Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Sookie Stackhouse

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

Book Link | Kindle | Amazon | nook | BN | Borders
| Sony| KoboBooks

REVIEW: Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

REVIEW: Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

Dead in the Family  Charlaine Harris Dear Ms. Harris:

The first time I read Dead in the Family I felt almost hypnotized by the emotional aftermath of the horror Sookie faced in the last book, Dead and Gone. Enthralled by the effects of her trauma and the painfully slow steps she was making toward recovery, I could barely summon my critical faculties to the task of reviewing the book. It took two reads for me to reflect, analyze, and evaluate the book beyond an inchoate awe at what registered to me at the time as a perfectly rendered narrative. My second time through provided some necessary distance, but it did not dim my appreciation of Dead in the Family as one of the most powerful and thematically coherent novels in the series.

First a warning: this review will contain spoilers from Dead and Gone and perhaps some mild spoilers for Dead in the Family. I will do my best to minimize their appearance, but I cannot discuss the current book without revisiting some of the momentous events of the last.

Now that the Fae War is over, the door between realms apparently shut and locked tight, and Sookie's recently discovered fairy great grandfather Niall reigning on the other side, Sookie is just barely beginning to heal from the wounds she suffered at the hands of the insane, tortuous fae couple, Neave and Lochlan. She marks as progress the fact that the parts of her body that were chewed out are now covered over completely with fresh skin, thanks in large part to the substantial amount of vampire blood she has been receiving from Eric, who remains, at least for now, her "husband" according to vampire law. Whether Sookie will ever recognize their relationship in that way is part of her struggle in this book, as she tries to sort out her feelings for him and copes with the reality that Eric did not (could not, he claims) come to rescue her, even as she called and called and called for him during her horrific experience.

Eric, in the meantime, is facing his own challenges, namely with Victor, the new vampire king's eyes and ears in Louisiana, who appears to want more than mere oversight of the territory as Felipe's right hand vamp. Eric, being the most powerful sheriff of the most important territory, is now a target of Victor's simmering ambition. And if that situation was not unsettling enough, he must accommodate an unannounced – and unwanted – visit from a very influential figure from his past.

As the title implies, family is the prominent theme of this book. A clever echo of death in the family, the small change makes a big difference here. Superficially, both Sookie and Jason have suffered from several family deaths over the past few books. The Fae War impacted numerous members of Sookie's circle, both human and supe. But this is a book that also deals with whether and how the dead live on in a family, as vampires, as memories, as legacies, as burdens, etc. And it considers, on many levels, how families are comprised, connected, experienced, remembered, avenged, and honored.

When we first met Sookie Stackhouse, we knew her as she knew herself: a human woman with an extraordinary ability who felt more alone than embraced by her lifelong home of Bon Temps. Her parents were long dead, her grandmother a death she suffered in our first months of acquaintance with her, and her brother a somewhat estranged, unreliable presence. She was close to her boss at Merlotte's, unaware he was a shifter, best friends with a woman who would soon betray her brutally, and smitten with a somewhat taciturn vampire named Bill Compton, who was not only her first love, but her first experience with the supernatural kind. Now, eight books later, Sookie has increased her family in both blood relations and emotional bonds, and her own touch of supernatural heritage connects her to more communities than she ever knew existed. The bittersweet experience of not feeling loved has been replaced by the bittersweet knowledge of how many people now connected to her have died:

Probably that should have made me long for peace above all else.   But instead of turning into the Bon Temps Gandhi, in my heart I held the knowledge that there were plenty of people I wanted dead. I wasn't directly responsible for most of the deaths that were scattered in my wake, but I was haunted by the feeling that none of them would have happened if it weren't for me. In my darkest moments-’and this was one of them-’I wondered if my life was worth the price that had been paid for it.

The lighthearted Sookie who always tried to see the best in people and knew a better day was just around the corner has paid her own price for being alive and for the complex relationships she is continually struggling to negotiate and manage. It's not merely a loss of innocence, but rather an acquisition of experience that has shaken the foundations on which her whole world had previously been built:

"You've changed," [Bill] said.

