Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Posted on 7th January 2011 in Reviews

dead-until-darkPoor Sookie Stackhouse. The 25-year-old cocktail-bar waitress from Bon Temps, northern Louisiana, can’t seem to catch a break. Cursed with a telepathic gift that severely hindered her attempts at a normal life, it also made her subject to a fair amount of poking and prodding from members of the psychiatric profession in her youth.

Sookie daren’t even date because of all this weirdness, and has found her educational and career prospects heavily impaired by her ESP-based handicap and its overwhelming effect on her concentration.

To top it off, when the first vampire she has come across walks into her bar she finds that she is unable to read his mind; subsequently she becomes tied-up in a series of events that will change her life dramatically.  With the attempted murders of herself and the mystery vampire on the cards early on in the book, as well as the killings of several locals in this small, deep-South backwater, the stage is set for a rip-roaring supernatural-horror thriller with a healthy dose of Cajun seasoning.

The main plot of this, the first book in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series, concerns this rash of murders of several women, including one from Sookie’s own workplace, and later another closer to home.

As the women all appear to have had close links with vampires, it’s not long before the blood-suckers become main suspects, and as a result the budding relationship between Sookie and her vampire suitor Bill, comes under even more pressure.  An early and unexpected brush with death in separate but related incidents for both of the characters sees a bond form between the pair, the evolution of which is tested by these further pressures external upon the couple.

One person open to vampires, and to Bill in particular, is Sookie’s Grandma, and she invites Bill to speak at a local history group of his knowledge of the past.  Far from being dry back-story or filler it all makes for quite interesting stuff, and it’s great to see different angles taken as regard the background of such characters.  The attention and care paid to the small details throughout also adds to the tension as momentum builds later in the book as regards other goings on in Bon Temps.

The Sookie Stackhouse novels have been a phenomenal success, and are up there with Twilight for exploding the vampire lit scene of the past few years. Then there’s the popularity of Alan Ball’s HBO True Blood series, recently renewed for a fourth season in the U.S.  This is one property that’s hot and looks to remains so.  And with good reason, the books do more than enough to stay on the right side of bloody, sexy and thrilling to stop this sliding into that ever so vacuous boredom-territory that can plague vampire genre fiction.

There’s lots going on, plenty of interesting characters,  diverse sub-plots being woven into the greater background, and even the ‘spin’ on the vampires in this canon is fresh.  I found especially interesting the vampire societal aspects, lingering in the background of the story (as the vampires themselves do) and the hints at their legal and hierarchical systems.  It really makes you want to read the next book, (a review of which will also be up in the near future).

Dead Until Dark, whilst being a superb footstone for further books, is a worthy contender in its own right.  Its ‘who-done-it’ plot has a steady pace, some appropriate and quite racy moments, and its hip, alternate vampire mythology couples well with the foreground activities of the rich variety of characters.  Bill as the mysterious vampire who has returned to his ancestral roost is one of the more genuinely interesting blood suckers of recent times, more so because of his often stilted and disjointed ways (he is comfortably out of his time) but written in a sympathetic and non-patronising way.

It is Harris’ ability to write her characters with such emphatic voice, and to explore their relationships with each other in this close-knit community of Bon Temps that makes the book so appealing.  With its fast pace, excellent sense of humour (Bill in a Grateful Dead t-shirt is one stand out moment) not to mention genuine vampire horror roots, Dead Until Dark has the hallmark of a classic series in the making.

8/10

Buy this book: UK/US (Box Set)

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