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Dead to the World:
A Sookie Stackhouse Novel

by Charlaine Harris

(Orbit, £6.99, 321 pages, paperback, first published 2004, this edition published April 2005; ISBN 1-84499-370-8.)

Review by Meredith

cover scanThis is the fourth book in a series called the 'Sookie Stackhouse Vampire Mysteries' or 'The Southern Vampire Mysteries'. In one respect, the series belongs to a very modern trend in horror series. The protagonist is an independent young woman; the supernatural monsters -- whether vampires, werewolves or whatever -- are not necessarily monstrous in their everyday behaviour, but have feelings too; the supernaturals are seriously sexy and for whatever reason, almost irresistible to mere mortal humans; they are not classic horror stories but are detective or mystery books; there is an underlying quirky charm that is almost, but not quite, taking the piss out of its own genre.

However, unlike many of today's female heroes in the horror genre, Sookie Stackhouse, the unusually-named central character of the Southern Vampire books, is not some sort of supergirl. She is not sophisticated, over-achieving, ambitious, a black belt in karate, highly popular and staggeringly gorgeous. Instead, she is a waitress in a small town in the Southern USA, and is content to remain in that low-level job in the town she grew up in. Also, Sookie is a vulnerable, sweet character, who, far from being popular and desired, is lonely. She is pretty, kind and well-meaning, loving and optimistic about life. But, she has very few friends and hardly ever has a 'date'.

Most people in the town consider her to be a bit of a loonie and a weirdo. A few others are scared of her. This is because, completely involuntarily and against her will, Sookie can read minds. She behaves oddly as she tries to ignore the constant buzz of extra information her mind is always giving her, or she is always inadvertently revealing that she somehow knows secrets. Even her closest relatives pity her.

Her loneliness is removed in the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, when Sookie meets her first vampire and finds out that the minds of the Undead are a total blank to her. Bliss. For the first time she can be with people and not fight against the constant hiss of their thoughts in her mind.

This device neatly gives Sookie the reason for hanging out with vampires to the extent of having a vampire boyfriend. In her world, the invention of artificial blood allowed vampires to 'come out of the closet' some years ago. They no longer need to bite humans to suck blood, but obviously, all readers know that there is of course going to be the odd atavist who doesn't want to give up the practice of getting their blood fresh from the source, and brings the whole race into dangerous disrepute! The traditional attraction felt by many humans to vampires also creates tension between some humans and vampires, and as for shape-shifters, who wants to know them, part-beast as they are?

In Dead to the World, Sookie is back to her old loneliness, having chucked her boyfriend because he had a fling with an old flame. (And in vampire terms, old can mean really, really, really old!) When she rescues her ex's vampire boss, Eric, another seriously attractive specimen, Sookie is torn between her feelings for the two undead men. Unfortunately, somebody or somebodies seem to want Eric dead permanently, and Sookie is in the way.

At the same time, Sookie's brother Jason goes missing. Sookie has to struggle to get help to look for him at the same time as protecting Eric and herself. There's plenty of supernatural mayhem and a couple of mysteries for Sookie to unravel, as well as some interesting characters -- mostly the humans -- and some vampire characters who are slightly more stereotypical.

If you are prepared to dive into the middle of a series instead of starting at the beginning, that will be fine with this book. The main back story and people's basic natures are quickly and easily explained, so there's no need to feel lost. On the other hand, some readers will prefer to have the characters unfold in front of them, as happens in the earlier books, rather than be told somebody's nature and motivations.

Sookie is an unusual, sympathetic person. The setting is also unusual, since most vampire-hunters or lovers tend to be hip city girls. Sookie's small-town setting is uniquely American -- one of those towns that has a tiny population but is spread out so much that you have to spend much of your time driving small country roads just to visit your neighbours. The love affair with the car seems to continue once you're dead!

Overall, the series manages to keep a unique voice amongst the several modern vampire series which feature women heroes and have romantic-novel overtones. It is well written and well paced, eventful and entertaining. There actually is a plot that makes sense, and it is enjoyable to read. It's not great literature, but it doesn't pretend to be. It's just good, clean, undead fun.

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