Dead On Arrival – A Review of Dead Ever After

May 16, 2013 in Character & Plot Analysis, Dead Ever After - Book 13, Uncategorized

This review has been a long time coming, and I apologise for that – like many of you, I needed some time to process.

At the risk of stating the obvious, plowing through this final book in the Sookie Stackhouse series was….painful. No, scratch that. It was excruciating. It was the reading equivalent of being strung up and repeatedly kicked in the nuts, while having your fingernails pulled out with pliers.

I’m talking Theon Greyjoy type painful, OKAY?

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It takes time for one to recover from that. And it takes time to get your head around the fact that a life-long reading habit and a university education is, in fact, no insurance against waking up one day to find that you are actually completely fucking illiterate.

How on earth did I get this SO wrong? So many hours, so many re-reads, so much time and effort spent analysing this paranormal fantasy series – and still I utterly fail to grasp what I am told is a perfectly logical ending. OBVIOUSLY a part fairy/part human girl, marked from birth for “great things” in a fantasy world, would aspire to spend the rest of her life right where she began – endlessly mowing her magic Miracle-Gro lawn, fronting up to church on Sunday and fucking like a seal in a trailer parked permanently alongside the town bar.

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Clearly, the critical thinking skills my philosophy major was designed to impart didn’t quite take. At least, those skills aren’t up to snuff when pitted against a complex work like the Southern Vampire Mysteries. Or is it the Sookie Stackhouse Novels? Or the True Blood books? Or the…never mind. What my philosophy major DID teach me is that there’s a time to own your shit in an argument – a time to cut your losses and acknowledge that you and your opponent are never, ever going to be same page.

So in the spirit of philosophical inquiry, here I am. Owning my lack of English comprehension like a big girl, and trying to unpack this fictional nightmare in the only way I know how.

With sarcasm, liberal lashings of booze…and an extra-large, steaming serving of entitlement.

MIXED MESSAGES

For a long time (twelve books, to be precise), I thought I was reading a series about tolerance, acceptance and outsiders finding their place in the world. For Sookie, the girl with the unwanted gift who was shunned by her community; and for the supernaturals who found themselves outed and living in a world that neither wanted nor understood them, the metaphor seemed self evident. It was reinforced over and over, every time Sookie risked life and limb to fight alongside those who were “other”, every time she defended them against the prejudiced slurs of her fellow humans. I loved to read about the plucky human fairy, with a foot in both worlds – rooting for her to eventually find a bridge between them. Sookie and her supes seemed the perfect metaphor for embracing diversity in a less than perfect world.

Cool, huh?

Actually…NO. As it turns out, this was only the first of many, many examples of our lack of reading comprehension. With the final piece of the puzzle in our hands, we now have a clearer – if somewhat less appealing – picture of what these books were really trying to say.

Rather than leaving Sookie to chalk her supernatural walk on the wild side up to experience and wander off into the sunset with her giant tomatoes (an ending that would be lame, but at least not a betrayal of all that came before it), for some inexplicable reason Harris has decided that deep down, Sookie is actually as bigoted and small minded as the rest of Bon Temps.

The message here, dear reader, (in case that sledgehammer Harris was swinging around didn’t quite connect with your comprehension-challenged skull) is that people – as Sam prophetically told Sookie in Deadlocked – never really change. Sometimes people are just too different. Sometimes, certain types of people simply shouldn’t mix at all, no matter how much they might want to co-exist. Meat and potatoes may not be the tastiest choice on the menu, but it sure is the safest. Wait patiently for long enough, and your just desserts will fall right out of the sky and land squarely in your denim-cut-off-wearing-lap. To hell with taking a chance, or fighting for what you love. The fight isn’t worth it, and the risk takers end up the biggest losers of all.

Oh, and also? Camaraderie and kisses are a rapists reward, and extraordinary abilities – far from being an opportunity for personal growth or improving the lot of humanity – should be reviled and feared at all costs. No one needs that sort of thing messing up their shit.

