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All Together Dead

by Charlaine Harris

 

Full Disclosure: I am a fan of Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire series. I have thoroughly and shamelessly enjoyed the pulpy adventures of rural Louisiana barmaid, Miss Sookie Stackhouse. She’s a deep country blonde bombshell with a gift for ESP, attracting otherworldly creatures and the troubles that come with them. Over the past 6 books, I’ve been joyfully witnessing this character wend her way through a life that was once relatively simple – outside of that pesky hearing every thought in her vicinity thing – turn slowly into something complex and occasionally twisted.  

The undead are out of the closet in Sookie’s world; they’ve made themselves known to humanity and now walk among the living, drink simulated blood among the living, and even own nightclubs that the living enjoy going to. The advent into Sookie’s life of a Mr. William Compton - a former Civil War soldier, commonly known as The Vampire Bill - serves as the point where Sookie’s easygoing life finds its wrench. It is through Bill that Sookie becomes initiated into world of the vamp and their hierarchy, and inexorably becomes subject to their complicated rules and traditions. As if her acquaintance with vampires wasn’t enough to shake things up in rural Bon Temps, Louisiana, over the series’ progression we find out that not only do vampires really exist, but so do werewolves, werepanthers, weretigers, and werelions and werebears  - oh my… (Just kidding about the lions and bears …although the way this series is developing, who knows?) 

My fondness for the ups and downs of our little waitress increased with each book. Watching her insular world expand through her first contented romance with The Vampire Bill, and her heartbreak as that love and subsequent romances disappointed and withered, one always wishes the best for Sookie. Sookie’s self-effacing charm and ingrained sense of kindness and stubborn sense of fair play make her utterly endearing. Heck, there have been times when her unfailing honesty and openness has made me wonder if she wasn’t a little “simple”. She’s plucky to a point just short of annoying. When she does get involved with the vampires, it’s usually due to that unsinkable good heart of hers. She’s a born rescuer, that Sookie, even when the rescuee is hundreds of years and many times less destructible than herself. A major player on the vamp side besides the Vampire Bill, are Bill’s Commander-in Chief and Sheriff of Louisiana Area Five, Eric Northman. Previously employed as a Viking, in his current life (?!) Eric is the owner of a lucrative nightclub that caters to the vamp-hag clientele. Eric has had sex with Sookie, but cannot remember it (- that’s gotta bruise a girl’s ego!). Eric and Sookie have a definite thing, a pop, a yen, chemistry, and that pull between them is one of the most compelling aspects of the series. Eric and Sookie play off each other well as characters and their interactions are often some of the most fun moments in the books. Eric’s assistant Pam’s disdain for all things human except Dear Abby and twin sets makes her one of my favourite characters. Ms. Harris’s dialog for Pam is pure comedy gold. There’s Bubba (not his real name) an addle-pated vampire from Memphis that everyone in the human world would recognize for his incredible fame while he was alive, and also for his many post-mortem sightings over the last three decades at various 7-11’s (- See? Clever. Sadly, Bubba’s only a mention in this new book). Sookie has had a will they /won’t they relationship with her kindly boss, Sam, owner of the eponymous tavern, Merlotte’s, who turns into a lovely collie when the mood strikes him.  

And speaking of rather fetching suitors, Alcide spent a short amount of time on Sookie’s arm and brought her into the next chapter of her supernatural saga; her dealings with the Weres. To me, this was a tipping point in the series. I’m not a Were fan. I’ve never understood why the inclusion of vampires in a book (- or film) begets instant inclusion of werethingies. Vampires: cool, sophisticated, elegant and sexy. Werewolves: brutal, hairy, dirty and smelly. That aside, I went with it because I enjoyed the stories so much. Sookie’s adventures seemed to skim the edges of actual involvement in either world and she remained her own charming person. However, from the point of the 5th book in the series (Dead as a Doornail) we are submersed into the world of the Were, as if her touch and go involvement with the vamps wasn’t enough. Her brother, Jason, was turned into a werepanther, she’s attending Were events, watching deadly Were ceremonies, and fighting off jealous Were ex-girlfriends. Still, Sookie’s tremendous charm kept me put when I might have run screaming. However, it is in this book that we are given the Were for All Seasons, Quinn. No last name, or maybe it’s his first name, but he’s just Quinn. A tall, muscular, olive skinned event planner, who, we are told over and over again, is held in almost rock star awe by his fellow shapeshifters and can’t not a chapter go by without being reminded how sexy he is. I knew I had a problem right away because all I could think of when I read his description was either a) a genie (- good call, you’ll see!), or, b) the bald-headed musclemen from circuses in the 1920’s lifting those big round barbells, you usually see them in cartoons. Still, he never seemed to be of any real consequence because he wasn't around in Sookie’s life very often, but, oh, has that changed. 

