REVIEW: From Dead To Worse by Charlaine Harris
Dear Ms. Harris:
First I have to admit that I adore this series; I feel very connected to the characters and to the world of the novels. Although I’m not old enough to be Sookie’s mother, I have very protective feelings toward her and wait impatiently for my yearly fix of her continuing saga, cheering her on as she becomes more independent and confident, feeling sharply the bittersweet sacrifices and compromises she so often has to make. And quite honestly, this is one of the few series of books I inhale rather uncritically. However, since this is a review, I have to say that while I am every bit as hooked in emotionally to this series as I was after reading Dead Until Dark, as a crafted work of fiction, From Dead To Worse is not the strongest book in the series.
Recently returned home to Bon Temps from the disastrous vampire convention in Rhodes, Sookie Stackhouse is dealing with the usual combination of human and not-so-human problems. Her boyfriend Quinn has not returned, having been injured badly in the hotel explosion that claimed the lives of numerous vamps and gravely injured the queen of Louisiana, Sophie-Anne Leclerq. Bill Compton, Sookie’s first love and the vamp who broke her heart, seems intent on trying to prove his love for her. And Eric, who now shares a blood bond with Sookie, is increasingly involved in her life and her emotions, as they are now psychically connected. And a new man enters Sookie’s life in this book (well, two men, really, although one is only four years old – her telepathic nephew, son of Sookie’s deceased cousin Hadley), her great grandfather Niall, an incredibly powerful fairy who wants to be Sookie’s protector.
And Sookie could use some additional protection, because, as she feared, her high profile in Rhodes (using her telepathy to locate living and undead bodies after the hotel explosion) has made her a person of greater interest in the supernatural community. During the course of From Dead to Worse, Sookie acts as a negotiator in an increasingly tense and violent Were conflict, is forced to stand up on her brother’s behalf in a horrific Shifter ceremony, has to fend off several mysterious Were attacks, has to do a favor for roommate Amelia’s shady father, is caught in the middle of a standoff between the vampire king of Las Vegas and the weakened Louisiana vamps, and has to face some difficult choices about one of the men in her life. Although Sookie has been coming more and more into her own as a woman who is neither fully human nor fully something else, she faces more complications stemming from her somewhat marginal attachment to various, sometimes competitive, communities. And, as her great grandfather points out, her humanness makes her somewhat fragile despite her abundant and admirable courage.
One of the things I have always admired about this series is the reminder that bad things can, indeed, happen to good people. Sookie has borne a lot of sorrow in her life, and every gift she gets seems to be accompanied by a bit of pain. Although she is grateful to have more family in her life, for example, the explanation of her fairy heritage forces her to accept something about her grandmother she would never have suspected or expected. Bill’s feelings for her seem genuine (we can see his misery at not being able to win her back), but there is no guarantee that any of these men would not choose their own survival over Sookie (something she is reminded of poignantly in this book). And despite the number of men who find Sookie irresistible (and I agree with those who are tiring of Sookie’s excessive appeal within the supe communities), they each pose almost as much danger to her as they do enhanced protection. In other words, Sookie needs every ounce of collected courage she can muster to negotiate the increasingly complex and unstable supernatural networks of which she is a reluctant but seemingly crucial part.
For me, one of the most powerful aspects of this series has been the bittersweet quality of Sookie’s life choices. Should she choose any of the supes she is attracted to, she will make significant sacrifices. Even Sam, who hovers somewhere between friend and something more territory is far from normal, and with the shifter community now on the brink of going public, that will become even more evident later on. And while Sookie’s network of friendships continues to grow – with both human and otherworldly individuals – so do her responsibilities. For example, the first scene of the novel finds Sookie being begged to stand in as a bridesmaid for Halleigh Robinson at her double wedding with Portia Bellefleur after a similarly sized girl ends up at the hospital. The scene vividly illustrates Sookie’s insider-outsider status among the humans, because she is not close enough to Halleigh to be a “real” bridesmaid,” but she is too honorable a person to refuse the woman’s panicked request. So she suffers in high heels and big hair, posing for pictures and standing in for Halleigh, finally rushing back to change so she can bartend the reception with Sam. Sookie’s unusual position in the community makes her a perpetual outsider, even as she so often finds herself facilitating someone else’s happiness or well-being, whether that be her selfish brother Jason or her roommate Amelia’s elderly witch mentor. That Sookie continues to grow within herself, and that she continues to acquire the tools with which to find her own place in the world, remains a strong thematic thread across the series.
At the same time, though, I am getting the sense with the series that the story is beginning to unfold spontaneously rather than through a pre-planned trajectory. For example, the story behind Sookie’s fairy blood seems like a departure from characterizations developed in the first few books, and I don’t understand how Sookie did not question further how it was all possible. Also, as I mentioned above, it is starting to feel a little strange that virtually every straight supernatural being is drawn to Sookie sexually; I know that she’s attractive, but it is starting to feel contrived. There’s a point at which Sookie senses something in Alcide that did not feel authentic to me, undermining the very serious circumstances under which Sookie makes the discovery. And finally, the past few books have really been paced almost manically, with an incredible amount of action and conflict occurring within each installment, so much so that Sookie’s internal development and the more subtle aspects of character and relationship development are starting to feel secondary, or more specifically, accelerated.
Then there are Sookie’s men. Again, I think there is a fine balance here among these various relationships, a tension that keeps it all interesting. For example, now that Sookie is blood bound to Eric, she is happy whenever he is in the room with her, something that annoys her to no end. And surely this phenomenon will have a significant effect on whatever romantic relationship Sookie is in at the moment, especially if she ever marries. The difficulties of that, assuming she doesn’t end up with Eric, that is, are fascinating to contemplate. However, the abundance of interested men around Sookie threatens to undermine the seriousness of this issue. There is also the competition that exists between Eric and Bill, which, as funny as it often is, sometimes seems to overshadow whatever feelings exist between each male and Sookie, threatening to turn the triangle into a caricatured drama.
I do not mean to imply that the series has become cartoonish, but the sheer number of scraps Sookie survives makes me wonder where the series is headed and whether the more subtle, and in my opinion substantive, insider – outsider dynamic is being eclipsed by drama sufficient to propel the series through however many more books. In other words, I am starting to feel that all the drama is distracting rather than purposeful. Not that the series has to mean something as a whole; Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is going strong at thirteen books and counting, and Stephanie’s growth has been extremely slow. But I’ve always felt that this series was different – not better or worse, mind you – but different in its sharp and sometimes beautifully nuanced social and cultural commentary. And while I don’t want Sookie to be merely a symbol of those thematic conflicts, I am not sure how easily I would take to the series if I started with this book instead of the first one. And while I cannot foresee ever turning away from the series, stepping away from my emotional investment in the journey these books have taken me on, I have to give From Dead To Worse a B-.