***This is a post-release review containing lengthy analysis and some spoilers. Comments may also contain spoilers.***
Deadlocked: a state in which progress is impossible, as in a dispute, produced by the counteraction of opposing forces. A standstill, or a stalemate.
Or, to put it bluntly: “I want what I want. You want what you want. And you’d better believe that I’m not gonna be the one who blinks first.”
May is finally here, and another torturous 364 days are behind us. Deadlocked is the twelfth and penultimate book in the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. There’s no delicate way to put this – hold onto your hats, peeps, because Deadlocked is an exceptionally wild, and at times uncomfortable ride. As befitting a title so close to the end of the series, Sookie is in for the usual revelations, confrontations and near death experiences. What is different (and most compelling) about Deadlocked is the extra lashings of angst and soul searching Sookie is now forced to contend with on top of her usual. As real people know, angst and soul searching are a necessary part of becoming a big girl and, well…sometimes there’s nothing else for it except to just suck it up.
Sookie’s journey is almost over, and this is where the rubber hits the road.
Like Dead Reckoning before it, the focus of Deadlocked from Sookie’s perspective seems less about the specific machinations of those around her, and more about her losing the idealistic blinders that have dictated so many of her actions and responses in the past. The world doesn’t always work the way you think it should, and you have to respond to it – not the other way around. “I-filed-that-away-to-think-about-later” Sookie is well and truly gone now, having evolved into someone who is far more assertive and aggressive about finding out what she needs to know ahead of time, if at all possible. Her confidence about asserting her needs continues to grow, and this is particularly evident in her dealings with her fairy family, and with Eric. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is her new motto, and I’ll take that over the Ostrich Method any day of the week.
The preview chapters revealed that Sookie has increased responsibilities at Merlotte’s, and by the end of the book the exact nature of her new role is clarified. I’ve always envisaged Sookie as having a comfortable foot in each of the human and vampire worlds by series end, so some necessary permanence in her role at Merlotte’s and recognition for her hard work and loyalty are welcome as her story draws to a close. Besides, her promotion is not without perks – at least the locals aren’t calling her Crazy Sookie anymore.
It’s not all sunshine and roses for our girl though – not by a long shot. She’s forced to face some uncomfortable but necessary truths head on – truths about Eric, and her fairy kin. While her usual positive attitude and determination to make the best of things is still evident, Eric’s being a prime suspect in a murder case, his betrothal to Freyda, as well as their usual relationship drama-rama that’s now amplified by the breaking of the blood bond combine in a perfect storm to make this book by far the most angst-riddled in the series. Everyone around her is pairing off – Tara and JB, Jason and Michele, Kennedy and Danny, Holly and Hoyt, Kenya and Kevin, and even Alcide and Terry have prospects. Sookie, meanwhile, continues her search for Eric’s moral line in the sand as she tries to line his values up with her own. While this conflict isn’t new, when she lays her moral measuring stick down on Bill – considering him of being just as capable of plotting to “accidentally” kill the humans who witnessed Victor’s murder in Dead Reckoning as Eric is – it becomes clearer to the reader that she’s not singling Eric out for judgement so much as his kind. This is obviously a big issue for Sookie and I’m not sure how she’s going to resolve it, but I love that Harris is not allowing her to ignore the obvious conflict here. Washing her hands of the supe world is hardly an option any more, yet Sookie has about as much chance of imposing conventional moral standards on the players in her world as Bill has of….well, you know.
Lest we be lulled into thinking that all Sookie really wants is to spend Sundays reciting the rosary in church, there’s a fantastic scene involving a pre-emptive strike that serves as a stark reminder that Sookie can be as ruthless, calculating, and violent as any vampire. Don’t expect her to sit around crying about it later, either.
Even Sookie’s trademark sense of humor has taken a slightly darker turn; bitchy jibes at Debbie Pelt’s craptastic hair have given way to sulky fantasies about Jannalynn being smacked in the head by her swing set as a small child. I must admit to a deep fondness for snarky-Sookie and as the mood has darkened over the last few books, opportunities for her to stick the knife in are not often missed.