And since I have such a big problem with Quinn in All Together Dead, I’m going right for it. I dislike him, flat out dislike the character. I am weary to my ancient bones of the need for authors to involve their heroines with a convenient Prince Charming, a non-stick cypher who’s all things the heroine has ever dreamed of, shows up in the middle of a series and suddenly makes everything all right. It doesn’t wash, folks. Sookie’s been recently bitten (NPI) by betrayal, deceit, and plain old rejection. Out of the blue, after suffering these hurts, our previously cautious character just throws her heart, soul, and other body parts into this new guy who has no complications and is seemingly perfect; never mind that Sookie doesn’t know a thing about him, not even his surname. As Eric points out early in the book, “You don’t know him any more than you really knew Bill”, and see how that turned out? I call BS! Believe me, I’m as much a romance nut as the next elephant-headed deity, but don’t pee on my trunk and tell me it’s raining (- thank you, Judge Judy). Even in a fantasy book, my suspension of disbelief only goes so far. It’s entirely possible that Quinn’s utter perfection may be part of a future plot development, but for now it’s just bollocks. For all of his brash attitude and alleged fierceness, I find Quinn utterly without personality or charm. He so permeates All Together Dead that it’s very hard not to throw the book across the room every time this macho chipmunk refers to Sookie as either “babe” or “my woman”. In the first few chapters of All Together Dead it’s revealed that Quinn and Sookie have only been on three -count ‘em- three dates total since the previous book, and all while he was passing through on his way to planning another Extreme(ly Elegant) Event; or, as on one “date”, packing up a trailer while Sookie watched – I swear I hear violins. When Quinn arrives on the scene in All Together Dead, he drops in on Sookie out of nowhere without preamble or courtesy of a phone call after not seeing her for weeks on end. Faster than you can say Mr. Cataliades (- pronounced Ka-TAL-ee-ah-deez), the horny weretiger clumsily propositions Sookie for sex. At Sookie’s hesitation, “I’m not a one-night-stand kind of woman”, Quinn conveniently informs her that he is taking a month off from his busy event planning (- quelle macho, BTW), and asks Sookie if he can spend the entire 4 weeks with her. We are constantly reminded throughout these books how careful Sookie’s gotta be with her time – she makes up every day she’s out of work at Merlotte’s and banks overtime, because she can’t even afford gravel for her driveway, or a warm coat (- but Eric can - and does- buy them for her. The good gravel, even!), but somehow Sookie’s going to alter her life for a month because Quinn has decided they’ll spend time together (- the pesky details about exactly how and where never get around to being discussed). Well, hey, those were the magic words for Sookie, because the next thing you know, they’re going at it like a pair of wererabbits. Yoi! The romance between Quinn and Sookie takes place in a vacuum with a HEPA filter. I was starting to see glimpses of Pod-Sookie, and I started to worry. 

