Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: The Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampires Series


I'm going to be talking about the SPECIFIC details of how this series ends and if you haven't read the final book yet or plan to read the series in the future this post will utterly ruin stop reading immediately.

"Dead Ever After"
(and the entire Sookie series)
By: Charlaine Harris

My original plan was to review the final book in the Sookie series, Dead Ever After. But then I realized that really what I wanted to talk about was the series as a whole now that it's over. I just finished the final installment so these thoughts fall squarely into the "initial feelings" category and may develop more fully over time.

I want to start by saying that I like Charlaine Harris. I enjoy her books. She lands solidly in the mystery genre but has added urban fantasy into her most recent stories (I'd still call them mysteries though). She is a commercial author and a very decent writer. If I was giving an honest review of her talents and the books place in the overall history of literature this review might be more negative, but I find a lot of value in books that are accessible to the masses and written for sheer enjoyment (satisfying, exciting, yet not dumbed down). With Ms. Harris you aren't distracted by poor writing, which is more than I can say about many urban fantasy writers that are currently popular. Compared to younger writers in her genre, I'd point out that her writing is more mature. And it should be after over four successful series, tons of work (editing, collaborating) in the field, and several decades of writing (her first commercially successful book was published in 1990). I actually think the success of the Sookie series (probably due to True Blood) has been more of curse for her than a blessing in a lot of ways (this article articulates this thought better than I can). She has lost a lot of control over her own writing due to publisher and fan expectations. The popularity of the HBO adaption trickled over into the books and that has made Sookie her most successful series to date. It's popular and I'm sure financially she's doing just fine. People reading your books is really all an author can hope for. At any rate. these books are incredibly entertaining and the characters are engaging. I am a fan of the series. I enjoyed Sookie's world and I will miss her. 

Now on to the specifics...

Although there are aspects of the series and story that I wasn't necessarily a fan of, in general the books were addictive and fun. I read the first ten installments in a three month period. Waiting for the final three books year by year was torture.

Here's a break down of what I enjoyed about this series (as a whole):

- Setting

I'm a Southern girl born and raised. These days I live in the Northeast and love it, but I often miss the unique culture of the South. These stories take me home. Harris is really great at pulling you into the "every day" and showing what small town Southern life is actually like. You even get a glimpse into how that upbringing effects your whole being since this story puts you inside Sookie's head. I really can't get into writers that leave out the details, and yet it takes a good writer to include details in a way that's not distracting or forced. I never felt that way about Sookie.

- Protagonist

Sookie is a likeable heroine. I didn't always agree with her, she wasn't always good, but you had to admit that she felt very real. She was flawed, but caring. She was strong and independent. She was a size 10, not a size 2. She was relatable but other. The details Harris includes were nostalgic and felt natural. I enjoyed the way Harris included Sookie's daily life: every day chores, southern cooking, shopping on a budget, reading etc. It added to the story and who she was (for me) without seeming unnecessary or distracting. Being in Sookie's head is different than most first person stories because Sookie is a telepath. You not only knew what was going on in Sookies head but you also knew a lot of other characters thoughts because of her special talent. Sookie is a great protagonist. That's precisely why she is so loved.

- The "Sookie-verse"

Honestly, these books were some of the first I'd read in the urban fantasy genre that really stuck (more than not) to traditional folklore (at least then it came to vampires). When you can get mythical creatures integrated into this century and it be "believable"---then you're getting somewhere. When authors off-handly change folklore to suit their needs, it annoys me. This is one of the reasons I appreciate authors like Tolkien and Rowling so much. Rowling was a mythology major so the Harry Potter universe can hold dozens, maybe hundreds, of different creatures in a believable way. Tolkien's world was so expansive that even if it differed it hardly mattered because he was so consistent. While authors are certainly allowed to create all new creatures and rules for their stories, when it comes to vampires I appreciate the effort to keep them apart of a bigger history.

I can't say that Harris succeeded one hundred percent at creating a consistent universe or that she stuck to folklore with all her characters. The non-vampire characters strike me as more "make it up as you go". Most of them seem to fit okay, with the exception of the Fae. This is one mythological creature that her version of distracted me a bit. By the time she started introducing them, however, I was already hooked on the series. Still, the story ultimately revolves around vampires.

What vampires can and can't do is really specific to the author and their version of vampires. Authors like Stephenie Meyer have gotten a lot of flack for creating vampires that don't fit tradition. Some authors I can forgive for this. Deborah Harkness, for example, has a very non-traditional day walking vampire in her trilogy but the books are so seamlessly integrated into a pretty "accurate" historical narrative that it's hard not to be impressed. The bottom line is that there's been a lot of vampire variations in the last decade or two. From two lines in the book explaining away the known facts about vampires as rumors to books that try to fit their vampires into hundreds of years of tradition. Harris is, more or less, the latter. Her vampires are burned by the sun and only come out at night for example. This is what initially appealed to me most about her stories. It was refreshing to see vampires who acted like vampires. Beyond that...the way they fit into our world, the politics, etc are really up to the author.

The universe that Harris created for her character Sookie is pretty elaborate and all the characters individual stories are interconnected. The continuity of her books is not as good as say, the Harry Potter series, but Harris has admitted that as the world grew it kind of got away from her. Not everything ties together perfectly from Book 1 to Book 13. However, she knew pretty early on how she intended to end the series and I think she starts foreshadowing the ending early on in the series. As I read Book 13  I could see where she was going with it. It just made sense. (That isn't to say that I knew how the whole "who-dun-it" mystery would end, but just how Sookie's story itself would "end."

Overall I think the books progressively get weaker, but that doesn't mean that Harris is a bad writer or that they are bad books. It's just part of a series going on for so long. It all get's a little bit out of hand over time.

