Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: "Dead Until Dark," by Charlaine Harris (2001)

You've probably heard about True Blood by now, even if you don't have HBO. Or cable. Even if you don't watch TV at all, you've probably heard about it from someone. I haven't watched it myself, but I may have to, now that I've started reading the books that the show's based on.

Dead Until Dark is the first of The Southern Vampire Mysteries, a.k.a. The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries, retroactively known as the True Blood Series, after the debut of the HBO miniseries in 2008. The books follow the life and loves of one Sookie Stackhouse, a cocktail waitress in the small rural town of Bon Temps, Louisiana.

The book begins roughly two years after vampires have "come out of the coffin" and revealed themselves to the world at large. Thanks to a synthetic blood-substitute developed by Japanese scientists, vampires no longer need to feed off humans, and have decided to reveal themselves en masse.

Now, let's get one thing out of the way: yes, Sookie is a telepath. While this seems like it would make for a very boring mystery novel, Sookie's "disability" is handled very well, and never feels like a cheap way to conjure up a hard-to-find clue. In fact, instead of feeling like a contrived power-up, it comes across as a legitimate difficulty for Sookie in her daily life. It sometimes makes it difficult for her to keep a job, and it's nearly impossible for her to have sex with any man. Any human man, that is...

You're probably thinking to yourself: Vampires? Mind-reading? Twoo wuv? Where have I heard this before? But before you hit the "Back" button on your browser, you should know that Dead Until Dark hit shelves four years before Twilight did. That's right, Twilight is the ripoff, not True Blood.

Anyway, the book itself is really good. It has just the right mix of sex, danger, mystery, humor, and the supernatural. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story, and more than a little interested in the "romantic interludes". By which I mean sex, sex, and lots more sex. At times, the text can be a little, shall we say, blush-inducing, but never graphic. Harris' sex scenes are always veiled with polite Southern modesty, which prevents the story from degenerating into pornographic wish-fulfillment. The characters are likable and imperfect, with foibles and shortcomings that keep their interactions honest and human. Harris does an excellent job of delving into vampiric psychology, and how the curse of immortality might weigh heavily on one's sanity and morality.

The most refreshing part of the book by far is the subversion of one of the most pervasive tropes in all supernatural fiction: The Masquerade. Gone are the frantic rushes to destroy evidence of vampires' existence, gone too is the need for cloak-and-dagger secrecy, because everyone already knows that vampires are real. They're over it. They've got pride rallies, for gosh sakes!

I also really liked the way Harris depicts the reaction of average Americans to the sudden appearance of the undead in their midst. First, of course, there was shock, followed closely by disbelief. Then a wave of curiosity, followed by revulsion for some, and fascination for others. Finally, the dust began to settle, and the vast majority of American citizens began to see vampires as neither freaks nor sex-objects, but as potential sources of revenue.

And isn't that really just another expression of the American Dream?

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