However, Quinn, as usual, doesn’t hang about overlong in the early part of All Together Dead. He’s around just long enough after their obligatorily graphic ugly-bumping to accompany Sookie to her brother Jason’s sudden wedding to a knocked-up werepanther. Watch as the entire werepanther community ooh and ah’s over Sookie’s date. Why, Quinn is so sexy that even Jason’s pregnant fiancé is giving him the eye. Maybe I’ve been looking at my Mr. Clean bottle all wrong. Once that episode is quickly dispatched, we are allowed to get to the rest of the story. Sookie’s promise to make good on a financial deal she made earlier to accompany the Louisiana vampire court to a vampire summit. At this gathering of bloodsuckers, eternal teenager, Sophie-Anne, Queen of Louisiana, will meet with other kings and queens across the country to discuss vamp business and to try and replenish all that was lost in their community after a) and attempted coup by her now really dead husband, the King of Arkansas, and, b) a monster in the form of a hurricane called Katrina. Yes, even the vampires were affected. It’s actually a nice touch on Charlaine Harris’s part that she tries to level some sort of equation to that incredible loss in acknowledgement that this entire series depends so much on Louisiana for its settings. One of the joys of the Southern Vampire series was feeling like I was viewing this different part of the country with different people whose lives moved at a very different pace than mine. It would have been a terrible mistake to leave word of the devastation that faced those people unnoted. 

Having said that, most of All Together Dead is not actually set in Louisiana: Sookie takes her act on the road, kids, going north of the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time in her life. The majority of the action in All Together Dead takes place at vampire-friendly hotel (and spell-checkarific), the Pyramid of Gizeh, at some mysterious town which doesn’t seem to be part of any particular state called Rhodes. (Nitpick - Now, I have done a full read through this book twice, and leafed through many times, but I’ll be damned if I can tell where exactly Rhodes is. I do know that it’s on Lake Michigan, somewhere north of Chicago {- underwater?}, and it takes two days to drive back to Louisiana from there - this is too much guesswork about a city mentioned a million times in the story. Nitpick over.) Anyway, Sookie’s place at the summit is at the side of the Louisiana vamps as both a human-lie detector (- there’s that ESP) during financial negotiations and other undead transactions, and to serve as a witness to the falsity of the accusations of murder against Queen Sophie-Anne. The trial could result in the queen’s execution and a complete upheaval in the southern hierarchy. There is a lot of political wrangling at the summit, where we are treated to one alliance between the Kings of Mississippi and Indiana in the form of a marriage, which is coincidentally a love-match. You go, Ms. Harris. One of the funnier moments in the book is where the appointed priest goes missing from the ceremony and the only person qualified to marry the two kings is Eric Northman, an ordained minister according to the certificate he received online from the Church of the Loving Spirit.  

Sadly, there aren’t enough of these light moments to give the book the familiar Sookie sass. Instead, the book which is paced crawlingly slowly in its first half, much time taken with the preparations to get the vampires to the summit and Sophie’s trial. Even a murder during the summit doesn’t really raise the interest Ms. Harris makes up for the jarring lack of humour with bombast. It takes well into the last half of the All Together Dead to get really moving, and then Harris throws everything but the kitchen sink at her readers (- actually, the plumbing is pretty much up for grabs). Not to say that all this action is the work of genius; there are moments that even the simple-souled Sookie comes off as an absolute moron and it’s cheap and unworthy of Harris. Even her characters seem to notice – spoiler alert ------------ in one outstanding moment (- not in a good way), Sookie, having a neat freak attack decides to help the hotel staff and dispose of some litter that may be an ill-placed can of Dr. Pepper, or it may be a homemade bomb. She turns it around and looks into it carefully, then hangs on to it with both hands for dear life, despite the pleadings of both her Tigerman “honey” and the much less destructible Eric. She’s not letting it go until “someone with one of those special suits on” arrives! The head of hotel security, a Mr. Donati, instantly became one of my favourite characters with this statement, “You won’t let anyone take the can, you won’t put it down, and you haven’t blown up yet. So I think I’ll go downstairs to wait for the bomb squad”. I greeted his sane logic like Chap Stick in the desert. ---------- spoiler over. There are a lot of silly heroics in this one and even sillier requests on my supernatural powers to levitate my disbelief:  The vampires staying at the hotel are under the most careful security that money can buy, including - wait for it - warrior ninja chicks from another dimension! (- Maybe I should take back my statement about this book not being funny enough) The vampires know they have their own group of human terrorists after them called the Fellowship of the Sun, who have grown increasingly violent in their anti-vamp propaganda and actions. Yet Sookie and others in the undead contingent are only too happy to be the carrier mules for unclaimed luggage anonymously labeled only by state. Wait, has nobody heard of “suspicious baggage” in the South? For one brief moment Sookie, the brilliant mind-reader, finds it a tad odd that one of the armed guards holding the mysterious suitcase is actively shielding his thoughts, or has someone else putting “a metaphysical helmet on his head”, but feels no need to think any further about it (- or tell anyone else) once faced with the guard’s tart attitude toward her. “Yankee rudeness”, she thinks and lugs the bag right up to the Queen’s suite. Oy. 

