There's never a dull moment in Sookie Stackhouse's hometown of Bon Temps, La. Vampires are trying to live among humans, and now the weres are following them — werewolves, werefoxes and werepanthers, including Sookie's brother, Jason.
Sookie's vampire boyfriend/husband, Eric Northman, is being threatened by his maker, the Roman Appius Livius Ocella. Veterans of the recent Fae War are still around, and they're not happy with Sookie. Claude, Sookie's sizzlingly sexy fairy cousin, has decided she needs protection, so he announces that he's moving in.
Fairy socks in the living room, an overcrowded vampire guest room in the cellar and a Tabasco-dash of supernatural Southern politics: It's another delicious installment of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries.
The telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse first appeared in "Dead Until Dark," a 2001 paperback original that spread by word-of-mouth wildfire. "Dead in the Family" is the 10th book in the series, which spawned the hit TV series "True Blood," named after the synthetic blood substitute that lets the vampires be good citizens.
Harris is no mean shakes at romance — Erik may be dead, but he's still hot — and she serves up the paranormal thrills and juggles her enormous cast with ease.
But more to the point, she seamlessly blends all this into a lovingly observed portrait of small-town Louisiana.
Harris knows her Southern girls and her Southern cooking: "Michele liked heavy eye makeup, big purses, and high heels. She was barefoot now. 'Hey, Sookie, you like ranch dressing?' " Her grasp of Southern politeness is dead on, and in Bon Temps, Southern politeness has to go where it has never gone before.
The Wild Huntsmen phone ahead to make sure they're welcome and ask where they should park their pickup trucks. When the evil vampire king comes to call, Sookie reminds herself to put a decorative napkin under his bottle of TrueBlood before she takes the tray out to the parlor.
This latest installment of the series is about family. Harris treasures the everyday routines of small-town family life, burnishing little moments until they glow.
Sookie muses about her brother: "Here my brother was, dating again, pleased at the prospect of eating steak and the mashed potato casserole I'd brought and the salad Michele was making. I had to admire Jason's determination to find pleasure in his life." Jason, meanwhile, overcomes his fear of a child vampire to give the child back a bit of lost family life. These are nice folk, even when they aren't people.
Like Terry Pratchett, Harris isn't above using fantasy as social satire. The principal political issue in "Dead in the Family" is Proposition 2, which would require shape-shifters and weres to register. Fundamentalist "oneys" are staging protests against the "two-natured" and chanting "Cohabitation is wrong."
Harris understands the folks who are afraid their neighbors will turn wolf in the middle of the church social. But she gives real eloquence to Sam Merlotte, Sookie's two-natured boss, who has outed himself as a shape-shifter and is now being attacked for it.
"I should not have to tell anyone anything," Sam declares. "I'm a citizen of this country. My father was in the army. I was in the army. I pay my share of taxes. And I'm not a person like everyone else. I'm a shifter. And they need to just put that on their plates and eat it."
Like a Gothic "Gilmore Girls," "Dead in the Family" takes its time. Harris introduces one memorable eccentric after another, and so there are subplots that simply hang out on the back porch for the entire book. (When is someone going to kill Victor? Are any of those kids ever going to get born?)
Still, there will be at least three more books, so there's no hurry to tie up plot ends. Meanwhile there are bar fights, Victorian young lady vampires, sultry Viking sex and fairy cousins who don't get that they have to replace the cereal when they finish it.
Lively and funny, "Dead in the Family" has genuine heart.
Smith is the author of "The Vanished Child" and "The Knowledge of Water." Her first YA book, "The Other Side of Dark," will be published in November.