I’ll give you a moment to get your head around just HOW wrong we were about these books. It’s almost enough to make you think you weren’t reading what the author was writing. Or not writing.

If I’d known the Sookieverse was this fucked up, I never would have moved here.

PREACH IT!

A paranormal fantasy series populated by godless beings, entwined in moral conundrums that simply cannot exist in the real world is ripe for exploring The Big Questions. At various times Sookie has pondered the role of God in her world, reward and retribution after death, the existence of souls and the (im)morality of murder, to articulate just a few of the questions that have kept her up at night. As a reader who has spent a good deal of her life wrestling with organised religion, I’ve followed Sookie’s ongoing crisis of faith with interest over the course of the series.

I should have known our bags were packed for Jesus Camp when Sookie was born again in jail. And then she began talking like this:

“I didn’t know what would happen to my soul if I was turned into a vampire, and I didn’t want to risk it – especially since I’d done some pretty bad things in my time. I wanted some years to atone”.

“Though I was sure the part demon knew more than I did about the subject, I didn’t believe redemption was ever beyond the power of God”.

WELL, PRAISE HIS HOLY LIGHT.

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If you’re going to sell me on a world of godless bloodsucking undead, barbaric weres, twisty fairies, telepaths, elves and shifters – and you’re also going insert a human religious fundamentalist group like the FOTS in there to keep things interesting – forgive me for thinking you’re using this juxtaposition to explore the scandalous idea that organised religion, and in particular religious fundamentalism, can be far more evil than any monster under the bed. The antics of the FOTS and the Newlins would seem to be saying something along these lines, no?

Perhaps that’s too hard? Too offensive? Screw dat, let’s march the protagonist’s eventual partner off to church at the eleventh hour (to improve his community standing, no less – but hell, as long as your arse is on that pew every week IT STILL COUNTS), while the protagonist herself rambles about redemption and the Power of God to ultimately tip the scales of divine justice in favour of her more questionable life choices. Because that would be FAR more interesting.

What is being implied here – that acts of moral worthiness occur only within the constructs of organised religion, and that redemption is only possible on its terms – offends me all the way down to my Catholic-schooled, atheist bone marrow.

Now I know there are people who think this way, and it’s a safe bet that many of you reading this would count yourselves among them. I’ve been on both sides of the religious fence, and I have no problem with people believing whatever they want to believe – so long as they keep it out of my face, out of my bedroom and out of my children’s secular education.

But you know what? Keep your Christian moralising OUT of my paranormal fantasy books while you’re at it.

WE’VE OFFICIALLY LOST THE PLOT

As a self confessed “pantser” Harris doesn’t tend to do much long term, detailed plotting of her character and story arcs. This has resulted in plenty of continuity errors and questionable plot developments in previous books – though none so glaring as some of the asshattery she supposes readers will happily swallow in this one.

The book opens with a nameless devil and a businessman making a deal. “Just Call Me Cope” has decided to sell his soul to the devil, and as is customary in this time honored transaction the devil agrees to grant Cope a wish. As one astute Amazon reviewer pointed out, this sounds like an awesome premise for a book – until it’s revealed that Cope used this wish to have the devil procure a magical fairy object for him. An object that can….wait for it, now…GRANT HIM A WISH!

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HOW DOES THIS EVEN GET PAST AN EDITOR?

Let’s not start on the encore appearance of Claude as a villain (we took that trip in the LAST book, for those of you still playing at home), or the coup de grace of I-really-can’t-be-bothered-with-this-crap-today story telling – Eric’s agreement with Felipe and Freyda for Sookie’s “protection” after their divorce.

