Review: Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris

←Cover comment: I love these covers. Whimsical, gothic, and reminiscent of the old PBS Mystery series. The cover reflects that this is an unusual book. Unlike the cover below, blech.

Series: Yes, Dead Until Dark, published in 2001, is the first of 8 Southern Vampire Mysteries in print (and Ms. Harris was an established mystery writer prior to that). Here’s the full list at Amazon. There are also several short stories which are listed on Ms. Harris’s website.

Setting: Rural present day Louisiana

Heroine and Hero: This is not really a romance, but a paranormal mystery with very strong romantic elements. Sookie Stackhouse, raised in working class Bon Temps, is a pretty blond twentysomething waitress at a local bar with the ability to read minds. She is sincere, naive and goodhearted. Bill Compton is a darkly attractive, polite vampire, old enough to be a Civil War veteran. He has returned to his family home in Bon Temps to attempt to “mainstream”, i.e. live among the human population.

Plot: Sookie falls in love for the first time, with a vampire, just as a series of grisly murders in Bon Temps casts suspicion on her boyfriend and her randy brother, Jason.

Distinctive features: Rural working class setting and characters. Unique portrayal of vampires as an oppressed minority. And a hero who is only 5’10”, with no piercing blue eyes to compensate (they’re brown)!

Word on the Web:

Jill D., Romance Rookie, B

Ana and Thea, Book Smugglers, 7

Ciaralira, 4 smiles

AAR, Jane, A

TGTBTU, Shannon C., C+, 7 out of 10

Susan, the Romance Reader, 5 hearts

Avid Book Reader, positive

Azurescape, positive (this is a review of the audio version), 4 stars after 331 customer reviews, 4.46 based on 258 reviews

First chapter here.

Fun Factoid: Dead Until Dark was nominated for a both an Agatha award and a Dilys award from the International Mystery Booksellers’ Association.  How cool would it be to have one of these on your mantle?

My Take in Brief: Terrific heroine, unique vampire mythology, satisfying mystery and suspense, sweet romance, and riveting portrayal of the rural south. I really enjoyed it. I’m already three chapters in to the second book in the series.

The Racy Romance Review:

I picked this one up because of all the buzz surrounding the new HBO show, True Blood, which is based on it, and because, as I mention every time I write an audio review, the romance selection on is very sparse. (Visit KMont at Lurv à la Mode, for great reviews of the episodes of True Blood).

Dead Until Dark is written in the first person, and the narrator who voices Sookie is fantastic. Sookie is naive, unworldly, a little too slow and trusting, and very kind, but she is not stupid, and she can work up a head of righteous anger when she needs to. Narrator Johanna Parker gets her Lousiana accent and these facets of her character down perfectly, IMO.

You have to like Sookie to like this book, and I fell in love with her immediately, when she described first spying vampire Bill in Merlotte’s, the bar where she waitresses:

You can tell I don’t get out much. And it’s not because I’m not pretty. I am. I’m blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline. I look good in the warm weather waitress outfit Sam picked for us: black shorts, white T, white socks, black Nikes.

But I have a disability. That’s how I try to think of it.

The bar patrons just say I’m crazy.

Either way, the result is that I almost never have a date. So little treats count a lot with me.

And he sat at one of my tables—the vampire.

I knew immediately what he was. It amazed me when no one else turned around to stare. They couldn’t tell! But to me, his skin had a little glow, and I just knew.

Sookie’s “disability” is telepathy. It may seem odd to think of telepathy this way, but you have to look at it from her point of view, as a young woman in a very small town. To her, telepathy is an unexplainable, unwelcome, unhelpful condition that makes her a near outcast. Consider the effect it has on her sex life:

I’d never looked on Sam [Merlotte, Sookie’s boss] as a beddable man before—or at least not beddable by me—for a lot of reasons. But the simplest one was that I never looked at anyone that way, not because I don’t have hormones—boy, do I have hormones—but they are constantly tamped down because sex, for me, is a disaster. Can you imagine knowing everything your sex partner is thinking? Right. Along the order of “Gosh, look at that mole…her butt is a little big…wish she’d move to the right a little…why doesn’t she take the hint and…?” You get the idea. It’s chilling to the emotions, believe me. And during sex, there is simply no way to keep a mental guard up.

