Monday, August 29, 2011

Study Your Peers - The Southern Vampire Mysteries

Today I'm taking a critical look into the Southern Vampire Mystery series by Charlaine Harris, aka The Sookie Stackhouse novels, aka the books that started HBO's TV series, True Blood.

Why am I attempting to analysis the work of a highly successful vampire author who's craft is one-hundred times better than my own? Well... that IS why. She writes vampire urban fantasy... I write vampire urban fantasy... She's famous... I'm just getting started. I'm trying to learn something here by studying one of the masters.

What? Surprised I didn't chose The Vampire Lestat for this post? There is no argument from me that Anne Rice is certainly a vampire master, but the industry has come a long way since the days of Interview with a Vampire and Harris' books are bit more current. Plus I am currently obsessed with True Blood, so of course I jumped to talk about it. *wink*

So here we go:

Blurb for DEAD UNTIL DARK - Book 1

Sookie Stackhouse is a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. She's quiet, keeps to herself, and doesn't get out much. Not because she's not pretty. She is. It's just that, well, Sookie has this sort of "disability". She can read minds. And that doesn't make her too dateable. And then along comes Bill. He's tall, dark, handsome - and Sookie can't hear a word he's thinking. He's exactly the type of guy she's been waiting for all her life....

But Bill has a disability of his own: He's a vampire with a bad reputation. He hangs with a seriously creepy crowd, all suspected of - big surprise - murder. And when one of Sookie's coworkers is killed, she fears she's next.

What I love most about this series:  Right off the bat in chapter one, Harris makes it known that humans are well aware of the existence of vampires. But they didn't always know. The vampires had recently "come out of the coffin" before book one starts. Unlike hundreds of other vampire books, the focus is not to keep the vampire lover a secret. Instead of focusing on the secret world of vampires, Harris plays on what would happen if we found out vampires were real? How would politics handle it? Would they have the same civil rights as us? Should human-vampire marriages be legalized? How would the church react to this? Do vampires have souls? Etc. Even though this is all going on in the back ground, Harris does such an excellent job of making it real - as real as the battle for gay rights, for example.

Why it works:  Plan and simple - it's different. I can't think of anyone else who's taken this approach before. In fact, it's so different that no one cares about the fact that she uses the stereotypical type of vampires (the exploding in the sun, needing permission to enter your house type).

The Characters:  The characters are always the reason why I love or hate any book. So of course that means I love Harris' characters - vampire and human. She does an excellent job of making each character 100 percent unique and quirky. My favorite character is - without a doubt - Eric Northman, the viking vampire and true alpha male and hero of the series. *Spoiler Alert!* I have to admit I was disappointed when Bill and Sookie broke up. I kept waiting for them to get back together - the flirting with Alcide was okay, but I really didn't care for that bald tiger guy. But Eric and Sookie, on the other hand, Oh - My - God! It's not even the fact that Sookie and Eric are together, it's the way Harris put them together!!! She was extra sneaky about it and it worked.

However, there were a few things that didn't work for me. Harris has a ton of secondary characters that just didn't seem necessary at all. Have you seen the show? Only about a third of the secondary characters from the book made it into the show. I'm glad the books are written in first person without any head-hopping (with the exception of Sookie's mind reading ability) or it would have been worse.

Also, a lot of her characters have some funky names and/or names that are spelled weird. I'm not sure if that's because her characters are from Louisiana or what, but I had a hard time trying to guess the proper pronunciation. This always annoys me to no end. If I can't pronounce a character's name, I'm not going to use it and not going to remember it either.

The Setting:  I've only been to New Orleans once when I was a kid, but you can tell Harris is from the area. I have to assume that's the major reason why she used Louisiana. She writes it well and she writes about Southern values and traditions from Sookie's point of view like she's been doing it herself her whole life - which she has. I always think using a setting you know well gives the author a huge advantage. It's easy to make it real because you've been there. Plus the twist - southern vampire racism - is oh so fun in this story. Does 'till death do you part have any power with a vampire lover?

The Writing:  Ah, here is we run into some issues. Before we all start to judge, I'm just going to say my own personal opinions here. You are all free to disagree. Ever since I became a writer, reading for pleasure as oppose to critiquing has gotten difficult. I have to tell my inner editor to shut up and just enjoy the story - no matter what I'm reading - so it's really nothing personal to the author.

However, I had a hard time with the flow of this series. The beginning of each book is always long and drawn out with little to no action. There are a ton of little passive scenes about Sookie doing her grocery shopping or some other errand that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It's slow and boring and I sometimes skip over a lot of it. The only slight advantage I can see to this is that there is NO question as to what kind of person Sookie Stackhouse is because we're forced to follower her everywhere. It's a good thing Sookie is the type of heroine I like; strong, stubborn, and witty.

The middle is usually where we get the conflict - and the hot lovin' which is pretty much all I care about. LOL. Now as a new author who had the "rules" drilled into my head time and time again, presenting the conflict in the middle of the story is a huge no-no. It should be in the beginning! Harris likes to break this rule, especially in the later books.

It does lead to a fast and intense conclusion, though. And Harris likes to do the cliff-hanger ending which I both love and loath. Love because I just HAVE to get the next book! Loath because have to WAIT for the next book! :-(

Overall:  Guys, I really have no idea why The Southern Vampire Mysteries are a hit or why HBO decided to make it into a TV series. IMHO, the plot is week. The show is better - plot wise at least. But what it does have going for it is 1) The characters are awesome and dynamic. 2) Sookie is a strong leading lady that doesn't take vampire crap. 3) It's different. There is no other vampire book like it that I know of. And I think that's the most important element. And 4) Eric Northman would eat the Cullens for breakfast and make it look hot.

~ J.D. Brown ~
author of the Dark Heirloom series * March 2011


  1. Sounds awesome. Loved your eating the Cullens remark. Teehee.
    I like traditional vamps myself. Like in Buffy land. (=

  2. Thanks Jo. I like all sorts of vampires. I think my favorite "type" that I've read so far are the ones from the Black Dagger Brotherhood.

  3. Lestat kept me awake nights. Rice is so close to the heart of darkness that just holding her books give me the shivers.

    Great post.

    Thought I'd stop into this blog for a change and see what you were up to. Very nice.

  4. Cleemckenzie, I'm glad you enjoyed the post and like the blog. Welcome to Wicked Writers. :)