I enjoyed the first couple of Southern Vampire books by Charlaine Harris on their original release. I'd was a confirmed fan of the Anita Blake novels by Laurell K. Hamilton and this looked like something similar to branch out to. Well, as we know, it kind of was and kind of totally wasn't, Harris finding the burgeoning urban fantasy genre from cozy mysteries rather than horror. I probably read half a dozen before drifting away but caught up with the rest later, courtesy of a friend. And, after thirteen books, it was done.
Well, mostly. This 2017 book collects all the Sookie Stackhouse stories that had seen publication elsewhere, mostly in themed anthologies that Harris had co-edited herself. The first three I'd read before but I think the rest were new to me and I'm happy to have wrapped things up here rather than with the almost universally hated 'After Dead', a misguided wrap-up that soured many fans at the point everything was already happily finished. This book serves much better as a series ending, because it doesn't just finish well, it's a handoff to where Harris's writing took her next.
The stories are presented in chronological order with a brief note from the author to introduce each. I'd suggest that they unfold in threes, though in odd ways.The first three are the ones I'd read before. They also come early in the series and play their part in its wider soap opera storyline. Next up are three mid-series stories that are fun but inconsequential. Then comes a longer piece, technically one novella but long enough to be three stories, before a set of three final stories that unfold after the series wrapped in 2013 with book thirteen, 'Dead Ever After'.
I like the first three stories, but the first two are notably insubstantial. 'Fairy Dust', with Sookie hired by fairies to use her telepathy to solve a mystery, is important mostly as an introduction for Claude. 'Dracula Night' is easily the least substantial piece here, serving mostly to allow Eric to uncharacteristically fangirl, though that is fun. The important story, 'One Word Answer' is crucial because it introduces Sookie's dead cousin, Hadley; Mr. Cataliades, though we don't quite realise what he is yet; and the Queen of Louisiana herself. All three play a major part in the series.
I like the second three stories too, but less so. 'Lucky' may be the best of them, because it takes a different tack to the series, teaming up Sookie and Amelia on a job for the former's insurance agent. Beyond featuring a couple of recognisable characters, it's totally standalone. 'Gift Wrap' is a sweet Christmas tale that's standalone too, except that it's really creepy if you actually think about it. That leaves Harris's favourite Sookie story, 'Two Blondes', which is a lot of fun but totally inconsequential, just there to move a piece on a wider board.
The novella is easily the best thing here. It runs over a hundred pages and allows Harris to get her teeth into the story, pun not intended. Sam invites Sookie to his brother's wedding in the small Texas town of Wright, which he expects to be peaceful but ends up being anything but. The weres are out of the closet and Sam's mum is one too. Her second husband was so shocked that he shot her and events go downhill from there. It's an emotional novella in many ways and I appreciated it a great deal.
Most interesting are the final three stories because they mostly serve as a transition from the supernatural themes of the Sookie Stackhouse books into the paranormal themes of the Harper Connelly and Midnight, TX series, to the degree that Manfred Bernardo of those series is the lead in the final story. It's the most important of the three, but it's also the last of them.
Before it shows up are 'If I Had a Hammer' and 'Playing Possum'. The former is a ghost story sourced from a closet in Sookie's friend Tara's house. It's nicely done, deeper than a majority of the stories in this book, and it also introduces us to Quiana Wong, a psychic who works as Tara's babysitter. She will be back in the final story and will surely show up in something else in the future. 'Playing Possum' is a simple but decent school shooter story to give Sookie some time with her telepathic nephew Hunter and find a bond with his kindergarten teacher.
But it's 'In the Blue Hereafter' that ends this book with style, surely the best of the short stories here, sitting behind only the novella in power and substance. Manfred is sent to Bon Temps by his dead grandmother Xylda, where he finds himself sitting next to Sookie Stackhouse at a softball game. He's wondering what reason she has for the trip but it's not that simple and the reasons keep adding up. I liked this one immensely.
The last thing to point out here is that, while this may still be a complete set of Sookie Stackhouse short stories, it misses out others that still fall within the wider Southern Vampire Mysteries series. I'm seeing a bunch with Dahlia Lynley-Chivers in the lead, though I haven't read any of those, and a pair of other novellas. If your interest is in everything Southern Vampire, then you'll want to seek those out too. If it's just in Sookie, then this is a useful volume to dip into at appropriate points in the chronology and also to wrap it up while pretending that 'After Dead' was never written. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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