Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
(Ace, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-441-00853-4
I am not normally a fan of vampire novels. I haven’t read a single Laurell K. Hamilton or Anne Rice book, (and I prefer Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt without fangs). But I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Until Dark, a brilliant combination of fantasy, mystery and romance that should appeal to a wide variety of readers.

In Charlaine Harris’ parallel universe, vampires have recently “come out of the coffin” and now co-exist uneasily with humans. They remain the objects of both fascination and mistrust, however. So when a vampire walks into the bar where Sookie Stackhouse works, in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, he creates quite a stir. He is approached by two unsavory patrons and willingly leaves the bar with them. But Sookie knows he is in trouble. Sookie, you see, suffers from a strange “disability” - she can read other people’s minds, so she can tell that the vampire’s companions want to drain all of his blood, which is said to have magical powers - a combination of Prednisone and Viagra. Although that practice is illegal, the police generally look the other way. Sookie chases away the would-be drainers, and earns the gratitude of vampire Bill Compton. So begins the strange relationship between the barmaid with something extra and her vampire.

Sookie is surprised and relieved to realize that she is unable to read Bill’s mind. This fact, and Bill’s strange beauty and protectiveness, create a powerful attraction. But Sookie is no “fang banger” - humans who are fascinated with vampires and sleep with them for the danger and excitement. She understands the potential obstacles to their relationship. Even worse, a series of young Bon Temps women have been murdered, their bodies found with vampire bites on their thighs. As the residents start eyeing Bill with extreme suspicion, Sookie realizes that she might be the next target. So is Bill her protector or her murderer? How much is she willing to risk to find out?

There is a wealth of both plot and characters packed into Dead Until Dark’s 260 pages. Sometimes there is almost too much going on, but there is rarely a dull moment in the novel. It’s never predictable, and the surprises both shock and entertain the reader. Dark humor alternates with violence and even genuine poignancy, creating a memorable read. The fantastic is juxtaposed ironically with the mundane. Thus, you have Sookie observing first-hand the awesomely destructive power of her new boyfriend, while also musing that it would be nice to have a sweetheart whom she could call at the office and ask to bring home a carton of milk (unfortunately not an option, considering he sleeps naked underground during the day).

Bill is an intriguing leading man. The reader meets enough other vampires to know that they are not a particularly nice group - in fact, they’re often cruel and violent - but Bill is determined to “mainstream” himself with humans. He admits to having committed murder, but at the same time he is very protective of Sookie and risks his vampire self for her several times. Is he hero or anti-hero? The reader is never quite sure.

Starting out as a pretty but shy waitress whom the townspeople call “Crazy Sookie,” our heroine learns how to accept and control her strange gift. She also finds a release for her dormant sexuality in Bill, and emerges at the end of the book as a much stronger character.

There is a fairly high body count in Dead Until Dark, but the violence is rarely graphic, with a few notable exceptions. Because of the subject matter, and because most of the novel takes place at night, it has a very noir-esque atmosphere without feeling thoroughly depressing.

A lot of questions are left unanswered at the end of Dead Until Dark, and Ms. Harris has promised a sequel. I definitely want to read more about these characters, but I’m a little wary as well. A quick perusal of the author’s previous mystery series showed that she is not adverse to murdering off major characters. So I hope Sookie and Bill find happiness together, but I’m not at all certain that’s going to happen. One thing is for sure - I’ll be first in line to buy the next book to see what new surprises the author has in store for her unusual couple.

--Susan Scribner

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