"DEAD RECKONING: A SOOKIE STACKHOUSE NOVEL." By Charlaine Harris. $27.95.
God knows it's not easy being Sookie Stackhouse. The telepathic barmaid at the center of so many supernatural occurrences in the sleepy burg of Bon Temps, La., seems to spend most of her time fending off murderous attackers or the romantic advances of vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters and the like.
These days, things might even be more complicated for Sookie, who stars not only in bestselling author Charlaine Harris' successful series but also in HBO's hit show "True Blood," which returned for its fourth season Sunday.
The premiere episode of the new season finds Sookie (Anna Paquin) struggling to sort out the complicated powers she possesses thanks to her fairy bloodline and juggling the affections of at least two powerful blood drinking beaus. In "Dead Reckoning," Harris' 11th and latest novel, readers find the spunky cocktail waitress in not such a dissimilar place.
Her fairy relations, Claude and Dermot, are still a bit of a conundrum, having taken up residence inside her home, even though they spend a considerable amount of time at Hooligans, the club where Claude works as a stripper.
Her relationship with handsome Viking vampire Eric Northman is still acutely complicated -- and old flame Bill Compton and werewolf Alcide Herveaux haven't stopped proclaiming their love for Sookie either.
And that just might be part of the problem.
Certainly, some things have changed in Bon Temps. Right out of the gate, Ms. Stackhouse loses some of her blond locks when her boss Sam Merlotte's bar is fire-bombed, adding insult to the already critical injury of losing business to Vic's Redneck Roadhouse, the new joint in town.
Eric is forcing Pam, the vampire he made, to keep a troubling bit of knowledge from Sookie, even as she learns some personal, painful secrets about her beloved late grandmother Adele and comes into possession of a rare magical object called a "cluviel dor," which is "about the size of two stacked Oreo cookies."
Yet "Dead Reckoning" feels a bit stale. The book is missing some of Harris' usual zest (Sookie's amorous interludes are considerably pared back, for starters) -- and zest is a critical ingredient in Harris' spicy Southern stew. Perhaps it's simply difficult to sustain enthusiasm for a series so late in its life, or perhaps it was a necessary sacrifice to give Sookie some space to grow up.
Never afraid to speak her mind, Sookie's always been a hot-tempered, fiercely loyal, black-and-white kind of gal, but here, she seems to be gaining an understanding that the world -- even one peopled with fairies and vamps, shape-shifters, werewolves and elves -- is rendered in shades of gray.
"The preacher had told me that all sins were equal in the eyes of God, but I couldn't help but feel (for example) that a child molester was worse than a person who cheated on his income tax or a lonely woman who had unsanctioned sex because she wanted a baby. I was probably wrong, because we also weren't supposed to pick and choose which rules we obeyed, but that was the way I felt."
Sookie also ponders her own morals and values, wrestling in particular with her more vengeful desires, and she wonders how spending so much time with her fairy kin, not to mention Eric, might have changed her.
Not to say that Sookie -- or Harris -- has lost her sense of humor. At one point, her ex Bill pays a keenly unusual compliment to her breasts that could appear only in one of Harris' books (though not in a family friendly newspaper).
Still, while transition is at the heart of "Dead Reckoning," the novel itself feels too transitory. The mysteries dutifully unspool in Harris' signature voice and enough threads are left untied to tantalize readers with the promise of Book 12. That magical device is of particular interest. But if you're looking for the gleeful, salacious thrills of Sookie's earlier adventures, it might be more expedient to tune in to HBO to watch Paquin embody the tough-talking telepath with the heart of gold. The award-winning actress imbues the character with just the right sassy bite.
Harris said she intends to write only two additional entries in the series. It's likely a good call. A gal, even one as feisty as Sookie, can really handle only so much paranormal activity.