There is trial drama, murder, double-dealing intrigue, and a climax that owes uncomfortably much to another disaster further north. (- I wasn’t nearly as pleased with that homage…) The pace goes from that crawl I mentioned to breakneck, culminating in the clearance of many characters (- there were about 2,000 too many in this story, anyway, and why must they all have names like Bart, Stan, and Cindy Lou?). One vamp makes a clumsy attempt to keep Sookie and her oh-so-useful psychic gift permanently at the Louisiana queen’s beck and call. This scene is supposed to mark a stark change in Sookie and her views on the vampires with whom she previously dealt cautiously but fairly, giving them a wide berth because they are …umm, vampires…? I’ve always been reminded of the fable of The Farmer and the Snake – “Why did you bite me?” cried the farmer.  “You gave me your word not to harm me.” “Ah,” said the snake, “but you knew what I was when you picked me up.”, when reading the Southern Vampire series. Therefore, I am surprised and annoyed when Sookie watches the vamps deal with each other (- and herself) in strategic and sometimes duplicitous ways, no more or less than one would see on The Sopranos … but, for some reason, with her new “honey” by her side, dripping his poisoned anti-vamp bias in Sookie’s ear, she is shown as colder and crueler in her judgment of the bloodsuckers than ever before. (- BTW -- minor spoiler – we also get Quinn’s story here, too. This is hastily related to Sookie by a friend, because despite her requests for Quinn to tell her himself, he never finds the time to give her the truth, “Babe, I gotta get back to work” … Shady, I tell you -  We also learn the frankly ridiculous reason why he hates the vamps so much.) I’ve always given Sookie leeway for her optimistic naiveté, but why so wrathful because of the actions of one overenthusiastic minion, or even vampire politics in general? Who is it that helps her out of every jam in this book? A vampire! It’s just too convenient for her to suddenly loathe them. Also, there is a subtext that Sookie herself is seen by some human associates as changing and growing more darkity-dark-dark. I don’t know exactly how or where the actual proof of that is, other than her understanding of and sudden distaste for the vampires. I’m reading Sookie as opening her eyes to the harshness of the world outside Bon Temps, LA.  It felt like there’s a press to make Sookie seem more edgy in All Together Dead, and while I’m all for character development and growth, I don’t like Pod People. Don’t invest me in this character for 6 books and then throw situations and actions at me that just don’t ring true. Sookie’s charm is in her breezy, laid back, sweet personality. She’s not a fool, but you do worry for her unflinching belief in the best in people. Her openness and honesty gets her in trouble, and while no one can have seen all that Sookie has in this series and not be affected, I feel like there is a definite pull to change the core of her, and this is the most jarring thing about All Together Dead for me. I can see a new and uglier Sookie being manufactured before my eyes. The last chapter, related in ultra-dramatic flashback, reads horribly like a movie outline, gives us Dark Sookie, and I don’t like her one bit. I liked her Light. I liked her irrepressible spirit, and I liked that she was a genuinely good person, but the actions in that chapter (- which hammered the last nail in the Quinn coffin for me) are so remarkably unlike the 6 books before, that I was flabbergasted - not in a good way. 

To be fair, to someone who’s never read the series before, that chapter may not have the effect that it did on me. In fact, I can easily see the uninitiated loving that last half of All Together Dead as rip-roaring adventure with a kickass heroine; a great big, loud payoff after a slow start. There is a lot more Eric action than there’s been, so who loses, really? Unfortunately, I can’t separate this book from the rest of the Southern Vampire series, and to me, All Together Dead is the link that, depending on the actions of the next book, will bolster up Ms. Harris’s fanbase while adding new devotees, or alienate a whole cross section of followers.

I await Miss Stackhouse’s next adventure most anxiously.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

 April 29th, 2007

 

 

 

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