Felipe has proven repeatedly that he is a lying snake – just ask Horst, who felt the pointy end of Felipe’s bare faced lie to Eric in Deadlocked. Felipe has also proven repeatedly that agreements are only worth a lick to him until they aren’t – just ask Sookie how that favour he owed her since FDTW panned out; or even Victor, who was promised the world and then manipulated into a power struggle with Eric. Oops! You can’t ask Victor, because Victor ended up DEAD. Never mind all that. Felipe’s promise to Eric to leave Sookie alone will be honoured, because apparently a character’s documented past behaviour in the Sookieverse is no predictor of their future behaviour – not when pesky plot points require resolution in six pages or less. You should ask Eric all about that.

You know what might have made at least a modicum of sense? If Felipe had offered Sookie protection as the return on the favour he admitted he owed her five books earlier. You know, that favour WE NEVER HEARD ABOUT AGAIN.

Moving on to other asshattery, we come to the small matter of Sookie’s sudden inability to read Sam’s mind. At least twice over the course of the series, Sam has actively locked Sookie out of his head. This suggests not only that he knows when she’s rooting around in there, but also that he believes she can read him. That would be a fair assumption on Sam’s part, since Sookie effortlessly picks a fully formed, coherent thought directly out of his brain in the short story set after this novel, “If I Had a Hammer”.

And of course, the idea that Sookie could “not know and not care” whether magic was responsible for her falling in love with Sam, after spending five books railing against the blood bond because she was suspicious it had the very same effect – just beggars fucking belief.

Clearly, we were never meant to think about this too hard.

HAPPY ENOUGH EVER AFTER

And so it has come to this.

Most of us here have acknowledged since at least book eight that Sookie’s choice would eventually come down to Eric or Sam. Obviously I would prefer her to be with Sam over that other raping, lying, raping sack of shit who was thankfully never in with a chance anyway.

At least we were right about something.

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Much has been said about the seemingly deliberate milking of the Eric Sookie relationship and the lack of appropriate build up to Sam over the last few weeks. I’m not going to sit here and throw a tantrum because my guy didn’t get the girl, and quite frankly, I’m sick to DEATH of being told that’s all I’m really pissed off about. Instead, I want to look at a couple of narrative turns late in the series. I hope it helps clarify for those who are labelling EL’s as entitled, crazy, tantrum-throwing two year olds just why so many people are upset about this book. Yeah, I know. I live in fucking hope.

I could have lived with this ending if two very simple editorial decisions had been made that might have mitigated at least some of the problems the majority of readers are crying foul over.

1. Sookie broke the blood bond she shared with Eric in Dead Reckoning after spending five books unsure whether it was the cause of her feelings for him. This was a crossroads in the narrative. This was the point Harris could have – and should have – started turning this ship, and moved all her chips in behind her HEA man. Eric should have been bust HERE – this was the time to start showing the reader why things were going to end differently. Instead Harris made a conscious decision, for reasons known only to her, to do the complete opposite. She continued to obfuscate her intentions by having Sookie realise she loved Eric “all on her own”, and she continued to draw the relationship out for another two books – throwing huge obstacles in its path while teasing resolution and loopholes the whole time. This only served to reaffirm the belief of readers that the author was leading Sookie and Eric to a final confrontation and resolution (common in this genre)…when all along, her intent was to leave them with nothing more than the literary equivalent of a wet fart.

You just can’t DO that. Well, apparently you can. But as the last few weeks have demonstrated, you can’t cry foul when your readers stage a mass revolt and start lining their kitty’s litter tray with their hardcovers. Shart, indeed.

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2. Small Town Wedding, the novella included in last year’s Sookie Stackhouse Companion, should have remained part of the Dead in the Family storyline as originally intended. This story took Sookie on a roadtrip to Texas with Sam to attend his brother’s wedding. She met his mother, and his brother. She bonded with his nieces and nephews. She slept in Sam’s childhood home. SHE LET SAM PRETEND SHE WAS HIS GIRLFRIEND, kissing him in front of his mother and playing along while Sam acted out every G rated domestic fantasy involving Sookie that he ever had. STW showed us what Sookie and Sam looked like as a couple.