I found passages like this incredibly funny and endearing. In fact, I thought the whole book was, if not exactly riotously funny, darkly humorous. This is not the kind of “violence and sex” cocktail Anita Blake and the rest have led us to expect when we think “paranormal romance”. Sookie is a “good girl” and Bill has the reserved, chivalrous demeanor of the antebellum farmer that he is. Sure, this is a story about Sookie’s growing up, including her first sexual experiences, but it’s not a book to pick up for the hot sex. And, since the story is solidly in the human world, with a window onto the vampire world provided by Bill, it’s not that dark a tale.

Should you read it for the mystery? I think seasoned mystery readers will find it weak, although I didn’t know for sure who the killer was until pretty late in the game. But I thought the suspense aspect was very strong: when Sookie was in danger, my heart thudded, and I was riveted.

How about the romance? While it was very sweet and well done overall, this book did not have the kind of concentrated focus on romance that romance readers have come to expect. In some ways, it reminded me of Buffy and Angel in Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the scenes with Angel were like delicious little treats sprinkled throughout, but Buffy had a whole lot going on besides puppy love.

Bill is also not your typical romance hero, signaled immediately by his name. For one thing, he’s not an alpha. While his vampire strength makes the humans around him seem weak in comparison, Bill is not high up on the vampire pecking order. Bill actually seemed a bit boring to me. Sure, there was the occasional intense declaration (“you’re mine”), but he wasn’t particularly engaging as a character, aside from the novelty of his minority status. Sookie is attracted to him also because she cannot read his thoughts: the descriptions of the calm that envelops her when she is with Bill serve to point up the harrowing nature of her uncontrollable “gift”. Still, I found myself wondering if Sookie would have fallen in love with the first vampire who walked into her life, regardless of whether it was Bill.

The setting is an incredible strength of this book, first off because it’s very much about the southern rural working class. Harris has a knack for drawing quick characterizations of the people who populate Sookie’s small world without stereotyping. Yes, I’ve read some regency romances where the heroine was in dire straits. But she often had the mannerisms and deportment of a lady, and by the last page, you find out she’s actually a duchess. Even in the rare romance where the heroine is working class born and bred, she enters a world of riches when she meets the hero. In contrast, in Sookie we have a heroine who is satisfied with her job as a barmaid and her life in her hometown.

I felt the portrayal of rural USA was very accurate. The importance of kinship, ritual (often religious), trust, close ties, familiarity, rootedness, and history rang very true to me, as did the pernicious flip side of all those things: the gossip, the judgments, the complicated and overlapping relationships, the resistance to the new. Of course, all of this had a unique southern inflection, as when Bill is asked to address a civic group commemorating the Civil War.

I found myself intensely interested in the vampire mythology Harris created. We learn quickly that the invention of synthetic blood, coupled with the acceptance of a theory that vampires are just humans who suffer from a virus, led to civil rights being granted to them just a few years prior to the start of the story. Still, many vampires have chosen to continue to live apart from humans, in part due to continued prejudice and the real threat of violence, in part due to disdain for humanity, and they have their own bars, hotels, and social organization. The parallels to race relations in the Jim Crow era are obvious but not belabored, as are the parallels to today’s “debate” over the origins of homosexuality, and the supposed relevance of those origins to the moral status of a minority sexual orientation.

Sookie’s own journey begins with a simplistic and sexualized view of vampires as an exotic other, but she comes to view each vampire in his or her individual uniqueness, as well as to recognize the inhumanity of so-called “humans”. Her moral compass realigns in interesting ways, as she realizes she has more in common with nonhumans thanks in part to her unique skill, which she increasingly views, as the vampires do, as a gift.

I haven’t read a ton of vampire or paranormal romances, but at least in J.R. Ward, Lara Adrian, Kresely Cole, Christine Feehan’s Carpathians, and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter books, vamps tend to live apart from humans, so this aspect of the story fascinated me. Normally, when a human falls in love with a vamp, she has to join his world, but in Dead Until Dark, the reverse was true. The scenes when Bill and Sookie were with other vampires were the darkest and most intense in the book, and I longed for more about the vampire world. Had I been Sookie, I would have sat Bill down every night for a little Q&A, but knowing it’s a long series, I’ll have to be happy with the bits I’m sure Harris hands out in each installment.