Thoughts on Dead Ever After:

Honestly, I am left feeling somewhat unsatisfied with this last installment. Since I started to see the ending unfold early in the book, by the end I was okay with it. Initially I was somewhat satisfied and okay with the direction Harris took. It was logical. The book is written to give Sookie closure. When I started it I wondered how Sookie could ever live post-vampires. I wondered if Harris would kill off Sookie's character in some kind of dramatic conclusion. I'm glad she didn't, but it made for a less exciting book. There was a serious lack of vampires and vampire related drama. There was a serious lack of Bill and Eric. While there was suspense and mystery surrounding the arrest of Sookie (this books major plot line) and the return of many past characters, everything was designed to give closure, to tie up all the loose ends neatly. And that's fine.

I'm not upset with Charlaine Harris. All the harassment she's gotten over the series from fans is ridiculous. Call me a traditional, but I don't think authors should ever bend to their fans. I prefer my authors recluse and obsessed with their art over this new breed of celebrity author (that does talk shows and runs fan sites complete with playlists and contests). Sookie is Harris's character and the series is her story. She shouldn't have to change her story to appease fans. Her books shouldn't end up on a "worst of" list simply because her fans who preferred a different ending or plot direction.

"The Ending" and "The One"

The on-going debate has always been who should Sookie end up with (romantically). There are a variety of camps and they all feel very strongly about their choice. The main romantic interest debate is  Bill vs. Eric. But Alcide, Quinn, Sam and even Calvin also have their supporters.

As far as the books go, personally I was always a fan of Bill. I was a bit upset when Harris started demonizing him and shifting gears to Eric. I always wanted Sookie to come back to Bill in the end because I felt like his love was the most pure. The reason I love Bill is because I always root for the "original" love interest. Bill was first, things got messy, but I always wanted them to find their way back to each other. This isn't very realistic. I didn't marry my first love after all, and I'm glad I didn't. But there is just something about literature that makes you not want to let go of that first love. I was rooting for Bill.

I read somewhere that Harris had originally planned to kill Bill off mid series. Her publisher made her change the story. This was a smart move on the publisher's part, but I think ultimately the wrong one. While at the time I'm sure I would have been devastated and angry at her for killing Bill, in retrospect I wish she had. Killing Bill would have accomplished several things. 1.) I'd have been able to move on to a different love interest. Instead, I always held out for Bill (to the very end). Since she doesn't end up with Bill, it would have been nice to grow attached to someone else. 2.) Bill could have died with dignity. I think I'd have felt more closure about Bill's character if Sookie had forgiven him, even loved him again, and then lost him. 3.) Lastly, and this is tied to point 2, Bill's character needed that closure. Bill's character popped up every so often in the latter books and he was in the final book. However, it wasn't Bill. It was new Bill. It was friend-Bill. And it felt odd. He seemed weaker. He seemed more conventional. He went from being a main character and epic love interest---this huge part of Sookie's life to being...a neighbor. You barely see Bill in Dead Ever After and he just loses his Bill-ness.

I never hated Eric. In fact, on the show True Blood I preferred him. (Probably because I find Alex Scarsgard more attractive than Stephen Moyer). I liked that Sookie seemed to tame Eric and he was so much more mysterious than Bill. If Bill had died, I think I could have gotten on board with Eric whole heartedly. The entire time I read the book I was waiting for some kind of grand gesture or explanation for Eric's actions. Some way they could end up together or for either Eric or Sookie to die in some kind of heroic act/expression of their love. That didn't happen. Again, Eric was barely in the book at all. It was disappointing and it just felt odd that the relationship (again, epic) fell away so quickly without a much of a fight.

Both romances were these big constants and to see them both barely featured in the last book just felt wrong. Readers have been so invested in both Bill and Eric and their relationships with Sookie. The decision to basically write them out of the story left me with the feeling the story wasn't really I'll be waiting purpetually for something else to happen...

Quinn was my least favorite of the love interests but I did like him and I liked Alcide for that matter. It was kind of crazy how many love interests entered Sookie's life in so short a time---it was almost hard to keep up. Any one of them could have easily ended up being "the one". But Harris chose Sam. It was the logical choice. Sookie and Sam had been as close as family for the entire series. There were hints of attraction here and there but he wasn't the exciting choice. The reason it's the best choice is because it's the only way Sookie can live on and live normally. Sookie was human and wanted to stay human. In order for Sookie to retain her family, community, and have a family of her own---she needs normalcy. She's never had that with a vampire. All of the vampire drama and politics had to sort itself out in this book in order for her to be capable of having that separate life (in order for her to "live-on" at all). Bill and Eric had to be out of the picture. Sookie had to be in a position of not being used by vampires anymore and in a place where she wouldn't be bothered in their absence. Harris pulled that off. It was the only ending that gave Sookie that closure.

And that's probably why I don't feel all that satisfied. The whole Sookie series was about vampires and the drama of it all. You half expect a dramatic ending or for the story to go on forever. After all we'd been through with Sookie...I guess it was anti-climatic. After all the tension between Bill and Eric...neither get the girl.

I'm okay with it.

The fact is...I can't think of a better ending. Even though I feel less than satisfied with this ending (and miss the feeling the older books gave me), it was probably the right one. Probably.

Closing Thoughts / Now What?

Overall, I will always be a fan of Sookie. And I don't have to let go of her just yet. I still haven't finished all the short stories that fall into the Sookie-verse and After Dead is releasing this fall with conclusions ("what happened next") for nearly all the other characters in the book. I'm looking forward to that.

I heard a rumor that Charlaine Harris's next series will have fantasy elements as well so perhaps there will be a "new Sookie" to love.

Thanks for writing, Charlaine.

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