Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fiction Alert: Charlaine Harris

In an earlier post, I drew attention to Charlaine Harris' high-quality Sookie Stackhouse novels.

I contrasted quality urban fantasy series (in the case of Harris' Southern Vampire series, maybe suburban or even rural fantasy given Harris' back-woods and off-the-beaten-path small-town settings) with the long-derailed Anita Blake series, whose author hasn't been off the beaten path in her later works but completely lost in the woods. I have a hypothesis how Laurell Hamilton's work went awry. It was initially well-written work -- characters whose fear and anger made sense; crises readers understood needed to be solved and were solved (or one could see progress toward the solution ... but for each book at least the major crisis was solved); tension made complex and plausible by the different demands of the crises, character weaknesses, and motives of the involved characters. My lofty expectations were entirely justified. Yet, it was allowed to degenerate into an ill-designed and seemingly unending series of encounters designed not to resolve a crisis or advance the plot but to amuse the writer: excuses to put Blake into someone's bed, to show some poor sod being misused or having his affections ignored, or to involve the character Blake in some new sexual combination Hamilton hadn't previously described. Not that I mind erotica; but if I'm to read five hundred pages, I expect a plot and not simply a rewrite of Penthouse Letters with vampires. (Never mind the creeping addition of typos and logical inconsistency that suggest she's not bothering with careful craft, I'd be satisfied with the appearance of a plot.) My theory comes from this admission of Hamilton's about where she is taking the series: as described earlier, she has no idea.

Remember what Alice learned from the Cat? Alice asks: "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" The answer is the wisdom of the ages. "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. Once we know Hamilton has no idea where Blake is to go, it's easy to understand how she suffers several books of tantalizingly almost-a-story vignettes glued together with group sex, taboo sex, and snubs against men looking for sex.

So, why the alert?

I just read this:
Q&A: What's next for Sookie and the series?
Harris: I have no idea.
via Borders, "Q&A -- A Conversation with Charlane Harris"
Mind you, the rest of the interview was not only non-scary, but quite articulate. People who use the verb "to obtain" as she does (to be established or customary) aren't an uneducated bunch, and to use it off the cuff like Harris does suggests she has all the literacy and intelligence her early works suggest (their understated humor, and their quiet allusion to so many other works in different genres). I don't expect "their" and "they're" and "there" to get confused in a Harris book like I've encountered in Hamilton. There is hope yet.

However, the book that follows the masterful All Together Dead was not as brilliant as her prior work. Rather than following one significant story arc (while peppering into the meal a variety side-plots that might develop over the series or minor problems creating distracting crises to be solved in the course pursuing larger problems), Harris seemed in From Dead to Worse to glue different segments back-to-back with the expectation we would accept the whole as one "story". This wasn't the artful work I'd come to expect, and I hope future works either claim to be multiple stories (which stand as stories) or are structured to be more satisfying. The lack of cohesion in the story parts really prevented the sort of "ahh!" feeling you get when the author wraps up the major crisis, and leaves you looking at the unfinished problems for clues where the next crisis will erupt.

Noting Harris' quick back-to-back release dates in 2009, I simultaneously fear that she's sacrificed care for quantity and look forward to repeated tales in case she has returned to turning out solid books.

I'll definitely remark back on it here.

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