Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Sookie Stackhouse series, by Charlaine Harris
What is it about vampires, and why do I keep reading about them?
I picked up a copy of Dead Until Dark, the first of this series about Louisiana vampires and the basis for the HBO series True Blood. To tell the truth, my curiosity was piqued by Anna Paquin's win for her role at the Golden Globes. And since I can't seem actually bring myself to watch TV, I decided to read the book. Books. All of them. And in about a week.
Clearly, these go fast, and they are nowhere as complex as Laurell K. Hamilton's vampire books. In fact, they are kind of "Hamilton lite." Vampires are public, legally recognized as citizens, but with certain limitations on their rights--they cannot marry, for example. They are viewed as exciting and romantic, making vampire nightclubs a profitable enterprise, where all night dry cleaners just weren't. They have their own rituals and hierarchy of obedience, with a King or Queen in each state, and elaborate and subtle rules of etiquette. The first person narrator, Sookie, has her own magic power--in this case the unwanted ability to read minds. She finds vampires restful, since she can't read their minds, and so they give her some quiet inside her own head.
There are the uneasy relationships with werewolves, witches, and fairies, who all turn out to be real as well, who have their own rules of etiquiette, etc., and Sookie finds herself in conflicts caused by their differing cultures. There are also bad guys, murders, attacks, failed relationships, etc., etc. In a slight twist, although the vampires themselves are quite well off, Sookie isn't, earning her living as a bar maid, and the milieu is thoroughly lower class. Harris never makes fun of her characters for their socio-economic status, and Sookie herself is quite likeable in a way that Hamilton's brittle and hostile Anita Blake really isn't.
That said, Harris's books really benefit from the extensive groundwork Hamilton has mapped--the internal politics of the various species, their conflict when they are forced into contact are deeply probed in the Anita Blake books. The werewolves have a complicated pack hierarchy, with different jobs within the pack that are completely different from their human relationships. Blake's world is more violent and sexy than Sookie's: sure, Harris has physical relationships, but they are rather prim and bloodless. As a whole, the series lacks the energy that gives the Blake series such life.
There is an arc to this series, however, and reading them in order, while not strictly necessary, is recommended. Sookie's first vampire is named Bill, and fro him she meets an increasingly wide circle of others. Their relationship falters, and in later books he is refered to only glancingly as her "ex." It helps to understand the evolving relationships when reading the books. Again, not strictly necessary, but it makes the experience a better one.
Lastly, a comment on the covers. I don't know who designed them, but they are really spectacularly poor. Badly drawn charactatures of the main characters, awkwardly scattered around a vague background actually creates an impression of amateurish work that unfairly harms the writing. These are not great novels of deathless prose, but they are better than one would be lead to believe by the cover art. The newest edition, using a visual from the TV series gives the book a better first impression.
Worth a read? Sure. Worth buying in hardcover? No. In paperback? Possibly, even probably. Worth checking out from the library? Absolutely, but do read them in order. The near impossibility of doing that in a reasonable amount of time lead me to buy nearly the whole damn series in paperback, because I couldn't wait as long as I'd have to to get the copies returned from other borrowers.
For fun, the HBO website has a related merchandise from the series, including logo "branded" tees and bar ware from Merlotte's and Fangtasia, etc. Fun if you are a fan.
Guess I'm going to have to check out the TV series now.