Is all speculative fiction a big gay metaphor? In Charlaine Harris’ most recent Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead and Gone, werewolves and shape shifters come out of the closet and vampire-human marriage is legalised in the state of Louisiana. Is Sookie herself going to come out of the supernatural closet? Are supernaturals the next big civil rights movement? At least in the world of the telepathic barmaid we’ve come to know and love through the previous eight books and one season of HBO, it appears so. The book’s focal mystery center around hate crimes, but the murder turns out to be much closer to home for Sookie and her brother, Jason, and so much more strange than the authorities could fathom.
I reread the previous eight Sookie Stackhouse books in anticipation for the ninth, which came out in May. What I’d forgotten is nothing can quite prepare you for a new Charlaine Harris book. Before I started the ninth book I felt confident that I remembered the cast of characters and the previous situations well enough to handle whatever she threw at me. I was wrong. A whole new race of supernaturals to explore! Two new sets of supernatural battles to fight! New relationships to angst about! I did occasionally wonder why characters like Bill and Quinn could go from being a big deal to being minor so quickly, or how Sookie could go from caring (if ambivalently) about the Queen of Louisiana’s well-being to saying “She’s dead? Oops,” but it was more than off-set by the growing feeling I have that Harris has an over-arching plot idea for the series and that I am only beginning to discover the world in which Sookie lives, which feels so familiar despite its obvious differences. The earlier books in this series felt much more like stand-alones linked by the same characters and same world but in the later books I’m beginning to find strands of plots and characters that I barely noticed previously assuming much more importance in a way that makes me sit up and say “Oh ho! She planned this! Sneakily!”
While Sookie has, throughout the books, had more meaningful relationships with supernaturals than with humans, she has always had a distinct mental line drawn between her interactions with the supernatural community and her daily life. In this book we see the barriers begin to break down as the shifters come out into the open; the fairies, whose civil war she’s been drawn into by her fairy great-grandfather, come after her and her family; her pregnant, werepanther sister-in-law is found crucified outside Merlotte’s; and the FBI begin to question her mental abilities. The artificial barrier has to break down, at least psychologically, after Sookie is tortured horrifically by the fairies.
“You’re not dead,” Dr. Ludwig pointed out.
But I’d come pretty damn close; I’d sort of stepped over the line. There’d been an optimum rescue time. If I’d been liberated before that time, I would have laughed all the way to the secret supernatural clinic, or wherever I was. But I’d looked at death too closely—close enough to see all the pores in Death’s face—and I’d suffered too much. I wouldn’t bounce back this time.
Book nine is darker, harder and, as a result, much stronger. Sookie does a lot of growing up in this book and begins to be a little more pragmatic. The world changes around her—both in terms of supernaturals and in every day aspects such as technology—and Sookie has to learn to adapt.
Sookie has lost a lot over the previous books, in terms of personal innocence as well as people, and here we see her finally coming to terms with her losses and reevaluating her relationships. Her former best friend turns against her and Sookie finally realizes that Arlene had been taking advantage of her “time after time.” In the previous book she had, at least briefly, cut off all ties with her brother, Jason, who forced her into an unthinkable situation by making her act as his proxy.
“You forgiven me?” [Jason] asked after he’d taken a gulp of coffee. His voice sounded hoarse and thick. I thought he’d been crying.
“I expect that sooner or later I might,” I said. “But I’ll never feel the same about you again.”
“God, you’ve gotten hard. You’re all the family I’ve got left.” [...]
I looked at him, feeling a little exasperated, a little sad. If I was getting harder, it was in response to the world around me.
Sookie begins to break the pattern of enabling people and letting them take advantage of her at every turn, without losing her sense of generosity and what she thinks of as Christian kindness. She does, however, think of herself as often being a bad Christian. When faced with moral dilemmas, she has always chosen the option that lets her survive, sometimes at the cost of someone else’s life, and though she thinks it’s a selfish and sometimes immoral choice, she accepts that she will continue to do so and facing that changes the way she approaches the world.
Selfishness becomes more necessary for self-preservation than ever as both the FBI and the new vampire king of Louisiana begin to take an interest in Sookie’s telepathy and she faces a future in which she has no control over her life. Eric, the Sheriff of her area and the vampire with whom she has a blood bond, deals with the threat from the King by pledging them to each other and effectively marrying her, without her consent. Sookie can neither trust his motives, nor her feelings for Eric, which are influenced by the bond they share, but begins to try to establish a more stable relationship with him. As Sookie matures she begins to develop a more independent and realistic view of her romantic life and learns to take comfort where she can, which helps her relationship with Eric, though her first love, Bill, seems intent on entangling things wherever possible. Despite needing to rely on both vampires both politically and sometimes physically—as when she is rescued from her fairy captors—we see her character start to understand that no one can ensure her safety, or even life and certainly not her happiness. Whether or not she can achieve that safety and happiness in a stable, long-term way, remains to be seen, but as her illusions shatter she grows into someone who could potentially find realistic contentment.
Sookie’s illusions about family also undergo a harsh shift, not just in regards to Jason. Her newly found great-grandfather not only makes her revisit her image of her grandmother but introduces her to the fairy world which holds the key to the truth about her parents’ deaths and puts her in renewed danger. Unfortunately since the fairy war storyline was pretty much introduced and resolved within this book, it felt almost as if it were there solely to drive the character and relationship changes. I suspect we won’t see much of the fairies in future books while I hope that the changes and revelations it wrought will reverberate for the rest of the series.
For all my rhapsodizing about how much this book capitalizes on the potential for character growth, I worry about the series if Sookie continues to have such horrific things heaped on her. As the character internalizes the harder and darker view of the world she runs the risk of losing the naive wonder and excitement of the supernatural that made her so charming. I think Harris is going to have an interesting time balancing a harder, more mature Sookie with the bright-eyed, sweet girl who held the series together with her likability. Through it all, though, Harris’ humor and instantly sympathetic characters keep me hooked on the stories, the relationships and even laughing in the middle of really grim moments.
Today was going to be a hard day, and I always felt better when I was dressed while handling a crisis. Something about putting on my underwear makes me feel more capable.