I’m not one to sugar coat things, so here’s the drum: for the second book in a row, Eric is in an extremely dark mood. He has reason to be – when being pinned for a murder is the least of your problems you know your life has taken a wrong turn. If readers are expecting a return to the quick witted, roguish charm of the early books any time now, you probably won’t be any more pleased with this book than the last one. That’s not to say his sense of humor has disappeared entirely – watch for a laugh out loud barb at Pam and Bill’s expense that’s quintessential Northman – but Eric’s story line has taken his character to a place where jokes and banter would go over like a fart in church. For Harris to continue to peg Eric in the flamboyant, sexy, vampire-in-charge role would only serve to make him appear shallow, cocky and utterly oblivious to the not insignificant amount of shit he is actually in.
On the bright side, his bizarre urge to throw his progeny around and bite people without getting warm and fuzzy first has disappeared as abruptly as it surfaced. Save your relief, though, because a new issue has once again raised questions in Sookie’s mind about Eric’s capacity for self control. It strikes me that there will be many readers who will cry foul over this in a repeat of last year’s outcry over Bitegate and the violence with Pam. I guess all I can say in response is that my interpretation of this side of him hasn’t changed since last year’s review. Sookie is dating a vampire, not a human man. Vampires are violent, vampires drink blood and vampires sometimes do things that humans find abhorrent – because vampires aren’t human. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the closer to Eric Sookie becomes, the more of his “normal” behaviour she sees. The fact that Sookie has seen more of “vampire” Eric in the last two or three books is not because Harris has done a hatchet job on Eric; since Dead and Gone, Sookie has moved up close and personal with Eric and is no longer on the fringes of his life. It’s almost the equivalent of moving in together after a courtship conducted on neutral ground – shit gets real when you’re picking up the wet towels off the bathroom floor (or getting the timber coffee table refinished after his wild party). This is the reality of long term adult relationships – our “best selves” must make way for our “whole selves” eventually – but it’s ultimately up to the reader to decide whether they can embrace warts-and-all Eric over the “lite” version of earlier books. I’ve enjoyed seeing the depths of the character unfold even more since Dead and Gone, and learning more about him with proximity as Sookie has.
Harris observed in a recent interview that Eric is “truly caught between a rock and a hard place” in Deadlocked, and that’s no overstatement. She’s done her level best to ensure that his predicament with the Queen of Oklahoma appears utterly intractable. But the situation isn’t hopeless, his marriage to Freyda isn’t inevitable, and there are definite possibilities for a resolution on the horizon that we couldn’t see before. I feel I have a better grasp now of what Freyda actually wants and I feel very strongly, for reasons I’ll go into in a later post, that Eric will not be forced to go through with this marriage. Rules of Fiction, 101 – if a protracted plot development looks like a foregone conclusion, this is a red flag to the reader to start digging in the text for the “out”. Because there will be one.
I have to hand to it Charlaine – she sure knows how to scare the shit out of people.
Sookie and Eric still struggle to communicate at times, and the loss of the blood bond has exacerbated their issues in some fairly obvious ways. Jealousy and fidelity are on the agenda for them both, and at first I wondered where the hell this was coming from – until I realised that the existence of the bond had made the question of romantic feelings for others one that’s never needed to be asked. The bond is gone, and so is the surety that came with it – now they’ll have to make like the rest of us and learn to trust each other without it. A strong point in their favor is that they’re talking about what matters, even if it is at Sookie’s insistence and both acknowledge that relationship talks aren’t their favorite thing to do. There’s yet another landmark Sookie/Eric conversation in Deadlocked; it demonstrates that they can now get to the heart of the issues between them, and face conversations they both would have run a mile from even two books ago. Given that the bond is no longer acting to smooth the lines of communication (and it could be that they used it as a crutch), I thought this was particularly encouraging. Underneath it all, the love is still there and we get a strong sense of the passion and intensity of Sookie’s feelings for Eric every time she’s forced to consider that he might leave for Oklahoma.
Sookie is getting better at articulating what she needs to move forward in this relationship, and readers who have felt she’s been too wishy-washy about expressing her feelings in the past will be pleased to find her extraordinarily clear about them now. While Sookie has been fairly quick to blame Eric (sometimes quite rightly) for predicaments she’s found herself facing in the past, now she’s beginning to understand that she’s not the only one who sometimes gets a raw deal. Her recognition that much of the grief Eric has copped from outside forces in the last five books can be traced directly back to his involvement with her, shows us just how much she’s grown up. While there’s no blame to be laid here, it takes a certain amount of maturity to understand the other side of the story when you’re in it up to your neck, and objectivity is hard to come by. I was proud of her for that.
