Charlaine Harris,
Grave Sight
(Berkley, 2006)

Charlaine Harris is a gifted writer, plain and simple. Her Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels have kept me well entertained, while my wife enjoys Harris's more straightforward mysteries. Now, this talented imagination has conjured up a new kind of heroine who straddles the line between mystery and contemporary fantasy: Harper Connelly.

Harper is no action hero. She's not a brilliant detective or slayer of evil. She has no supernatural origins, nor does she have a relationship with any kind of undead creature.

No, Harper's world is largely mundane, with one major difference. Ever since she was struck by lightning, she's been afraid of thunderstorms, she is weak in one leg ... and she can sense the location and final moments of the dead. That makes her a valuable commodity to those seeking answers, closure for a loss or the location of a missing (presumed dead) loved one. It also makes her somewhat unclean in the eyes of many, a ghoul who makes her living off the dead and, quite often, supplies answers that no one is eager to hear. Still, she travels with her stepbrother, Tolliver Lang, and does what good she can -- for a profit -- without getting too involved in the lives (or deaths) of those she encounters.

But then she and Tolliver roll into Sarne, a small town in the Arkansas Ozarks with a few big secrets. The job seems easy at first, just to find a missing teenage girl. But answers to one disappearance lead to further questions about other deaths, and soon the siblings are wrapped up in a criminal case that could cost Harper her professional reputation -- or even her life.

This series (and yes, there is at least one sequel on the way, with ample grist for more) promises to be great. Harper is a darker protagonist than Sookie, and the tone of the book is more serious; there is humor, but it's painted with a much lighter brush. Also, while Harper's "power" is certainly fantastic, the novel otherwise is entirely grounded in reality. The characters, major and minor, seem so damn real, it's hard to believe they were just invented for this book. The relationship between Harper and Tolliver is particularly well conceived, a refreshing change from the usual romantic tension -- or downright antagonism -- that is all too common in fiction. And the story, even though I guessed the identity and motive of the killer long before it was revealed, kept me engrossed to the very last page, and I was disappointed when there were no more pages to turn.

Give me more, Charlaine. Let Sookie rest for a while and tell me what happens next to Harper Connelly and Tolliver Lang.

by Tom Knapp
3 March 2007

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