I've never watched the HBO series True Blood, yet I am aware of just how popular this book series by Charlaine Harris turned out to be. Every installment was a resident on the NYT bestseller list for months on end every time a new season was aired on TV. Given that a lot of critics opine that the Kitty Norville novels by Carrie Vaughn should appeal to fans of the Sookie Stackhouse sequence, I've always been curious about them and kept meaning to check them out as some point.
I found myself in a used bookstore last week for something else entirely and stumbled upon a copy. I was driving to the Charlevoix region for a week of vacation two days later, and Dead Until Dark seemed to be the sort of light read that was just what I needed for the trip. So I bought it and put it in my suitcase.
Here's the blurb:
Sookie Stackhouse is a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. She's quiet, keeps to herself, and doesn't get out much. Not because she's not pretty. She is. It's just that, well, Sookie has this sort of "disability." She can read minds. And that doesn't make her too dateable. And then along comes Bill. He's tall, dark, handsome--and Sookie can't hear a word he's thinking. He's exactly the type of guy she's been waiting for all her life... But Bill has a disability of his own: He's a vampire with a bad reputation. He hangs with a seriously creepy crowd, all suspected of--big surprise--murder. And when one of Sookie's coworkers is killed, she fears she's next...
First of all, let me just say that with such a blurb, I would never have read this novel had I received it when it was first published. Indeed, everything hints at it being just another corny paranormal romance. And yes, Harris does lay the romantic aspect a bit too thick for my taste. However, what disappointed me the most was the decidedly evident lack of depth in this first installment. Granted, Jim Butcher's Storm Front and Carrie Vaughn's Kitty and the Midnight Hour didn't exactly resound with depth, either. I'm persuaded that subsequent volumes will flesh out the storylines and the characters. But with millions of copies sold, I guess I was expecting more from the opening chapter in the Sookie Stackhouse series.
The action takes place around Louisiana and I feel as though Harris captured the Southern vibe perfectly. Most urban fantasy novels I've read occur in big cities, so the small town environment was a welcome change in that regard. I have no idea if the sequels also use the Southern states as a backdrop, but here's to hoping that they do.
Dead Until Dark features the first-person narrative of Sookie Stackhouse. As always, a first-person POV can get tricky, as everything unfolds through the eyes of a single protagonist. Thankfully, Sookie is an easy character to root for. Her disability makes it easier to believe that she has very little experience when it comes to dating and explains how quickly she falls for Bill. She does cry way too much, though, which can get annoying at times. But for all of her shortcomings, following her misadventures was quite entertaining. Although we get no other perspective, I found the supporting cast to be interesting and endearing, and their presence adds layers to what is often a pretty linear plot.
Weighing in at only 292 pages, this book is quite short. Someone, somewhere, one day decided that urban fantasy novels needed to be slim, episodic, and fast-paced affairs. The rhythm is almost always brisk, but often to the detriment of the storytelling. Charlaine Harris introduces a number of protagonists and concepts, yet she keeps her cards very close to her chest and doesn't elaborate much on any of them. Though I'm sure we'll learn a lot more about vampires in general, as well as Bill and Eric's back stories, it would have been nice to discover a bit more about them in this first installment.
Even if this one turned out to be a murder mystery with some hot vampire sex thrown in for good measure, Charlaine Harris' writing style nevertheless makes it an easy and a fun novel to read. If someone were to summarize the plot for me, I'd say it feels like utter crap. And yet, the characterization and the dialogue make it work somehow. Needless to say, Dead Until Dark would have benefited from more depth. But if you are looking for a light and engaging read featuring a colorful cast of characters, this one will surely scratch that itch.
And though this first Sookie Stackhouse volume didn't exactly impress me, it intrigued me enough to want to see what happens next. Let us hope that, as was the case with both Butcher and Vaughn, the subsequent books will raise the bar higher and push the envelope further.