself a most ardent protector, intent, it seems on winning back Sookie’s trust and love. Not to mention the fairies and weres, neither of which can keep their internecine trouble from touching Sookie (and vice versa).
On the surface, the plot of Dead and Gone is quite simple: the impending fairy civil war threatens the safety of Sookie and those close to her. The mystery of the crucified were may or may not be linked to the fairy war, but it definitely presents one more problem for Sookie, who seems to be the nexus for competing groups of supes, all of whom are more powerful than she, and none of whom are without self-interest in their attachment to her. As Sookie dedicates herself to finding the crucifier and taking the suspicion away from Jason, she cannot help but embroil herself deeper in supernatural politics and in personal relationships that increase her visibility and desirability for those of benign and not so benign motivations. Thus the complexity of the book emerges from both the expected and unforeseen consequences of these relationships. If Sookie has been going through a certain adolescent-like self-discovery, I’d say that Dead and Gone marks her painful and profound arrival into adulthood.
There has already been a certain amount of buzz around this book and the advancement of the arc that has been developing for Sookie and Eric. But anyone who has read Harris with regularity knows that what she gives with one stroke of her pen (or keyboard), she takes away with the next, and whatever excitement readers may anticipate around the Sookie-Eric-Bill-Quinn love quadrangle should be sobered by the violence that Sookie must now face pretty regularly because of her association with the supes. As Sookie notes at one point, “I felt a flash of disappointment that fairy tales didn’t come true.” Which, in part, is related to the fact that fairies are not necessarily so benign. Like many things in Harris’s fictional world, beauty attracts but offers dangerous surprises.
But whether or not Sookie gets a romantic HEA, she is maturing into a woman who is finally starting to understand that no one else can guarantee her safety and happiness. And that her desire for a “normal” life is unfulfillable in the way she had always thought. “Though I knew I wasn’t a deep theological thinker,” Sookie opines, “I sometimes wondered if crisis moments in my life hadn’t come down to two choices: be a bad Christian, or die. I’d chosen life every time.” And in choosing life, she has changed, and not everyone believes it’s for the better:
“You forgiven me?” [Jason] asked after he’d taken a gulp of coffee. His voice sounded hoarse and thick. I thought he’d been crying.
“I expect that sooner or later I might,” I said. “But I’ll never feel the same about you again.”
“God, you’ve gotten hard. You’re all the family I’ve got left.” The dark glasses turned to face me. You have to forgive me, because you’re all I have who can forgive.
I looked at him, feeling a little exasperated, a little sad. If I was getting harder, it was in response to the world around me.
And what a world it is. A world where Sookie finally has to face that her life has been full of loss, before and after she discovered the supes. Where she has always been somewhere between blending in and sticking out, and where before the supes, as dangerous as they are, Sookie was sometimes too anxious to please. Thinking now about her relationship with former-friend and current Fellowship of the Sun acolyte Arlene, Sookie is ready to face that
I don’t think I’d let myself dwell on these incidents before, because they revealed such a colossal pitifulness on my part. I’d needed a friend so badly I’d clung to the meager scraps from Arlene’s table, though she’d taken advantage of me time after time.
Sookie had indeed been lonely, and with the vampires, especially, she is able to enjoy companionship without the burden of knowing their thoughts. In many ways, she is more akin to the supes, or at least to those like Amelia the witch, who are human but hardly “normal” in the way Bon Temps seems to define the term. But are Sookie’s burdens worse now? How often have her connections to the supes, which in some way are deeper and more authentic than her relationships to most full-humans, placed her in danger? And at what point will she face a danger she cannot survive? This reality finally seems to be hitting Sookie, and it presents a whole new series of dilemmas for her:
“You’re not dead,” Dr. Ludwig pointed out.
But I’d come pretty damn close; I’d sort of stepped over the line. There’d been an optimum rescue time. If I’d been liberated before that time, I would have laughed all the way to the secret supernatural clinic, or wherever I was. But I’d looked at death too closely- close enough to see all the pores in Death’s face- and I’d suffered too much. I wouldn’t bounce back this time.
. . . I would never be the same person again, physically or mentally.
These realizations reflect Sookie’s maturity and independence. She has a real appreciation for maintaining her autonomy, imagining her ideal marriage, for example, as “a democratic partnership.” But which supes in her life will offer her that, and are those the supes that appeal to Sookie? For while we are seeing a more circumspect Sookie, a woman who is coming into her own and thinking more deliberately about how she fits into the human and non-human worlds, we are also seeing a woman whose choices are increasingly narrowed with every step – intentional and unintentional — she takes into supe politics. And these men, these men who seem so sexy but who have their own agendas to protect and advance — who among them can really love and value Sookie as a whole person? For every gain there is a compromise, for every sweet, a shot of sour. Sookie is becoming scarred now, and at what point will her refusal to be a victim no longer be enough to save her and keep her whole? Has she actually moved past the point where she can deliberately choose safety and what does that do for her prospects of lasting happiness and security?
These questions have always lurked under Sookie’s perky, practical exterior, but now they are fully present in the series, if not yet in Sookie’s direct sight, and they are as compelling as they are frightening. I know there is concern about Sookie’s fickle romantic feelings, but since she has only slept with three men since ending her virginity with Bill, I have no worries that Sookie is going hoochie rogue. I want Sookie to explore her options, to make the most informed choice she can among potential mates, because Sookie’s naiveté has not historically brought her lasting contentment.
With Dead and Gone, I don’t know how close Sookie is to real happiness, but I do think she and the series have taken a major step forward. While some of the books in this series have seemed to me like a confusion of action and reaction with a little bit of ‘hurry up and wait’ pacing, Dead and Gone felt deliberately packed and paced, and there was no point in the book where I was not fully absorbed in Sookie’s consciousness and her world. And despite the heaviness of the book, there were still those wonderful moments of dry humor, like when Sookie prepares herself for another day of problems:
I walked down the hall to go into my room and pull on some clothes. Today was going to be a hard day, and I always felt better when I was dressed while handling a crisis. Something about putting on my underwear makes me feel more capable.
It’s moments like these where I wonder whether I would worry about Sookie so much if she were male, and that’s certainly a question I need to examine further – am I prejudiced toward Sookie, too? I don’t know if I should be seeing male characters as more vulnerable or female characters as less so. But at the same time, it is partly Sookie’s vulnerability, her earnest desire to do her best in the face of incredible difficulty and pain, her kindness and tendency to blame herself for the faults and weaknesses of others, which make her so authentic to me. I don’t want any of that to change, even as I worry about Sookie and fear for her ultimate happiness.
At this point, I am fully invested in this series, cannot believe I have to wait another full year for the next book, and look forward to re-reading Dead and Gone to appreciate its powerful writing and storytelling all over again. A.
This book can be purchased in hardcover from an independent bookstore or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers on May 5, 2009.