I’m embarassed about it, but over the past few years I’ve read several books in the burgeoning “paranormal romance” sub-genre (and returned several more to the library when I decided they really weren’t worth my time). I’m perversely intrigued by the extent to which the genre has calcifyied around a single template, Laurell Hamilton’s “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” novels. Some of the novels I’ve read (or started) are even more slavishly derivative of Hamilton than Hamilton was of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Since I keep reading the darned things, I can’t claim they don’t work for me as escapist entertainment at some level. But that doesn’t mean their weaknesses don’t irk me, and it doesn’t mean I don’t wish they were a little better.
Harris’s Dead Until Dark has many of the genre hallmarks, but it avoids some of the pitfalls.
First and foremost, the writing is markedly less clunky.
Paranormal romances often seem comic book-y to me (in a negative sense). Protagonists in the Anita Blake mold are generally some sort of short-fused bounty hunter with unusual (psychic/magical) abilitites. This leads to dreadfully clichéd set-pieces in which a character reacts to something innocent (a thrown snowball, a tap on the shoulder) with deadly force and only just manages to avoid skewering/shooting a lover/friend/girl-scout-selling-cookies because her reflexes are so supernally fast. Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse bucks the trend — she does have a superpower of sorts, but she’s a waitress and the novel is thankfully free of “don’t-sneak-up-on-me-I-almost-killed-you” bits.
Another way in which paranormal romances remind me of bad comic books is that events only have consequences when the consequences usefully advance the plot. In particular, Blake and her many imitators have trouble with murder. The vampires/werewovles/etc. kill people — that’s part of their nature. There’s usually a sort of what-happens-in-vampire-town-stays-in-town meme, with human authorities mostly staying out of monster business. But the vampire/werewolf/etc. societies don’t feel internally consistent in their attitude toward death; their mores are too essentially human. They usually come off a bit like squabbling drug gangs — that is, as if devauling (the taking of) life is a deliberate rebellion against the dominant social order, which is reinforced by the high value of life (when it is taken from your group, necessitating revenge).
Harris does a very nice job of side-stepping this mess; rather than warring drug gangs, her template seems to be the early days of civil rights, when cops are legally bound to uphold the rights of black folks, but aren’t necessarily happy about it. It’s much more satisfying in science fiction/consistent worldbuilding terms.
The whodunnit aspects of the plot weren’t completely successful for me, but no less satisfying than many mysteries without supernatural elements (of which Harris has written a goodly number).
My main gripe is with the tone — the novel mostly takes itself seriously (there’s some humor, but it arises from the characters and their interactions, not from outlandish plot elements — assuming you grant the fundamental vampires-walk-among-us proposition). But toward the end, there are a couple of twists that push it in a more overtly comic direction, which undercut the suspense for me a little.
Still, I liked it, and I look forward to reading more Harris.
needs more demons? nah.