Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse series

Gollancz

ISBN: 978-0-575-08933-4

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

Dead in the Family is the tenth in the Sookie Stackhouse series, now known to many readers as the True Blood series, due to the successful television series based on the novels. Despite the extended series, Harris has kept it relatively fresh, largely through genuine character development throughout the series.

In broad terms, the series follows the adventures of Bon Temps waitress Sookie Stackhouse. Bon Temps is a very small town in Louisiana, and when the series first opens Sookie has a fairly small life. She’s a telepath, and that’s prevented her developing many real relationships. She can’t help hearing everything someone is thinking, and that kind of one-sided honesty can really crimp a relationship, especially a romantic one. Sookie also has trouble sometimes sorting what she’s heard from someone’s mouth and from their head; as a result she’s got a reputation for being a bit crazy. She lives a fairly circumscribed life, working as a waitress in a bar where pretty much everyone knows her, living with her grandmother, with just a few friends and her selfish
brother Jason for company.

So when Sookie meets Bill Compton, she’s ecstatic. First off, she’s always wanted to meet a vampire. With the development of a synthetic blood in Japan (TrueBlood), vampires have been able to announce their existence to the world while at the same time claiming they’re no real danger. Sookie is intrigued, and hopes one may someday pass through her small town. Bill Compton however, is here to stay; he lived in Bon Temps when he was human. Still better, Sookie discovers she can’t read vampire minds, and enthusiastically embarks on her first romantic and sexual relationship.

As the series progresses, Sookie discovers that relationships are complicated, especially relationships with the undead. She also finds that vampires aren’t the only mythical creature that actually exists. An awful lot of things start coming out of the shadows and invading Sookie’s life.

In Dead in the Family, Sookie is still recovering from her abduction and torture in the Fairy Wars. Rather bitter, Sookie finds herself continuing to struggle with family problems (the Fairy War could be said to have been a family problem on a big scale). She’s still partially estranged from her brother Jason after the events of an earlier novel, and is tentatively trying to establish good relations with various of her exes who are still on the scene. In particular, she wants to find a distant relation of Bill Compton. He’s still ailing after being injured while rescuing her, and it’s possible his relative could help. More immediately, her fairy kin aren’t leaving Sookie alone just yet. And her new lover, Eric, receives a visit from his vampire sire which could have very nasty repercussions for Sookie.

It’s actually a little hard to remember exactly what the main storyline was in this particular instalment in the Sookie story, because it seemed based more around a series of smaller incidents all linked with the theme of family problems. This was fine while I was reading it; I was engaged and interested and it was a pretty realistic representation of the way most people’s lives go. Mostly we’re dealing with a host of smaller problems, not one big dramatic plot. Of course, most people’s smaller problems don’t include vampires, werewolves, fairies, telepaths, and the FBI. But that’s why we read about Sookie.

A large part of what keeps me coming back to these stories is the way that Sookie has changed throughout the series. She started out a sweet young thing, surprisingly naïve considering the things she hears in other people’s heads. Her wants are simple and she’s genuinely shocked when people aren’t nice. But Sookie has been through a lot, and she’s hardened. Over the course of the series Sookie has become more cynical and watchful, and much harder. She’s aware of this, and thinks about it sometimes. She’s also aware that supernatural things are probably so deeply entrenched in her life now that she couldn’t ever go back to the way she lived or thought before she met Bill. It’s rare that you come across a series where the main character changes so much through the series, and it’s interesting. Sookie remains highly empathetic, but she isn’t the same person we first met.

The plots for the individual books are sometimes a little lightweight, and often resolve very quickly and neatly at the end of the novel – it sometimes seems a little too easy for the set-up. If there’s one continuing weakness in Harris’ novels it’s this. However, the plots are entertaining and there’s enough weight to the character development that it’s easy to forgive a lack of depth in plotting. Harris also writes well, with an easy style and a vein of sharp humor that gives an edge to the novel and to Sookie’s character in particular.

Although most of the Sookie novels are written in a way that makes them accessible to new readers, Dead in the Family is perhaps the least engaging for new readers. That’s largely because there isn’t as strong an overarching plot; it focuses on several smaller plots which are largely off-shoots of events to date. Still, this is a light and enjoyable read, and Sookie is a character likely to charm even readers who don’t know her history. Although some of the subject matter in the novels is quite dark, I find myself thinking of them as a light read, largely because the prose style makes each novel a quick and pleasant book to read.

Readers who’ve been following the series should really enjoy this novel, as it plays to the series’ strength of character development. Newer readers should find it enjoyable due to the characterisation and light style, but they may not find it particularly compelling. It is a well written, enjoyable novel which builds the series further and provides a pleasant diversion from day to day life.