Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris

~~Moved from GR~~

 

Already Dead

by Charlaine Harrison

 

Sookie Stackhouse is a pretty, demure, and (extremely) naive blonde with a "disability": the ability to read other peoples' minds. (Apparently, despite the direct contradiction in the term, an additional ability is the new disability in Sookie's world.) When Sookie uses her skill to prevent the murder of a vampire, she finds herself with a doorway into this only recently exposed world. Determined to discover who has been murdering the various "loose women" around town, Sookie teams up with the enthralling vampire Bill (sigh) to find the answer.

I felt compelled to read this because, as far as I understand it, Sookie Stackhouse, along with Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson and a few others, are to "female-lead urban fantasy"/paranormal romance (I'll call it FLUF) what Harry Dresden is to "male-protagonist/hardboiled urban fantasy"(which I'll call MUF): the template, archetype, the most prominent example, and the series to compare against. In other words, Sookie is who we get to blame for all of the tropes that are common to all subsequent FUF. So I must admit that I enjoyed trying to unearth which of these tropes are due to Sookie.

 

WARNING: Extremely opinionated and potentially obnoxious generalizations below.

First, why make the extremely sexist distinction between MUF and FLUF? (Heh, I love writing those terms.) Well, I'd argue that they're actually different genres, and that somehow these subgenres are extremely gendered. Every MUF that I have read (and according to my GR shelf, I've read about 80) has been a partial pastiche of one or more of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, Hammett's Sam Spade, or Fleming's James Bond. They all tend to feature a hardboiled, down-on-his luck detective, usually with special magical skills, who acts as an interface between the magical and nonmagical world. Snarky badinage, damsels in distress, femme fatales, and gangsters are plentiful. FLUF, on the other hand, tends to feature a beautiful female, also often a PI, who ends up being forced into an investigation that leads her into the power of one or more supernatural groups. The focus of FLUF is usually strongly centered on romance and/or a romantic triangle. While the MUF protagonist always at least attempts a jaded, world-weary tone, the FLUF protagonist is usually a naif. The snark is toned down, gangsters are usually absent, and rather than rescuing damsels in distress, the heroine is focused on ensuring that she is not trapped by one or more seductive and predatory males. I actually can only think of one female-protagonist urban fantasy that probably can be characterized better as a hardboiled urban fantasy, and that's Kat Richardson's Greywalker.

Another typical difference between MUF and FLUF is the type of world. Almost every MUF I have read utilizes the "masquerade world" trope: the world of the supernatural is carefully hidden from the normals. Almost every FLUF I have encountered uses the "unmasqued world" trope: the paranormal beings have emerged from hiding and are now trying to become part of society. And I think templates provide and explanation for this. Harry Dresden lives in a masquerade world. Sookie Stackhouse, Mercy Thompson, Rachel Morgan, etc live in unmasqued worlds.

In addition, most of the MUFS I know focus on ghosts, fey, wizards, gods, demons, and all sorts of other supernatural beings rather than vampires and werewolves. FLUFs tend to have a pretty heavy focus on vamps and weres. I was therefore unsurprised to find that Sookie deals predominantly with these particular beasties. Personally, vampires bore me stupid, whereas I am eternally enthralled (no pun intended, but try to find a synonym that isn't derived from magic) by fey and mythological beings. I actually think I have a coherent reason for this. Fey and mythological beings have a rich history and were essentially created to explain the inexplicable: disappearing villagers, bad weather, changing harvests, that creepy "watched" feeling you get in the woods, whatever. Vampires, that is, the vampires that all UF writers seem to base their creations on, were created in the early 1800s. They were created to explain, and, let's admit it, explore, deviant sexual desires. The first major vampire stories starred absurdly seductive byronic figures in which the narrator could profess moral outrage for the excesses of the vampire--all while describing them in graphic detail. Many explored homosexuality, which was taboo at the time the stories were written. To me, at least, the vampires were just an excuse for the gothic novel style seduction. And guess what? Nothing has changed. In MUF, the fey are typically portrayed as self-sufficient, creating their own societies and with their own rich culture. In FLUF, vampires simply exist within human culture and prey on the vulnerable. That aspect of culture, mythology, and worldbuilding is really why I turn to fantasy, so to me, vampires tend to be boring, pointless, and extremely ick.

Every single FLUF that I have tried to read plays around with the seduction of submission. Every single one, even the those that I like, utilize vampires and/or werewolves and/or [insert supernatural sexy here] as vehicles of dominance. In almost*

[ Except Greywalker, and, to some extent, This Case Is Gonna Kill Me, in which the seduction happens, but the seducer is not the hero.]

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every single one female is forced into submission to a supernatural creature that she also finds extremely attractive. She is treated as an object, a possession, and she ends up relinquishing her agency to the dominant male--typically with the supernatural being first having to claim ownership of her to protect her from his peers. Much of the internal struggle of the novel is the protagonist fighting against the desire to submit completely to the love interest. The love interest is also extremely dangerous, often literally fighting a desire tied into the sexual one to kill the protagonist. At the same time, the love interest professes attraction and claims that it is actually the female who holds power--in everything, except, apparently, everyday choices and decisions. I actually find this pattern extremely interesting, because it indicates a strong desire in the female audience to fantasize about relinquishing responsibility--and agency--to a strong protector. It reminds me of Agatha Christie's autobiography, in which she states that she finds suffrage problematic because it means that women have to jump off the pedestal and do the work. Is this tendency in fiction and indication that women fantasize about jumping back on the pedestal? Do we see this trope in urban fantasy because it is impossible to resist a paranormal seducer, thereby removing responsibility for the failure from the protagonist?

One of the unique aspects that Sookie brings to the urban fantasy scene is the culture. Sookie is very, very southern. Not just southern--she's old, proud-of-old South, where the desire to return to an antebellum world seems to pervade every aspect of life. Sookie's grandmother is part of the Daughters of the Confederacy. I didn't hear anyone refer to it as "the War of Yankee Aggression", but there were some similar terms thrown around. At several points, casual derogatory comments about people of colour were made. A few that come to mind: when Sookie announces she's dating a vampire, her friends say that they thought she was going to shock them by saying she was dating a black man, but she's gone one better. At another point, Sookie casually notes that blacks "weren't welcome" in a bar she's in. Whether or not you find this charming or deeply offensive depends on your outlook and distance from this attitude. I'm on the "deeply offensive" side of the fence, especially since Sookie doesn't engage the issue, and the world portrayed does not cause any disruptions in her perspective. The examples of good women we see, like Sookie herself, follow the "iron lily" archetype, and women who are promiscuous are called "sluts" and "hussies" by our oh-so-gentle and genteel narrator. Those who end up dead have basically have a big red "A" tattooed to their forehead and the general attitude, both spoken and unspoken, is that they got what they deserved.

Dead Until Dark bills itself as a mystery, but to me, like almost every other FLUF I have read, the heavy focus on the heroine's passions and lovelife make it just as much a paranormal romance as an urban fantasy. I don't like reading about other peoples' sex lives--it's a big "too much information" thing for me--so this book wasn't a great fit. Even so, I enjoyed reading it, because I think this book created the trend of broken masquerade worlds, a focus on vampires and werewolves, and a plot focused on the interplay of seduction and submission.

[My absolute favourite moment is predictably small-minded. I'm a fan of the TV show Supernatural (SPN), my one venture into TV urban fantasy. SPN stars two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester. I laughed out loud when Sookie named Sam-in-dog-form "Dean". And when Dean turned out to be an extremely pervy dog who watched Sookie when she undressed. ]

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For readers who like romance in their urban fantasy, this is definitely one to put on the to-be-read shelf.