With hindsight, I’d say this was a pretty fucking critical stepping stone towards readers accepting Sam as a better choice. Yet, this was deemed irrelevant enough to pull it from Dead in the Family (in favour of an extremely Eric-centric/Appius plot, the cynic in me hastens to add), to be sold as an “optional extra”. We didn’t even review it here, taking the author at her word that after the One Word Answer fiasco, plot points relevant to the main story arc would only be addressed in the main novels.

Whoever was responsible for this decision was clearly drunk. Or perhaps they were actually very smart. I can only speak for myself, but reading about the Sam/Sookie show in DITF, and then Sookie breaking the bond and second-guessing her feelings for Eric immediately afterwards in DR would have been enough to make THIS Eric fan reconsider Sam’s HEA prospects.

Maybe this Eric fan wouldn’t have remained quite as invested as she had been. Maybe she wouldn’t have shelled out her hard earned cash for many more books. And maybe a legion of Eric fans would have felt exactly the same way.

Things that make you go….hmmmm.

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VIOLATION OF A VIKING

Recent weeks have seen loud howls of protest from readers about Eric being “out of character’. I’m really not sure where to begin with the handling of his character in Dead Ever After. I knew it was going to be bad before I read it, but nothing could have prepared me for the brutal way he was systematically butchered and sold off on the page.

There’s an intense disconnect between the Eric of the last two or three books, and the Eric in the earlier books in the series. I’ve always maintained that this was intentional, and that it was simply a consequence of Sookie’s increasing intimacy with him that allowed her to see him “up close and personal”. Unintentionally depicting a character “out of character” usually occurs when a writer becomes lazy, stops caring, or their editor falls asleep drunk in their chair for the duration of the entire creative process. While a case can certainly be made for ALL of the above considering this crapfest of a book, I’m not so sure that it applies to the character assassination in question.

There was something very calculated and deliberate in Harris’ depiction of Eric in this book. And I don’t for ONE second believe that she wrote this half asleep.

Every suitor who ever felt slighted by EvilEric got his pound of flesh. Bill got to break the news about Eric’s wedding going ahead, as payback for Eric outing him to Sookie on Sophie-Anne’s mission. Quinn had the pleasure of overseeing Eric’s arranged marriage ceremony after Eric had earlier banned him from his Area and by extension, from Sookie. And of course, Sam got “Eric’s woman” – even if it was by default. All three of them will presumably continue to be involved in Sookie’s life in one way or another, forever and ever. Cute, huh?

Eric on the other hand lost his business, his children, his wife, his position, his subordinates and most importantly, his autonomy – the one thing we were told over and over that he valued most. Lest we thought he’d been sufficiently punished for his evil doings, even worse was to come. I never, in a million years, thought we’d be forced to bear witness to the systematic, spiteful destruction of every good quality Eric possessed.

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Punishing a character so thoroughly and decisively in the space of three hundred pages requires thought, planning and a shit ton of retconning. Not the sort of thing you bother devoting your energies to if you’re an author who’s feeling lazy or bored. A few starting points:

* Eric never so much as hinted that he thought Sookie had feelings for Sam over five books of being blood bonded to her. Now the bond is gone and everything Sookie ever wanted turned out to be under her nose the entire time she was bonded to Eric, we’re supposed to buy that Sookie’s use of the cluviel dor was his first tip off?

* Eric consistently said he wouldn’t turn Sookie against her will. Now we find out that was biding his time all along, until he could convince her to do it willingly. This isn’t especially inconsistent with his earlier dialogue in Dead and Gone: (“I won’t ever force you into subservience. And I will never turn you, since you don’t want it.”), but there was a complete absence of any attempt on his behalf to convince her to turn between DAG and DEA, even when the opportunity arose on at least two occasions in later books. Is it any wonder accusations of character assassination are flying now?