There’s so much more I could say about this book — like the great insight Harris has into human psychology that makes even her marginal characters unique and fleshed out. I’m thinking of a comment Sookie makes about a character who doesn’t notice, and therefore doesn’t object, when the subject is abruptly changed. It’s not a demeaning comment, just an observation about human nature Sookie which puts to use, and it shows us Sookie’s brand of nonintellectual smarts as well. But if my interest in Sookie’s world remains as strong as it is right now, I guess I’ll have several more reviews to go into all the detail I want.

Published in: on October 19, 2008 at 7:08 pm  Comments (10)  
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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Yikes! I just realized I published this when it was half done. I feel like I’ve been caught with my pants down.

    Ah well, blog and learn!

  2. I’ve been debating if I want to pick up this series, and you’re review was very, very helpful.

  3. Unique portrayal of vampires as an oppressed minority. … I found myself intensely interested in the vampire mythology Harris created. We learn quickly that the invention of synthetic blood, coupled with the acceptance of a theory that vampires are just humans who suffer from a virus, led to civil rights being granted to them just a few years prior to the start of the story.

    In my reading, that’s become a fairly common take on vampires. There was a rash of such scenarios following Laurell K Hamilton (Guilty Pleasures, 1993) and it may even have started earlier. I haven’t read the Sookie books, so perhaps there’s a new wrinkle in the mythology, but the basic outline sounds very familiar.

    You might be interested in some of the urban fantasy of the last 5-10 years. It’s almost a hallmark of the genre’s current form, I think, that vampires, werewolves, etc, live among humans, with the resultant culture clashes. Kim Harrison’s mythology is one of the more interesting I’ve read: a quarter of the world’s population was wiped out by a genetic modification to the tomato. The till-then-hidden magical populations “came out” at that point, as they were immune–and had become a large enough minority population to wield some political power.

    OTOH Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld books are about magical beings living alongside humans, but hiding their true natures.

  4. JC — did I sway you for it or against it?

    RfP — That’s interesting that urban fantasy seems more inclined to take on the social issues of intermixing than paranormal romance. Maybe it’s seems sexier to enter a new and separate world.

    Although, now that you mention it, I have read a romance, Cynthia Eden’s Hotter After Midnight, in which the heroine is a telepathic shrink and the hero is a shapeshifting cop. In that world, SOME humans do know all about the “Others” in their midst, although I think the sense of seismic societal change that Harris conveys is absent.

  5. Yes! great review, you mention everything I love about these books. I heart Sookie and her friends but I hate Bill. and I can’t wait for you read more. : )

  6. I’ve finally ordered the first book after being ‘sucked’ into the HBO show. I’ve been talking about this with my sister. The characters were so mesmerizing and unique I had to find out where they originated from – so I went to Amazon to get to the source. Your review really let’s me know I did the right thing. Looking forward to diving into this series. Thanks.

  7. I picked up this book because I wanted to watch the HBO series. Being a true book lover, I had to read the book before watching the show. (I didn’t want the show to taint my perception of the characters.) It took me a while to “get into” Sookie’s character. I still can’t put my finger on it. I think Ana did a pretty good idea of describing it in her review. Once I did get into the rhythm of the story I really enjoyed it. I definitely want to read more of this series.

    RTP – I haven’t read Kim Harrison, but she is on my list. Do you like that series better than Sookie?

  8. Marisa,

    I think you’ll enjoy it. The prose is somewhat sparse, and it’s not a dense read at all, but I think it’s rewarding. As for me, I plan to watch the TV show now that I’ve finished the book. I think Bill was perfectly cast, but I didn’t picture Anna Paquin as Sookie — someone like a younger Heather Graham would have been my choice. Guess I’ll have to watch it and see!


    I agree with you, and with Ana, that Sookie has some irritating quirks. I share her race, gender and nationality, but I feel like so different from her personally that it’s hard to relate sometimes. I tend to be curious about everything all the time, and Sookie is really only interested in what affects her or her friends directly. I find myself hoping she’ll ask the questions that I would (first of all, to Bill: “How and why did you go vamp??”). But it’s her story, and she’s interesting and well drawn enough to keep me reading it.

  9. I adore this series, and she is such a great writer. I am about 1/2 way through the latest book at the moment. She also wrote a brilliant mystery series about Lily Bard. Such a strong heroine and I’ve always been very taken with her.

  10. Sarah,

    I am halfway through the second book (on audio) and I am still in love with Sookie and her world. Actually, I am so obsessed that I plan to pretend it’s work by writing a paper on it. This hasn’t happened to me since Buffy.

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