Edited by Charlaine Harris

Orion (2011)

ISBN: 978-0-575-09753-7

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

I tend to eye “guides” and “companions” with some suspicion; too often they seem designed for people who have crossed that fine line between dedicated fan and obsessed geek. However, this particular volume offers enough new material to avoid that trap. As the name suggests, it’s a companion to the Sookie Stackhouse books (such as Dead in the Family, reviewed here.)

The companion is edited by Charlaine Harris, the author of the novels, and she’s at pains in the introduction to be clear: it’s a companion to the Sookie Stackhouse novels, not the TV series True Blood which is based on the books. If you’ve tried both then you’ll know that they are very different. Harris does include a few nods to the TV series, most notably an interview with series creator Alan Ball. Appropriately, many of the questions focus on differences between the books and the TV series.

There is also a section where Harris answers questions from her fans; the questions weren’t anything very original, but her answers were extremely down to earth and interesting. I was particularly entertained by a hopeful suggestion that some of her characters could visit other writers’ “worlds”. Instead of a mealy mouthed response about for example, needing a good plot, Harris bluntly points out the real world challenge of reconciling two editors, two publishing houses, two contracts and so on – before you ever touch the idea of writing anything. In general her answers were very sensible, and provided some insight into how she writes.

If you haven’t read the books, well, this companion could save you the effort as each and every book to date is summarised at least twice in this volume. Once in a section devoted almost entirely to summarising the plots; and once in the “guide to the world” section where the entry for Sookie appears to summarise the series to date. I must say this seemed unnecessary; surely that entry could have been drastically abbreviated. I only glanced through the “guide” section, not being riveted by the prospect of reading a bunch of alphabetical entries. They include people, places and things important in the Sookie Stackhouse world. While I can certainly imagine situations in which this could be useful, it’s not exactly compelling reading and I wouldn’t think most people would use it often. Similarly, the section devoted to summarising the plots contains a little “extra” material by including assorted correspondence and phone conversations between Bill and Eric. Frankly, these were inane and unnecessary and didn’t entirely ring true to the characters to me. It appears that they weren’t written by Harris.

The highlight of the book for me – and I do enjoy the Sookie Stackhouse stories – was a new novella, Small-Town Wedding. At any rate, the novella was new to me and there’s no discussion of it being published anywhere else. It was a punchy little piece that adds a lot to our changing understanding of Sookie. I liked the person we saw in this – she seems to be gaining confidence and making peace with the fact she’s becoming a harder person. The novella occurs between Dead in the Family and Dead Reckoning but could easily be followed by readers who haven’t reached that far in the series – they just might blink a bit at the Sookie they meet here.

Other sections in the companion include a trivia quiz (and yes, some of it is really quite challengingly trivial), a collection of Southern recipes, a Stackhouse family tree, and a short piece in Sookie’s “voice” about the different supernatural creatures she’s met. For me, each of these sections were a bit tedious. For truly devoted fans these might be of interest, but I didn’t feel they added much to either the books or my sense of the universe.

Of greater interest was a short article by Harris about the Sookie short stories and related material. This will be useful to anyone wanting to be exhaustive in reading the Sookie material, and wanting to do it with the right “chronology”. It also provided a couple of further insights into Harris’ working methods, which was interesting.

I was also taken by the brief overview of Harris’ other work – she was a moderately successful author before Sookie took off. In particular, she is the author of the Aurora Teagarden mysteries, the Lily Bard series, and the Harper Connelly series (including Grave Secret reviewed here). However, if you haven’t read the Aurora Teagarden series, it’s worth noting that the overview of these contains two spoilers for the series. I thought this unnecessary; the sentence could have been written less explicitly, and in any case I didn’t feel the information was a particularly good example of the point the author of the section (again, not Harris) was trying to make. It may be sensible to avoid this section till you’ve read the books. They’re worth reading; I think the Aurora books are better than the Sookie Stackhouse books – which is not a criticism of the very enjoyable Sookie books.

I was entertained by the short reminiscences of a founding member of Harris’ fan club, although these were quite personal and didn’t travel all that well to someone who wasn’t a part of the events related. They were nevertheless so honest and heartfelt that there was a charm to them.

In short, this is a pretty good book with something to offer a fairly wide variety of Sookie fans, from the “rather enjoy the books” fans to the truly obsessed. A decent amount of the material is original, rather than just rehashing the books, and Harris has kept the focus firmly on the books so there should be little confusion with the characterisations, plots and mythology of the series. If you’re not a fan of the books then this volume has, not surprisingly, virtually nothing to offer you. But if you’ve enjoyed them to any degree at all, you’ll find at least something to interest and entertain you.