"Sure, I have. I thought I was going to die for a couple of hours. I hurt like I've never hurt before. And Neave and Lochlan enjoyed it so much. That snapped something inside me. When you and Niall killed them, it was like an answer to the biggest prayer I'd ever prayed. I'm supposed to be a Christian, but most days I don't feel like I can even   presume to say that about myself any longer. I have a lot of mad left over. When I can't sleep, I think about the other people who didn't care how much pain and trouble they caused me. And I think about how good I'd feel if they died.”

Her greatest moments of happiness now often come from Eric, with whom she shares a blood bond, which makes her both relish and distrust her growing attachment to him. However, it is clear that he cares about Sookie, although his new vulnerability extends not only to his feelings for her but to his increasingly precarious safety under Victor's middle management and other complications from his past:

"If they stay until Tuesday, I'm going to see you no matter what they're doing," Eric told me. He sounded a little more like himself. "We'll make love. I feel like buying you a present."

"That sounds like a great night to me," I said, feeling a surge of hope. "I don't need a present, just you. So I'll see you Tuesday, no matter what. That's what you said, right?"

"That's what I said."

"Okay then, until Tuesday."

"I love you," Eric said in a drained voice. "And you are my wife, in the only way that matters to me."

Across generations, species, centuries, and emotional bonds, the complexity and depth of the relationships Sookie has seem constantly to be shaping and re-shaping her, defining her strength, outlining her vulnerabilities, altering her expectations and desires. Her moral and ethical values are in flux, even as she becomes bolder and more fleshed out as a character and a person. For me, Dead in the Family is the book in which the cost of Sookie's maturation has not yet been set, but like her, we would be foolish to believe that it is not quite high. As one of the many supernatural beings in her circle remarks to her, "Dead things love you… They're pulling on you." At no point in the series has that been clearer than in this book, where Sookie's fuller presence in the world around her has both grounded and shattered her. The genius of this book, in my opinion, is the way it so deftly ties together the sometimes seemingly disconnected pieces of earlier books.

One thing I have noticed about these books is that time is marked off in very specific, discrete pieces, and Dead in the Family is no exception. But here that narrative structure takes on even more significance, because it feels that time is counting down to some ultimate crisis point, and because we can see powerfully the way Sookie's own life is built on so many moments and events that she may not have a part in making but which will require an action or decision or reaction from her. Where some books feel stuffed with action and others feel like virtually nothing occurs, looking back I am already beginning to see how every encounter Sookie has had in these books is shaping both her character and her ultimate fate. And quite honestly, I am a little scared for her.

From the beginning of this series I have been engaged in Sookie's journey toward true independence and fulfillment. Whatever she is moving toward, it will likely be beyond her own imaginings, and for me, as a reader, that is both an exciting and frightening prospect. Where Sookie once yearned for a sweetheart, now she has several males in her circle who desire and care for her. Where she once wanted to be accepted by the people of Bon Temps, she now has deep ties both human and non-human communities, and it seems sometimes she has little peace in her life. She has a cousin she will finally get the chance to know, and a brother who has a very different view of family after his own recent losses. She has a current lover, a good friend who is most likely in love her, and several past lovers who still hold deep feelings for her and will move to protect her when necessary. She has some new friendships and is enjoying the revival of some old friendships. She has fae relatives on both sides of the door to Faery who are still reaching out to her.

In many ways Sookie's life is incredibly rich in family from whom she receives comfort and support. But as Dead in the Family demonstrates with incredible emotional poignancy and thematic cogency, "dead things" are "pulling on" Sookie. And even when their love is a gift, it is a burden and a risk. In some ways I feel that this series is the same, but like Sookie, I cannot bring myself to give up. A-

~Janet aka Robin

| Book Link (excerpt) | Kindle |Amazon | Nook | BN | Borders |
Sony | Kobo |

This is a hardcover published by ACE, a division of Penguin. Penguin has not come to an agreement with Amazon and therefore there is no Kindle version. Pricing is set by the publisher for the digital book.