Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

[This is a review of the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, on which the television series True Blood is based. Although I don't reveal whodunit, this review contains a ton of spoilers. You have been warned!]

"I raised my head from his neck, and a wave of dark delight carried me out to sea. This was pretty exotic stuff for a telepathic barmaid from northern Louisiana."

Synopsis

The Southern Vampire novels, also called the Sookie Stackhouse vampire mysteries and a bunch of other names, is about a world where vampires have "come out of the coffin" and are attempting to join human society. Sookie Stackhouse, the wonderfully named heroine of the series, lives in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, and waits tables at a bar called Merlotte's.

In this opening volume, Sookie is literally looking for love in all the wrong places. She has a good reason, though. She has been able to read minds her entire life, which has made dating an unpleasant experience and sex an impossibility for her. When she meets Bill Compton, local vampire and Civil War vet, she realizes that she can't read a vampire's mind -- making Bill the perfect prospective boyfriend.

As Sookie experiences the strangeness of Bill's world and discovers there is an entire supernatural subculture she had never been aware of before, there are a series of murders in Bon Temps of women who have had relationships with vampires. Sookie becomes a target, and her brother Jason is the prime suspect. Their beloved grandmother, with whom Sookie lives, is murdered in Sookie's place. Sookie discovers the identity of the murderer and is nearly killed.

Although Sookie refuses Bill's blood the second time in an effort to reassert her humanity, the damage has been done, and her life has irrevocably changed.

Review

I don't know why some books do it for me and others don't, but I know what I like. And I like these books. I like them a lot.

I particularly like Sookie. She is the kind of person you either wish you were, or wish you knew. Brave, bright and kind, with a strong sense of right and wrong, she cares deeply about the welfare of others, including total strangers and bad people who don't deserve it. She refuses to become a doormat, and doesn't let others define her. She brings out the best in some people, even as she's the victim of some of the worst people. And yet, Sookie doesn't see herself as special. Since the books in this series are in first person, Sookie's feelings of alienation and her experiences of being treated like a lunatic and freak her entire life are a big part of the story, and one of reasons I like her so much.

Sookie sees vampires as outsiders and freaks, like herself. It's obvious from the first few pages that there is more to Sookie's differences than mind-reading. Sookie herself doesn't see it, but Bill does immediately. He asks her repeatedly what she is, and Sookie replies repeatedly that she is a waitress. Whatever it is that makes Sookie different is unanswered in this first book.

Ah, Fangtasia. When I read the first scene in the hilariously named vampire bar, I knew I was going to be a fan of these books. And of course, it isn't just the wildly weird vampire culture. It's Eric, the ancient blond Viking vampire, who immediately tries to take Sookie away from Bill. Eric is so clever that he picks up on Sookie's talent immediately, and forces Bill to bring Sookie back to Fangtasia to use her skill to discover who ripped off a ton of money from the bar. This is the first time in her life that Sookie embraces her talent and actually uses it instead of trying to suppress or hide it. And I've always liked the way Sookie stands up to Long Shadow, Eric, Pam, and finally, even Bill.

Sookie later reads minds constantly as she tries to discover who the killer is, partly to save her brother Jason, who is the prime suspect. What she learns through this process makes her feel awful, and it isn't just the nastiness that some people conceal. Sookie is denigrated because she is a waitress. Some people assume that if you're a waitress, you're sexually loose as well as not very bright. I only waited tables for a couple of months when I was an undergrad, but my mother and sister were both smart, pretty women who waited tables and tended bar for years to provide for their families, and the stories they brought home about how they were treated were often infuriating. This part of Sookie's story resonates strongly for me.

The other situation that has always spoken to me is what happens to Uncle Bartlett. Sookie tells Bill her deepest, darkest secret -- that her great-uncle sexually abused her -- and Bill immediately does something about it. He has the man killed that very same night. The Sookie/Bill conversation makes it obvious that Bill makes this decision instantly, because he tricks Sookie into giving him Bartlett's last name. This scene emphasizes the differences in behavior between vamps and humans. It suggests that Bill is truly in love with Sookie, and that he expresses his love by killing someone for her. Part of me is shocked and appalled, while the other part of me... isn't. People who abuse children are pond scum.

Sookie is nearly killed almost immediately after meeting Bill, and only his blood saves her life. You'd think she would take that as a warning, but she dates him, anyway. Her need to love and be loved is stronger than her sense of self-preservation, and I think she finds the danger rather seductive. Unfortunately, it is her beloved grandmother, practically her only family, who pays the price for Sookie's involvement with Bill. Faced with a choice between love and sex on the one hand and her grandmother's life on the other, Sookie would of course have chosen Gran. But she is not given this choice, and interestingly, Sookie never seems to truly face the fact that Gran died because of Sookie's choices.

