Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris, Book 4 of the Sookie Stackhouse Series

Sookie has a new year’s resolution – no more violence, no more being beaten up, no more dangerous situations

Until she finds Eric, the ancient vampire Sheriff, running half naked down the road without his memories. This rapidly leads to her harbouring the ancient, but clueless vampire from the attentions of a vicious and lethal witch who not only has the vampires in her sights, but is also kidnapping the local witches and killing off the local werewolves as well.

As if keeping an ancient – and beautiful – vampire safe wasn’t enough, her brother has also gone missing. And it’s not like she can rely on any of the supernatural community to make finding Jason a priority at the best of times, let alone at the cusp of a war against invading vampire blood drinking werewolf witches. Which leaves it to her to investigate.

The story in this book is well done, paced and revealed. Starting from a basic standpoint – Eric being targeted and Sookie’s accommodating that was slowly expanded as we saw Hallow and her forces having a wider and more all-encompassing agenda. It wasn’t a story with twists – we had a clear enemy from the very beginning, a clear goal and the only thing that really changed was the scope of the enemy’s focus and the abilities she had in which to pursue her goals. But it wasn’t a story that needed twists, beyond a second parallel running alongside – it worked on its own back by expanding the world considerably with the witches and the werewolf pack. These new threads being drawn into the story to face off against Hallow added depth to the plot without the need for twists, turns and surprises.

I do also like a story that has multiple threads running through it, even if they act as red herrings. It makes it clear that just because something is the primary issue in Sookie’s life, doesn’t mean it’s going to be the all encompassing issue in everyone else’s and there can be several actors, with their own agendas, their own threads and their own drives. It’s good to see that not all issues are resolved with just one battle, one enemy defeated.

One thing that works well in this book and in the series in general is the community ties. I can really get a sense of Bon Temps as a real place. Everyone knows everyone else, Sookie can track relations and degrees of separations with everyone. She knows who is whose relatives, who is whose friend, their histories, their ties to everyone else in the town makes even the smallest characters into people.

The one downside to this is that, as I explain before, Sookie knows everyone and has nothing kind to say about them.

With the introduction of Claudine this world is expanded a little more – I think I’d like it a lot more if I didn’t know that it’s not going to be expanded much more on that. But the world still remains solid and interesting – the introduction of magic and witchcraft certainly adds new dimensions to the world.

We also have some excellent class commentary. Sookie, despite having advantages like a fully paid off home, is still not a rich woman. She lives on a waitress salary and she struggles. She loves her family home but dreams of a smaller, more modern house that is easier to heat and cool. She has to drive at night and the police lecture her for not having a cell phone – but she can’t afford it, nor can she afford to take the less-well paid and well tipped day shifts. Even buying basic clothing and blood for Eric are things she has to consider on her budget. In a genre where most protagonists just reach into their pockets for money without a second thought, Sookie’s totting up the pennies and worrying. It also adds a lot to her motivation. While we can often ask why urban fantasy protagonists don’t just leave or why they’re going through all this for a love interest, Sookie has that simple but essential monetary goal. Despite the very overtly labelled violence she faces, despite the risk, she can’t afford to turn down thousands of dollars.

But increasingly I’m finding it hard to like Sookie as a person. She’s so extremely judgemental and just plain nasty to everyone around her. I think she should be happy she’s the telepath and not everyone else because her inner commentary is toxic. She goes to ask Holly questions and randomly thinks about how stupid Holly’s husband’s cousin is. At Fangtasia, one of the waitresses is in agonising pain and Sookie’s mental commentary is full of mockery. She finds another dead and, again, comments on how stupid she was. Honestly you find a body and your thought is she was “dumb as a rock.” She hates Alcide’s secretary on sight and dubs her “Ms. Crispy” (and has to duck into her head to note she’s sleeping with Alcide’s father). Crystal Norris, Jason’s fling she considers to be “bitchy” and hates on sight. And she judges Jason for picking her up (and her for being picked up) never mind that she’s just had sex with Eric and justified it with “we’re adults, we’re not being disloyal to anyone, so why not?” This morality only applies to Sookie. When Andy gives her polite condolences about her brother being missing she thinks “liar” (gods forbid someone be polite!) She mentally attacks Portia, she even mentally attacks Claudine - she thinks of her as a “scrumptious slut” but when one of the were’s dares to call Sookie a “vamp hunter” Sookie starts crying and Eric attacks them.

Sometimes she has a reason for the grudge – like against Debbie. But even then, Debbie tried to kill her and she’s making mental snide remarks about the woman’s hair. Her hair? Really?

And some of the judgements don’t make sense. Like she’s shocked and mystified that Tara is with Franklin (but won’t point fingers). What fingers are there to point? Tara’s dating a vampire… just like she was. And when Tara reveals she can’t remember what happened in Club Dead, she decides Tara is lying – not that vampire Franklin has erased her memory. This isn’t from mind reading – she just assumes Tara, her best friend, is lying to her. This is Sookie’s Razor – always assume another woman is evil and conniving unless proven otherwise.

I could go on, but Sookie is like this all the time, especially with women.

Another benefit of Sookie being the only telepath is that every man she’s interested in doesn’t run a mile from her marriage & babies thinking. Sex with Eric? She thinks about marriage and babies. Faking Alcide’s girlfriend? Marriage and babies. She thinks about how no vampire has asked her to marry them – but she’s on the outs with Bill and Eric has no memory. She thinks the same about Weres – but since when has she been close enough to a Were for them to remotely come close to popping the question? Any guy who smiles at Sookie better watch out, she’s already sizing them up for a tux and counting the babies they’ll have. Of course, because they can’t read minds every guy seems to be interested in Sookie. Sam, Bill, Eric, Alcide – even Calvin who wants to settle down and start a family with her within, what, 10 minutes of meeting her?

Sookie is not back with Bill, which is great to see. However she’s not back with Bill because he cheated on her – not because he raped her. The blame for rape and near death at Bill’s hands she thrusts squarely into Debbie’s hands.

I’m also not pleased at all with the whole Eric storyline. Eric has had his entire personality, his entire memory removed. He looks at Sookie as a saviour, someone to rescue him and repeatedly sees him as the only person he can trust. Yes he’s willing and yes he was willing before he lost his mind, but considering his state, having sex with him feels exploitative.

Her musings on how her town is accepting of gay people doesn’t follow what we’ve seen in the past, the fact she uses “sexual preference” or the proviso of “so long as they’re careful how they act” so Bon temps accepts closet cases. Goooo acceptance! We do have a dead lesbian as well.

The most prominent POC in this book is the police detective, Alcee. Who is corrupt and preying on other Black people. There’s a lot that can be said about police abuse and corruption, especially against minorities, but making it the Black guy who’s doing it and no such hint on any of the White police is a big dodge of the whole underlying issue.

I’m left with the idea that I like the world and I really liked the story with both this book and this series – but my main barrier for enjoyment and unrestrained praise is Sookie herself. The protagonist is increasingly an unpleasant person which makes it hard to get behind the story, especially with the books told in the first person.