Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Touch of Dead, Grave Sight - Charlaine Harris' urbanfantasymystery realm

In order to break up the year-long wait in between releases of the Sookie Stackhouse novels (the series of books by Charlaine Harris on which HBO's hit True Blood is based), I decided this fall to check out a couple of her other publications - one Sookie-related, the other not. And so in this post I'll be reviewing two different Harris books: A Touch of Dead, being an anthology of previously published short stories about the Sookie universe, and Grave Sight, the first in another of the authors' ongoing series. My thoughts below...

First off, A Touch of Dead. I knew that Harris had published a number of short stories from the Sookie-verse in various other anthologies, but the idea never really interested me enough to track them all down individually. Which is probably why A Touch of Dead is such a brilliant marketing ploy, especially since the series itself has become so popular among its genre. Someone like me, who's already a fan of the books, might not care about these peripheral side-stories enough to go out and buy five separate books in order to read them. Gathering them all together in a single Sookie collection, however, suddenly makes the deal a lot more tempting. Another thing that peaked my interest in this little publication was just the fact that I don't own a single one of the Sookie novels. Maybe I'm just a little OCD, but it seemed silly to buy a few of the books if I'm not going to invest in the complete series (and I'm not that hard-core of a Sookie fan). Thanks to libraries and friends, I had managed to avoid throwing down a single cent for my enjoyment of the Sookie series, and A Touch of Dead seemed like a nice little compromise. This way I could have some representation of the Sookie books in my personal collection without having to go all out or be totally random about it. Not to mention, I'd get to read all those short stories I'd been missing. So I bought the tiny, overpriced little book, and was pretty happy about it.

A Touch of Dead includes five separate stories that all feature Sookie herself in some capacity. (I believe there are other short stories that focus on other characters from the same universe, but which were not included in AToD.) In the first story, "Fairy Dust", the fairy twins Claudine and Claude recruit Sookie's telepathic abilities to help them discover who murdered their third sibling (they were actually triplets), Claudette. The funny thing is, Claudine doesn't exactly tell Sookie that's what they're up to when she invites her over. You can imagine poor Sookie's surprise when she show's up at their house and finds all the suspects bound and gagged in various nooks and crannies (one in the pantry, one in the cellar, etc). That's a lot for a girl to take, but considering all the times her fairy-god-mother friend has conveniently pooped up to save our telepath from near death situations I'd say its the least Sookie can do. This story sheds some dearly needed light on the personal lives of the twins (what does one call a pair of triplets exactly?), and so "Fairy Dust" was a welcome addition to the collection.

The second story, "One Word Answer", is significant in that it plugs up a gaping hole in the continuity of the main novels. When the Hadley storyline was rather abruptly introduced in the sixth book, Sookie already knew the whole story of her cousin's entanglement with Queen Sophie-Anne. Unfortunate readers like myself, however, were totally in the dark. "One Word Answer" is where Sookie, and dedicated readers, learn Hadley's history for the first time. In the third story, "Dracula Night", Eric invites Sookie to Fangtasia to take part in the annual celebration of the count's birth into darkness. This standalone story certainly brings the humor, as we find out that the usually cool, confident Eric suffers from a serious case of hero-worship when it comes to all thing Dracula. We also get to see a bit of the rest of the Fangtasia crew (including Pam), which is always a treat. In the fourth story, "Lucky", Sookie and the witchy roommate she picked up in New Orleans, Amelia Bradshaw, team up to figure out what supernatural forces have been plaguing the insurance industry in Bon Temps. This story was enjoyable (Amelia's always a hoot), but not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of things. The final story, "Gift Wrap" was my least favorite of the bunch. In it, Sookie rescues a wounded Were on Christmas eve from the woods surrounding her house. The two bond a little (physically as well as emotionally), before going their separate ways the next day. The reader then finds out that the whole thing was an elaborate set up by her great grandfather so she wouldn't be alone on Christmas. (Niall has the best of intentions, but as an ancient fairy he is a little out of touch with humanity). This story seemed a little gratuitous (Sookie shares an attraction with yet another hunky, but ultimately disposable, 'supe), but overall I was very pleased with the entire collection.

Shortly after finishing A Touch of Dead I decided to check out another one of Harris' series, seeing as how I've found the Sookie books to be so charming and engaging. So I ordered and read Grave Sight from the local library network. Grave Sight is the first in a series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who hunts down missing corpses for a living. Ever since she got struck by lighting in a freak accident as a child (yes, that's right, struck by lightning), Harper has had a powerful connection with the dead. She can locate corpses, and even relive the final moments of the deceased's life. Harper has decided to put her special skill to good use, hiring out her services to a skeptical but desperate clientele, traveling around the country to recover lost souls. Her companion and protector is her step-brother Tolliver Lang. Tolliver has always watched out for Harper since their abusive childhoods at the hands of their drug-addicted parents, and now he's sort of become her business partner and negotiator. The two share a powerful bond, but their relationship is kind of dysfunctional. On the one hand, they introduce live and introduce themselves as brother and sister, but care about each other more intensely than is usual or healthy in a sibling relationship. They're not actually related by blood, but they're not lovers either. I'd bet my bottom dollar that the development of this relationship is the focus of the series in terms of continuing character development. In the meantime they seem to get involved in various mysteries and human drama wherever their unique profession takes them.

Having only read the first book, I cannot really generalize about the series with any credibility, but I did find that it bears some resemblances to the Sookie novels. Both series feature twenty-something women coping with unusual supernatural gifts (telepathy in Sookie's case, a psychic connection with the dead in Harper's) who end up getting involved in small town mysteries. Yet the series differ greatly in that while Sookie lives in a world of vampires, witches, shape-shifters, and other supernatural beings, Harper only has to deal with regular humans in her universe. Now I'm not trying to say that the lack of 'supes makes Harper's world dull per se (humans can provide plenty of fascinating intrigue and drama on their own, no question.) But at the same time I can't deny that I felt something missing from Grave Sight. One of the most engaging aspects of the Sookie novels has been the whole mythology built up behind the series, which is so soundly grounded in the various supernatural communities of Bon Temps, and, by extension, of northern Louisiana. Whereas Sookie's story has this constantly expanding cast of recurring characters, the Harper Connelly series seems only to have the two central figures who travel nomadically from place to place. And after reading Grave Sight, I'm just not convinced that these two characters are interesting enough to carry us through an ongoing series of novels by themselves.

Overall, I didn't enjoy Grave Sight as much as I'd hoped or expected. It offered very little to balance out its melancholy and depressing tone, and its characters were uninspiring and unmemorable. If you enjoy a good mystery, however, you're likely to find that in any Harris book you pick up, the Harper Connelly series included. If you're looking for more character-driven plots, however, stick to Sookie Stackhouse.