Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Deadlocked

I love Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series*, and I love saying nice things about authors I love. It's always a good day when I get to do that.

Today is not a good day.

Since I'm writing about book 12 in a projected 13-book series, it's hard to review without either depending on knowledge of the previous books that some readers don't have (Hi, Mom!!) or spoiling the story for people watching the TV show (which has now reached roughly book 5) without reading the books at all.**

The premise of the books, and a brief synopsis: they're set in our contemporary world, except that vampires, werewolves, and lots of other supernatural freaks are real. The protagonist is a small-town Southern waitress who also happens to be a supernatural freak herself; she's telepathic, something we eventually learn is due to her own weird heritage, which will remain unspecified here. (See? Not giving away too many spoilers. Three cheers for me.) She finds it exhausting dating humans, since she can read their minds, but she can't read the minds of vampires -- so by book 12, she's the girlfriend of one of the hotter and more interesting ones, and she's also deeply involved in the world of the "supes," who hide a lot of their secrets from most humans.

Each of the books is structured as a murder mystery, and in each book, we learn a little more about the intricacies of the supernatural power structure. There are many, many deaths, a fair amount of sex, and some very funny parts, mostly having to do with the incongruity of violent supernatural slaughter in mundane settings. (If you've ever wanted to see an amnesiac vampire trying to clean up shotgunned werefox remains in a rural kitchen with an avocado-colored refrigerator, this series is for you. Charlaine Harris is good at what she does: she fulfills blood-lusty desires I never even knew I had, God bless 'er.)

And that summary is good enough, since most of my complaints about this book have little to do with the content anyway. I've bitched about book series before, and here we go again: Deadlocked is a prime example of why authors should stop milking their good ideas for bestsellers until they're empty and dry. This book is the literary equivalent of a manager's rising to the level of his incompetence; Harris didn't just phone this one in, she typed it in Morse code with her toes, probably while drinking a fruity cocktail on a Caribbean beach.

Good for her to some extent, say I, since she's earned that cocktail and that expensive beach resort with her previous, much better books, which is doubtless also why she's continuing to write more books in the series. But at a certain point, an author must do a cost-benefit analysis: does that author need another hundred thousand dollars now, or would she prefer to retain a reputation as a good writer?

With this series, Harris has reached the same point that Janet Evanovich, author of the massively popular Stephanie Plum series***, reached a few books back. Both of these series feature normal-girl protagonists who end up, not quite voluntarily, living very strange lives, one as a bumbling discount-lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter and one as a virginal Jeopardy-watching good-girl barmaid turned telepathic vampire moll. The humor of both series depends on the contrast between the bizarre major events in the heroines' lives and the banal day-to-day details; both Evanovich's Stephanie Plum and Harris's Sookie Stackhouse regularly spend the afternoon with Molotov cocktails whizzing by their heads and the evening watching TV and cleaning out the fridge. And for more books than one would expect, this worked in both series.

The love triangle plotline, so beloved of series writers in all genres, also worked for both of these authors for longer than one might expect, mainly because the characters in both series are appealing and because both Evanovich and Harris are good writers (and in similar ways). Harris, in particular, managed to keep the romantic suspense coming, by adding occasional decoy love interests along the way.

And now for the complaints. As I said above, these series both worked for longer than I expected, since one would expect descriptions of getting dressed for work and washing dishes to pall after a while. As of Deadlocked, they've officially friggin' palled. I get that Sookie's main challenge is living a somewhat normal life while silver-toothed fairies and ancient Roman vampires are trying to kill her and eat her face, but there are only so many instances of "I carried the groceries in from the car and put the bloodstained [insert item of clothing] in the washer with cold water" an Indiscriminate Reader can stand.

But aside from that, the narrative's still working for me; in fact, Deadlocked (and any other readers of this series, I welcome your opinions on this) is better than book 11 in this regard. It's really what Harris is doing with her characters that's starting to grate. Eric Northman, the badass Viking vampire who's been Sookie's main squeeze for quite a few books now (sorry, True Blood watchers, read the damn books already), started out as one of the best characters in the series: intelligent, ruthless, funny, sexy, violent, and a little confused by modern culture -- in short, everything a very old vampire should be****. He's been reduced to a caricature of himself, without any of the wit or goofiness he occasionally showed to balance out the big-tall-sharp-pointy-teeth part of his character, and the series has suffered.

But that's only a symptom. The disease is author-is-no-longer-engaged-itis, and Charlaine Harris signed this series' Do Not Resuscitate order when she finished book 12. The only cure I can think of is to end the series as quickly as possible, while it still has some freshness to it, and to Harris's credit, that's what she's going to do with the next book. Not all series writers have this good sense. Janet Evanovich has yet to get the memo; Stephanie Plum's 19th book is coming out next year, probably. So I'll give Harris a few points for realizing only a little belatedly that she's dragged it out too long.

Unfortunately, I must deduct about ten million points for the way Deadlocked ominously points toward Harris's ending this awesome series in an extraordinarily boring way. Anyone who's reading the books might want to look away now, but Jesus Christ on a cracker, is Sookie really going to dump Eric and live happily ever after with that whiny nonentity Sam the shapeshifting bar owner? He has about as much personality as a shapeshifting turnip that has the great power of changing into other equally dull root vegetables at will. I think Harris is trying to portray him as the attractive beta hero, but he's more like a gamma. Or an epsilon. Or a potato, for all the fascination he exerts on the page. I would rather read about a god damn potato.

I give this book two and a half stars overall, which is okay; but it's pretty sad considering that books 1 through 9 are in the four star range. This series needs to end.

* And like any good hipster, I liked it before it was  HBO's hit show True Blood.

** To be fair, I don't care about the latter group. Dude. Read the books before you watch the show. And look for another books vs. TV post coming soon, in which I will contradict that statement utterly.

*** The first book, One for the Money, recently became a poorly reviewed film.

**** Although he neither sparkles nor deflowers high school girls, so maybe he does leave a little to be desired.

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