If the earlier books in the series dealt with the authenticity of Sookie and Eric’s feelings, the later ones seem to be about them trying to work out, after all they’ve been through, whether they love each other enough. The title of the book is drawn directly from this conflict. Harris has thrown these two characters overboard in the middle of the night, into shark infested waters, and pulled up all the life boats. She’s gone to extraordinary lengths to convince us that what they had is lost, and even to divert our attention in another direction entirely. But she hasn’t slammed the door shut, and if readers can resist smashing the glass on the Big Red Panic Button that Harris is obviously trying to distract them with, they’ll see that she’s dropped enough breadcrumbs on the way in to allow Sookie and Eric to find their way out of the dark forest and get home. Not only that, but she has potentially crafted a set up that could turn Eric’s Dead to the World promises into prophecy.
Even the most pessimistic among us would have to concede that a pay off like that would be worth a few fingernails and nervous breakdowns beforehand.
To borrow from Pam’s message to Sookie: “This is the hard time.”
Sam gets a reasonable amount of page time in Deadlocked, yet he has no plot line of his own to speak of – unless you count having a batshit crazy girlfriend as a gripping plot line. So let’s just get down to brass tacks – is the Dark Dog making a last minute run for the gate?
Given that Eric and Sam are the last suitors standing and have been for at least three or four books, rattling Sam’s chain at the eleventh hour was not unexpected. In fact, how Harris might go about doing this was a common topic in post-Dead Reckoning discussion here last year. Quite frankly, if Sam is the man Harris could have tied things up with a neat little bow right here, and saved herself the grief of writing anything more.
It’s been apparent since Dead in the Family that Sookie is painfully aware that Sam loves her and has her on a pedestal that no other woman in his life can hope to approach. If you missed this in the main novels, it was made abundantly clear in Small Town Wedding. Yet, listening to Sookie’s internal dialogue and how she reacts to Sam, you can almost smell the rotten red herring in the room – Sam loves Sookie, and Sookie loves Sam…but not in the way Sam wishes she does. Sookie’s efforts to ensure Sam’s pride isn’t hurt and his feelings aren’t trampled are almost painful to read. There’s some particularly telling dialogue that almost spells it out – watch for this during a conversation with Alcide. I sense no ambiguity from Sookie in her determination to protect Sam, and to preserve their friendship at any cost. Sam is the only true friendship she has that spans both the human and supernatural worlds; Sookie needs Sam because he’s the only other ‘supe’ who understands what is required to straddle those two worlds and remain somewhat grounded and functioning in both. This has become increasingly important to Sookie as she’s waded further into the supernatural quagmire, and it’s a skill she’ll need to master – just as Sam has – if she’s to continue leading the life she’s chosen. Sookie is sensitive about Sam; there’s no mistaking that or the fact that she continues to value his friendship a great deal. But it’s her hyper-awareness of, and sensitivity to his romantic feelings towards her that I think could be mistaken for reciprocation of those feelings.
Yes, even bearing in mind the ending of Deadlocked, I remain unconcerned about Sam. I’ll save more on this for a later post.
It’s common knowledge that the fae storyline is wrapped up in this instalment, and while I feel that there are questions left hanging, they’re not ones that I’m going to lose sleep over. Claude’s motives are finally laid bare, and Niall returns for one final kooky-as-all-get-out visit. Sookie is left with another of Niall’s ridiculously cryptic statements about Eric’s character that, just like the infamous “which vampire?” cliff hanger, will be completely self-explanatory to some and argued over ad-nauseum by others for all eternity.
That Niall. He’s such a troll.
Mr Cataliades graces us with another perfectly timed visit, and has plenty to tell Sookie about the cluviel dor amongst other things. According to Cataliades, love of self counts as fair use of the cluviel dor’s magic and will activate it. What’s the take away from this conversation? The fairy trinket isn’t all that fussy about the kind of love felt towards the intended target.
Isn’t that interesting?
It’s no secret that I’ve been dying to see Felipe de Castro again since forever. Though he lacks her people skills, we haven’t seen a player like this dude since Sophie-Anne. He’s all up in everyone’s shit. Unfortunately his agenda has been left deliberately murky apart from a few token clues, but I will say one thing – he’s an A Grade, Certified Asshole. He is not to be trusted under any circumstances. It’s easy to see where Victor cut his fangs, and it’s little wonder Eric and Pam hate his guts.
