Reviewed in the United States on October 13, 2008
While I've loved all of the Sookie Stackhouse novels up to this one, DEFINITELY, DEAD might be the best of the bunch. It isn't just that the novel tells a great story; it contains several game changing elements. Of those in a second. Before I move forward let me issue a
SPOILER WARNING!! Many major spoilers will arise in the following review.
Before getting to the spoilers, I'd like to point out something about the nature of the ongoing narrative of the Sookie Stackhouse books. I have a strong suspicion that the Southern Vampire Mysteries or the Sookie Stackhouse Books as they are alternately known are the first novel series influenced more by television series than by other books. I can't prove this, but with one major exception I cannot think of any other books that have the overall narrative structure that these books do. On the other hand, I can think of several TV series that do. The one series of novels is one that is unlikely to have much influence here, Patrick O'Brian's magnificent Jack Aubrey/Maturin novels, detailing the adventures of a Royal Navy officer and his friend Maturin, who is a physician and spy. (I give these books, by the way, the highest possible recommendation.) Each novel begins shortly after the end of the previous novel. Some begin immediately after the events of the previous one, essentially forming a chapter in a staggeringly huge master narrative. The Sookie Stackhouse novels are very much in this vein. Some of the books recommence only a couple of weeks after the close of the previous one. In this way the books resemble TV series like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (unquestionably a major influence on the books). Each season of BUFFY picked up only a few months after the end of the previous season (the passage of time being that of summer). ANGEL, a spin off of BUFFY, is another likely influence. Other series in the early part of the decade that pursued an ongoing, unbroken narrative would include THE GILMORE GIRLS, DARK ANGEL, ALIAS, FELICITY, and SMALLVILLE. I don't know how many of these series Charlaine Harris might have watched (BUFFY and ANGEL are definites -- there are overt reference to the books and Sookie not only owns tapes of both shows, she shows them to Eric during his period of amnesia). Whether or not these shows had the kind of narrative influence that I imagine, there is no doubt that Harris undertakes a narrative strategy not common in long series. Each novel picks up only a few weeks after its predecessor. There will be exceptions -- although DEFINITELY, DEAD was set in New Orleans and appeared in print just after the catastrophe of Katrina, the subsequent novel, ALL TOGETHER DEAD, would move the plot several months ahead to a few weeks after Katrina in order to make it clear that the earlier novel was pre-Katrina. DEFINITELY, DEAD, however, takes place only a few weeks after the end of DEAD AS A DOORNAIL.
DEFINITELY, DEAD sees Sookie going to New Orleans to settle the estate of her deceased cousin Hadley, who had been a vampire for a short period of time, and the beloved of the Queen of Louisiana. This part of the novel is laced with political intrigue and is crisscrossed with two B-plots, the ongoing investigation of the death of their daughter Debbie Pelt (Sookie had shot her with a shotgun in self-defense in an earlier novel) and the blossoming romance with the renowned weretiger Quinn. (Side note: I absolutely detest Quinn. Though he seems a nice enough soul, he has a habit of calling Sookie "babe," a crime for which he should be imprisoned. OK, just a personal whim, but whenever Quinn talks I get nauseous.)
During the course of the novel's events Sookie learns two things that are what are certainly game changers. I mean, everything you thought you knew about earlier books is turned on its head. First, Sookie learns that Bill originally came to Bon Temps on the orders of the Queen. She had learned through Hadley of Sookie's telepath abilities and Bill was sent to seduce her so that she could be recruited to do service for the Queen. Learning this almost destroys Sookie's world. A great deal of her self-esteem had been constructed on having been loved by Bill Compton, even if he did betray her later. Obviously this betrayal will feature prominently in the story to come. Although Bill tried his best to explain to Sookie that he had fallen utterly, truly in love with her, Sookie is determined to "abjure" him just as Alcide had Debbie Pelt in an earlier book. The second huge game changer was Sookie learning that she is not purely human. We had earlier in the novel learned that it wasn't an accident that Sookie's fairy godmother Claudine (who we learn is aspiring to become an angel) had been directed to be Sookie's guardian. She indicates that there is a reason, but she is unable or unwilling to explain what that is. So it is no surprise later in the book when the Queen's companion and friend Andre informs Sookie that she has some fairy blood in her. Sookie speculates that one of her grandparents, perhaps, had been either a fairy or part fairy. More, obviously, to follow.
One other important addition to the cast of characters in DEFINITELY, DEAD, besides the Queen and Andre, is the New Orleans witch Amelia, who for reasons I won't go into returns at the end of the novel to Bon Temps to live for a while away from New Orleans. In the next novel she the term of her residence in Bon Temps is unclear because of Katrina, but for a while at least seems certain to be renting the upstairs part of Sookie's house.
What has increasingly delighted me in reading these books has been the way that Harris has kept the series fresh by injecting new characters and new twists of the plot, while keeping everything in control with a deft touch. To contrast it with the Anita Blake stories, the latter started off more promising than good, but then got sillier and sillier as new elements were added. Eventually the novels because nothing more than sex books. The work with the police that Anita did for the police that was so important early on in the series becomes increasingly peripheral. I started thinking about ceasing to read the books only a few books into the series, continuing because I kept hoping that it would return to its initial promise and become something interesting again. The Sookie Stackhouse books, on the other hand, have stayed fresh and original and fun.