Character stuff

Since the people reading this review are likely to be fans of the television series True Blood, I'm going to talk a bit about the characters that were introduced in each book:

-- Sam Merlotte is Sookie's boss and the owner of the bar, and he has a thing for Sookie. Unfortunately, he doesn't make his move until after Bill arrives on the scene, and loses his chance. In this first book, Sam is revealed to be a shape shifter who prefers the shape of a collie. When Sam is in dog form, Sookie calls him "Dean." (Which is funnier if you're a fan of the television series Supernatural.)

-- Arlene is a waitress at Merlotte's and Sookie's best friend. She has red hair and two kids and has been married four times. During this first book, she is dating her ex-husband Rene.

-- Terry Bellefleur is an emotionally and physically damaged Vietnam vet who cleans Merlotte's and occasionally fills in as bartender.

-- Andy Bellefleur is a detective on the police force, and Terry's cousin. When Andy realizes that Sookie can indeed read minds, he deliberately sits at Sookie's station at Merlotte's and thinks about obscenities to get Sookie to react. Andy wants to use Sookie's talent to solve crimes. Good luck with that, Andy.

-- The cop contingent includes Sheriff Bud Dearborn and officers Kevin and Kenya.

-- Lafayette is the cook at Merlotte's. He is black, gay, and wears a lot of makeup, just like the series character. Lafayette is a nice guy, and his food is really good.

-- Jason is Sookie's older brother and works for the parish on the road crew. He is an inconsiderate user who has slept with every attractive woman in the area.

-- Maxine and Hoyt Fortenberry are introduced.

-- Bubba is a vampire who was famous as a human and "brought over" poorly by a vampire fan of his. Bubba is mentally dim and obsessed with drinking the blood of cats. His human name is never given, but he is obviously Elvis Presley. Bubba is an important book character that we never see in the television series, probably for legal reasons.

Television series notes

Dead Until Dark and the first season of True Blood run pretty much parallel, with the obvious exception that the series has more plotlines because the story isn't completely centered around Sookie. Series Jason appears to be a combination of book Jason, a self-centered, promiscuous jerk, and book character J.B. DuRone, a gorgeous but not very bright friend of Sookie's. Both the book and the series include the same vampire deets: vampire blood can heal humans and is exceptionally intoxicating, and vampires can be victimized by blood drainers. The books firmly establish that Sookie finds shifters much harder to mindread than people, which is why Sam is a possible love interest, but this is not really addressed in the television series.

In closing...

So that's it for book one. I'm planning to post a review every two or three weeks until the twelfth book is published in May. My review of book two, Living Dead in Dallas, will be posted at the end of November.

Important notice! After eleven books and four seasons of the series, I have no idea what kind of spoiler limitations to put on the comments section under these circumstances -- so I'm not going to put any. It's a spoiler free for all! If you're new to the books and haven't seen all of the television series True Blood, reading the comments may, and probably will, spoil you. Read on at your own risk!
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

6 comments:

Colin said...

Loved your review !
The Sookie books are just as good as the show in that they become very different at some point ! (I'm still angry at Allan Ball for what he did with Sophie-Anne, book 7 would have been just great on Tv).
Also, I read somewhere Bubba was never pictured in the show because Ball thought an Elvis doppelganger would be cheap which is a good thing and yes, kind of a shame since Bubba is one on the best.
Can't wait for the rest of your reviews!
C

Miss Courtney said...

I'm so glad you are reviewing these books. I tend to forget what happened in the previous books when I'm waiting for the new ones to come out. Now, I have somewhere to review.

Juliette said...

I'm still hoping for some kind of version of Book 7... The most disappointing thing about losing Sophie-Anne for me is that it makes the more interesting story from Book 6 impossible to do.

I love Bubba, but I think, even without the legal issues, he wouldn't work on TV. On TV he'd be a joke, whereas in the books, he's part joke, part rather sad character.

HellBlazerRaiser said...

YAY!!!

I've been waiting at least two years for you to review the books!!!

Thank you!!!

I'm not a fan of first person narratives, so while I have the first four books – because of the TRUE BLOOD covers - I haven't read them.

Your commentary has me rethinking that stance for these books....

Since we're on the vamp subject....

I know you had an awful experience with the BUFFY Season Eight comic (it stunk), but have you heard about I, VAMPIRE?

So far, it's been fantastic.

Issue #1 Preview
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=preview&id=9910

Issue #2 Preview
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=preview&id=10242

Billie Doux said...

Sorry, HBR. I've taken the pledge. No more comics!

ChrisB said...

I just finished this book and really enjoyed it. I'm sure that part of that stems from the fact that I have seen the first season of the show, but I really enjoyed the story for its own sake.

The fact that the show does not slavishly follow the books makes them enjoyable on their own. I especially liked the new characters and did not miss the ones who had a much bigger role in the show (Amy, for example).

Great review, as always, Billie.