Speaking of Pam, her friendship with Sookie continues to grow. I’m starting to feel very thankful for this, and sure that Eric was right when he told Sookie in Dead Reckoning that Pam is more of a friend to her than she knows.
Do we really have to talk about this? The were’s are starting to feel very tired as Harris turns the bulk of her attention to the far more interesting fae and vampire subplots. The same personality types are being trotted out over and over, in the same predicaments, complicated by the same hang ups, mental deficiencies and attitude problems. The resolution itself is predictable; the were’s have a well defined system for meting out punishment and we’ve all seen it too many times now to count. Alcide is clearly not concerned about anything that doesn’t directly affect his pack these days, and while this is to be expected, my regard for the character has taken a dive over the last few books. I guess that’s influenced my opinion of his entire breed. I see no reason for were involvement in the final book – no threads are left hanging – so hopefully a token appearance by Alcide is all we have to look forward to on this front. Just no more “Naked Were Justice – Long Tooth Pack Style”. Please.
THE UN-SUITOR-BLE PARADE
Quinn has realised that it’s not really necessary to incur Eric’s wrath and risk life and limb to speak with Sookie in person, and has finally taught himself to use a telephone instead. He puts this new skill to good use by making a call to Sookie on her birthday. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this was, except to let us know that his life still sucks and most women seem to think he’s only good for one thing.
Alcide proves himself once again to be the self absorbed ass we all know him to be, and his assistance in the resolution of the main plot is self serving, as usual. Fortunately, Sookie is acutely aware of this and their relationship now seems to be one of mutual…using. They’ve reached an understanding on this front, as Sookie’s inner dialogue in an early Merlotte’s scene shows. If Sookie’s happy with where this one stands, then I am too.
Bill’s still a-lurkin’ (a lot more than we thought, apparently), but once you get over the fact that he hasn’t gotten permanently lost out in those woods yet, it’s all pretty standard fare on this front. There are obligatory bones to the faithful in here, but Bill is such a non-issue now that it’s hard to take much of it seriously. His role in solving the mystery of the book is somewhat overstated in the synopsis – other characters play as big, or bigger roles, and Sookie is instrumental as usual. Bill is clearly still pining over missed opportunities, and it left me distrustful of almost everything that comes out of his mouth, especially his liberal doses of relationship advice. How Bill feels matters not a dolt if Sookie doesn’t return it. Sookie is also well aware of the glaring conflict of interest here, and I think most readers will now agree that Bill has been firmly friend-zoned for good. Note to Bill: You think we didn’t notice your reprimand of other characters for “ogling Eric’s woman”… while you continue your rather presumptuous habit of calling Sookie your “sweetheart” every time Eric’s back is turned?
I dare you to say that in front of him, Bill. I double-dare ya.
THE FINAL VERDICT
The mystery in Deadlocked is engaging and well written, apart from a piece of new “world lore” being clumsily shoehorned into the beginning to tie a couple of the characters together. Most dedicated readers will recognise this immediately and be left wondering if they missed the memo – obviously it reached the characters; since for them it’s suddenly common knowledge. For me though, the mysteries of these books are really just a side story to the big picture stuff – Sookie’s arc, which extends over the entire series and the vampire and fairy arcs that span the last five books. These plots are the meat on the bones now, as the series has moved away from the more “self contained” mystery format of the earlier titles. Even so, with the mystery involving a direct threat to a central character Harris managed to run multiple threads back to all three larger arcs in a fairly satisfying way.
If you’re looking for a fun read, or the lightness of earlier books in the series, you won’t find it here. The overall mood is necessarily angsty and dark, but I enjoyed it all the same. It makes sense to me that Sookie is in such a desperate and weary place – “the darkest hour is before the dawn”, and all that. Most of you who read here frequently know that I can let certain issues slide in individual books as long as I can see sense and progression in the direction of the entire narrative, and I have absolutely no complaints on that front. If last year is anything to go by, some readers will be unhappy with the state of play. It’s worth remembering that the last four books have ended with deliberate misdirection that left fans foaming at the mouth – unnecessarily, as it turned out. If it’s hard to remain optimistic, then an open mind and one eye on the big picture might be enough to get you over the finish line next May.
Deadlocked is released today.