Urban fantasy usually takes place in, you know, urban areas. Cities, big towns, and places where vampires and weres creep in dank alleys. But Charlaine Harris took a slightly different approach in the Sookie Stackhouse series, the first eight books of which are compiled here. While it has many of the genre staples, this series is solidly entrenched in warm Southern charm and mellow mysteries.
In "Dead Until Dark," Bon Temps waitress Sookie Stackhouse can read minds, which is more of a curse than a blessing. But when she meets and befriends vampire Bill Compton, she becomes embroiled in the world of vampires -- and when her grandmother is viciously murdered, she finds that the supernatural world is a lot more complicated (and close to home) than she ever dreamed.
"Living Dead in Dallas" has Sookie is hired by vampires over a kidnapping, and ends up mired in a disastrous situation involving werewolves, Texan vamps, and a fanatical religious cult that hates the supernatural. "Club Dead" brings Sookie some relationship problems when Bill becomes inattentive... and vanishes. Sookie sets out to find her absentee lover along with Eric and the werewolf Alcide, but the result isn't what she expects.
After that, Sookie has problems in "Dead to the World" when she's confronted by a devious band of Shreveport witches, as well as handling her brother's disappearance and a newly amnesiac (and naked!) Eric. And "Dead as a Doornail" embroils Sookie in the inevitable werepolitics -- someone is shooting shifters, and there's a new potential werewolf leader in town. And Sookie may be the next victim.
"Definitely Dead" and "All Together Dead" brings Sookie back to the vampire political arena. First she heads to a pre-Katrina New Orleans when her vampire cousin is murdered, and learns a surprising fact about her family tree. And then she's called to a vampire summit where the Vampire Queen of Louisiana is being accused of murder. Of course, things get rough. And "From Dead to Worse" brings trouble back to Bon Temps -- the vampire and were worlds are rocked when power struggles erupt, and Sookie must deal with the conflicts, her family history, and a wedding.
The Sookie Stackhouse series does a great job of avoiding the usual pitfalls of urban fantasy -- it's not all doom'n'gloom, gothic pomposity and angst. Instead, it's soaked in down-home Southern charm, the pleasant little town of Bon Temps, and a generally mellow, relaxed atmosphere all throughout the series.
Of course, it doesn't stop Harris from piling on gruesome murders and nasty psychos here and there, as well as a few subplots that are deftly juggled in each book. Her style is warm, steady, mildly tongue-in-cheek ("We'd dumped a body together, and that creates a bond") and quirky, and she introduces some unique ideas into the usual wolf packs and vampire bunches (such as Elvis Presley, now a vampire!).
What flaws? Well, Sookie's love life and attractiveness has her occasionally bordering on Anita Blake territory. That we don't need. Despite that problem, Sookie is a likable character -- an unpretentious and no-nonsense waitress who doesn't go looking for trouble, but whose telepathic talents often draw it to her. And there's plenty of other likable characters: the charming Viking vampire Eric, Sookie's flaky werepanther brother Jason, her down-to-earth werecollie boss Sam, and many others.
The characters who don't click are the boring, slightly creepy Bill, and the weretiger Quinn (a machismo-dripping nonentity). Bill serves a plot purpose, but I honestly don't know why Quinn is there.
"Sookie Stackhouse Books 1-8" is a solid collection of Charlaine Harris's warm, Southern-scented urban fantasies. It has some rough spots, but it's a good lighthearted read.