By Sharon Geltner
Could the latest Charlaine Harris fantasy series evolve into True Grit meets True Blood?
There are similarities between the Sookie Stackhouse and the new Gunnie Rose series. (Harris wrote the Southern vampire series about the telepathic Louisiana barmaid inspiring the HBO series, True Blood. She’s published more than 40 books, some in 30 languages.)
Both series feature young, gorgeous, unschooled (but smart) independent women with hidden abilities, a knack for adventure and attracting strangely powerful men. Who incidentally look great buck naked.
In the series’ second book, A Longer Fall, 19-year-old Lizbeth Rose is a “gunnie,” a quick-draw, hired gun who guards and escorts vulnerable people and cargo that need protection. The Gunnie Rose series is set in an alternate America, in which Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933 in Miami, and the country quickly went to hell in a handbasket. Russia, Mexico, Canada and England grabbed most of what had been the United States. Deadly bandits and packs of wild dogs roam the dangerous, rutted roads.
Rose and her new crew (the old crew met a violent end) are on a train guarding a crate; contents are unknown but precious. The crew is headed east to a small town in the Deep South, where Jim Crow is in full effect and women never wear jeans. Only skirts.
Early on there’s an explosion, a shootout and the train derails. The “treasure” is missing. Rose suspects a mercenary betrayed her. Though shot, she goes undercover in search of the unknown contents. She quickly runs into a love interest from the first book.
“I wanted to write about a woman who made her living with a gun,” Harris said.
The author was inspired by the true-life attempted assassination of FDR at Bayfront Park, before he was sworn in for the first time. “That was a catastrophic era in U.S. history. I made it a little more catastrophic.” (Well after World War I, Americans continued to be ravaged by influenza.)
The Gunnie Rose books share some qualities with a Philip Roth book and two Coen Brothers movies, all set during the same era of crashed banks, horrendous unemployment, unrest and Dust Bowl drought.
Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, imagined what would happen if FDR had been defeated in 1940. The Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? (loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey) and True Grit, based on fellow Arkansan Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, take place in the same harsh climate, with road trips at their center.
Similarly, the Gunnie Rose books begin with a quest and the mercenary must cross unknown, hostile territory. Sounds bleak, but Harris includes dialog, humor and a fascinating twist on history.
She is as persuasive about events that never happened as Richard Matheson was in his 1954 vampire book I am Legend. He wrote there was a huge leap in the vampire population during the Dark Ages in Europe, spread by bubonic plague “Black Death” spores. Sounds plausible.
For her part, Harris has Tsar Nicholas II living in opulence in California and Oregon, which he took over and renamed the Holy Russian Empire; thanks to William Randoph Hearst offering him refuge in 1918. In reality, the tsar and his family were shot to death in a Bolshevik basement.
And though Rasputin’s true death came at the end of 1916, his influence at the Holy Russian Empire strongly lives on in wizards and magicians.
There will be blood. Gallons of it, but no vampires. Rather, Rasputin’s descendants are saving the hemophiliac heir to the throne with blood transfusions. Sound familiar? Yet unreal?
On a lighter note, Rose has to lose the Levis and disguise herself in a pink flowered skirt. She thinks, “I had no idea what I was going to carry in [my first purse] unless it was extra bullets.” It would have been great if Harris had milked the laughs with a Pretty Woman-type Rodeo Drive shopping scene.
The book is strong on grit. Fans would love Harris to add more of her signature wit.
While the road trip format is exciting, it may make it hard for character development. At home, Rose has no father, no siblings and no close friends. Her mother is warm but hubby does not like to be left alone.
On the road, Rose never met a stranger she’d better not like. Her few allies seem interesting, but get killed off. Some need to survive to populate future Gunnie Rose books and endear themselves to readers.
Much of the pleasure and richness of the Sookie Stackhouse books was in getting to know the human and nonhuman residents of Bon Temps and Shreveport, La. The same goes for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, set in the “Burg” neighborhood of Trenton, N.J.
Harris has the goods to accomplish all of this and more.
For now, she’s sticking to her guns, to create genre-bending books as she sees fit. (Pun intended.)
“I still feel pressure all the time to keep writing the same thing. All the time.”
When Harris ended the Southern vampire series, she endured a true flood of vitriol from “fans,” believing the ending was a true dud, because it did not favor their true stud.
“The internet can be the cruelest place you can imagine. It can be devastating. I had to learn how to take it,” Harris recounted.
“I got the harshest treatment possible. I realized that people who said they loved the books for years, had a different opinion when I wrote something they did not want to see. Even death threats.”
Harris concluded, “Writing something different is very scary, but I like to take risks. Sometimes it works out to be very lucrative, or not lucrative at all. But it is always satisfying to do.”
A Longer Fall, by Charlaine Harris, 290 pp., Saga Press, $26.99.
Sharon Geltner is the author of Charity Bashed, available on Amazon and area libraries and bookstores.