* Eric outed Bill to Sookie about his mission from the queen, and at the time Sookie placed the blame squarely where it belonged – with Bill. Now we are expected to swallow that Eric’s actions were a slight on “Sookie and Bill – The Couple”. And this from Sookie’s own mouth?

* Eric consistently stated that he had no choice in the arranged marriage under threat from Felipe, and because he was bound by the orders of his maker. At no time were we shown any evidence that Eric could choose NOT to go with Freyda, though Sookie kept stating it as fact. Further, we were given numerous clues that there would be a resolution to the marriage problem. We heard Eric tell Sookie “she (Freyda) won’t win”, and Bill suggesting to Sookie that someone else could take Eric’s place. There was no disclosure of Appius’ side of the contract given in the narrative – leaving open the glaring possibility that a loophole or solution could present itself from that direction. None of this was utilised in DEA; instead we are informed out of nowhere that Eric made a “choice”. By definition, a choice means that Eric had a number of alternatives. As a reader I would like to have been shown what those alternatives were, so that I might better understand the ‘choice’ he made.

* Niall told Sookie in Deadlocked that she “had to know” what Eric would do if he “knew she had [the] power” contained in the cluviel dor. According to Sookie, Eric failed this test; presumably because he didn’t fight for her after she used the cluviel dor on Sam. Given that he not once tried to take it from her by stealth or by force, and that Sookie did choose Sam over Eric when she used it, does it strike anyone else as more than a little unfair that somehow Eric is supposed to be an arsehole for not putting up a fight?

I could go on, but my head hurts. Three weeks is a long time to be bashing your head against a brick wall, yo.

If Harris’ intention was to make me hate Eric, she failed. Her hamfisted, eleventh hour attempt to force feed me the manipulative, self-serving jerk who has held residence in her head all along only succeeded in drawing attention to her biggest mistake: her vision of the character simply didn’t crystallize successfully on paper. Harris sees the Eric she’s written as having some redeeming traits, but feels that he is ultimately self-absorbed and unworthy of her protagonist. Yet somehow, a large proportion of her readers ended up viewing Eric as unquestionably flawed, but destined to prove himself worthy of her protagonist in the end.

Why this disconnect was actively milked over the duration of a lengthy series, before delivering an ending completely at odds with the conventions of the genre Harris claimed to be writing in is a question for another day. It will, I expect, be the subject of many “How Not To Write A Paranormal Series” night classes well into the foreseeable future.

It must be galling that even after throwing everything she had at Eric, all Harris managed to achieve was to make him even more sympathetic. I’ve seen plenty of pissed off Eric fans in recent weeks…strangely, none of them are pissed off at Eric.

THE FINAL NAIL IN THE COFFIN

As I bring this diatribe to a close I can’t help but reflect not only on Dead Ever After, but on the series as a whole. One word rears its head, time and time again.

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Disappointment that the series was drawn out far longer than it should have been.

Disappointment that so many faithful, enthusiastic readers have been left feeling manipulated, exploited and unsatisfied.

Disappointment that so many bombs and plot threads ultimately amounted to nothing. So many opportunities squandered, so that the author’s original, (and it must be said) utterly BORING ending could prevail come what may. This must surely be the most ill-conceived, petulant act of literary hari-kari in recent memory.

And most of all, disappointment in Sookie. Ending her story this way after three books, or even after five might have been forgivable. But after thirteen books, a character like Sookie should bear the scars and triumphs of an epic journey. She should wear that shit like a badge of honor. She should embrace what makes her different; not settle for a mate who enables her to shun it. She should be comfortable in her own skin; not craving the acceptance of people who have ostracised her all her life. She should be willing to stand by the choices she’s made – not down on her knees, grovelling for forgiveness from a God who couldn’t care less whether she lived or died from the day she was born.

After thirteen books spent living, loving, fighting, bleeding and almost dying in an extraordinary world – Sookie Stackhouse deserved a less than ordinary ending.

And you know what else? If feeling that way makes me an entitled reader…

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