The Dresden Files #15: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Read: 11 September, 2016

In this instalment, our intrepid hero is on loan from Mab for a heist. The problem? His new boss is Nicodemus, the host of the fallen angel Anduriel.

I’ve had the audiobook kicking around for a while, and it was hard to actually start listening to it. Even once I did, I almost switched to something else a few minutes in. After fourteen books, I think I may be suffering from a bit of Dresden fatigue. Once I got started, though, the momentum of the story and the familiar characters swept me up and I made it through yet another book.

The series has jumped the shark so many times, and Dresden’s litany of acquired roles is becoming ridiculous. I know that this series is a cash cow for Butcher, and I know that many people (myself included, sometimes) are comforted by being able to revisit the same familiar characters over and over again – they become like old friends, and there’s an appeal to being able to check in with them every so often, see what they’re up to. But, at the same time, I wish the series would end, already. I know we’re building to an Arch Big Bad, and I’d really like to see that happen in my lifetime. Before Harry becomes head of the White Council, is elected to join the angels, and is promoted to Winter Queen.

As for the book itself, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill Dresden. The difference, here, is that there’s a twist ending. The twist requires re-examining what had come earlier in the book and it just doesn’t match up. Dresden’s narration cheats – it tells that X is Y only to reveal at the end that X is actually X and that Dresden knew so all along. He does keep telling us that he’s “playing [his] cards close to his chest,” fine, but we’re supposed to be in his head. His being secretive isn’t supposed to apply to us.

I love this kind of twist in a movie like Fight Club, where you can watch it a second time and realise that it all fits together and makes sense with the new information. Skin Game is not that kind of story. Dresden just straight up cheated. It’s annoying.

I will say this for Skin Game – it’s the first time I’ve seen a Mystical Pregnancy inflicted on a male character! I think I would have just screamed if Butcher had given this to Karen or Charity!

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read: 10 September, 2016

After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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Blood Relative by Crocker Stephenson

Read: 23 August, 2016

On the fourth of July, 1987, Kenny Kuntz came home to find his mother, brother, uncle, and two aunts brutally murdered. In Blood Relative, Stephenson tracks the events of that night, along with the subsequent investigation and trial.

The murder itself is disturbing, as is the family’s history (though somewhat glossed over, there are strong hints at generations of abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness). As far as voyeuristic summer reading sensationalism goes, Blood Relative gets the job done.

Stephenson has, for the most part, arranged the book as collections of facts – snippets from autopsy reports, transcripts from interviews, etc. But every so often, the narrative voice interjects, providing imagery that could not possibly have been known by the author, and the words chosen are heavy with connotations (even if I didn’t perceive any particular strong bias). I didn’t get the sense that I was being intentionally misled, but the difference between the two styles was very jarring.

Because Stephenson apparently wanted to privilege “unabridged first sources,” there are times when context is really lacking. For example, someone might be quoted, but with no explanation of who they are, or an autopsy report quote might be presented with no explanation of the medical jargon. Given Stephenson’s narrative intrusions elsewhere, I was rather miffed by their lack in these areas.

Due to the nature of the True Crime genre, the ending is understandably unsatisfying. The mystery is presented and explained, but it isn’t resolved – it ends in the lead suspect’s acquittal. At least Stephenson is very upfront about this, warning readers that they will leave the book confused.

Still, it would have been nice to have seen some more follow-up. The book came out several years after the events described, but we have no more information about how Kenny Kuntz is doing, or whether Chris Jacobs III had been convicted of further crimes (and, in fact, he purportedly confessed to the murders two years before Blood Relative was published – information that should have been included!). That said, I do realise how difficult it would have been to negotiate the ethics of a “where are they now” section.

Which brings me to my final issue: The impression I got from the lack of statements from the surviving family members, plus the afterward “provided” by the sister, Germaine, suggest that the book was written and published without their consent or support. I’m glad to have had it to read, but that does make me quite uncomfortable. Besides which, it seems that it would have been a better book had Stephenson courted the remaining family members for their input.

Reading this soon-ish after watching Netflix’s Making of a Murderer documentary was an interesting experience. Both involve fairly similar families (socially isolated WIsconsin families with a lot of mental illness and suggestions of abuse), and it was easy to read the Avery family into the Kunzes.

Blood Relative is a quick read, and surprisingly light on the gruesome detail. It doesn’t have a satisfying wrap-up, but that does provide a lot of fuel for discussions on a long Wisconsin evening with others who have read the book. As ever, there are aspects of the True Crime genre that make me uncomfortable, and this book seems to take those issues to a bit of an extreme. It does feel exploitative, though I’m somewhat assuaged by the fact that the other doesn’t seem to be pointing any definitive fingers.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #6: Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie

Read: 3 June, 2016

Ruso and Tilla are back up in northern Britannia where a rumour has it that there’s a body buried in Hadrian’s wall-in-progress.

Downie’s writing is consistently solid, and I really enjoyed this latest addition to the series. It follows the familiar format of Ruso stumbling into the middle of a mystery – helped along by Tilla’s meddling. He then proceeds to bumble around for 200 pages until, in the final few pages of the book, the mystery largely solves itself. It makes the series a little less than satisfying as a procedural because there’s little to follow on – when I can’t guess the answer, it’s because all the salient information is being withheld.

There’s humour in this format, though. Ruso is building a reputation as a crime solver, and yet he actually does very little. Tilla is the more active agent, and much of the most important comes through her investigations. Beyond that, it is Ruso’s reputation that positions him to receive the information he needs for the mystery to be resolved.

The real appeal of the series is the setting, and how beautifully Downie is able to bring it to life. The world of these novels feels populated, and even background characters have tangibility. The world also plays out in our two main characters and how they interact and negotiate each other’s cultural differences (and the differences really are cultural, because both are as stubborn and curmudgeonly as each other, much as they might protest otherwise).

SPOILERS: I was concerned about how the couple’s infertility would play out, and had some concerns that Tilla would suddenly find herself pregnant after receiving the marriage blessing. I shouldn’t have worried, not after how deftly Downie handled the issue of religion in Persona Non Grata. She is very deft at navigating fraught themes. Getting a replacement baby from Virana skirted the groaning border, though. The choice to give up her baby isn’t contrary to Virana’s established character, but it still would have been nice to see a little more build up. As it was, there was really only the mirroring with Conn’s fiancée’s refusal to do the same. Still, it’s easy enough to see how the decision would have made sense to Virana, so I’ll accept it. And it’ll be interesting to see how the addition of a baby to the family changes the dynamic between Ruso and Tilla.

Overall, I found this to be a fine addition to the series. I actually bought Tabula Rasa when it first came out, but was afraid to read it and no longer have it to look forward to! But with Vita Brevis coming out soon, I took a chance and was not disappointed.

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Wool by Hugh Howey

Read: 18 April, 2016

Wool has been on my radar for a little while – at least since Hank Green mentioned it in one of his Stanley Parable videos. Every so often, I’d go to the book store with a little spending money and check a few sections for it (is it fiction? is it science fiction? is it… fantasy? mystery?) and always left with something else instead.

After at least a year of this, I finally looked it up. Apparently, Wool isn’t sold in stores. You have to buy it online. Well, that’s nice, I got it from the library.

A lot of the buzz surrounding the book is that its world is immersive (as Justin Cronin’s blurb on the front cover has it: “You will live in this world”). And that’s certainly been my impression. The location does feel very tangible, even if there were a few fuzzy areas. Namely, that each level seemed to be very single purpose, but surely that must mean that some levels are much smaller than others. Would a nursery floor (what the maternity wards seem to be called – the practice of segregated nurseries seems very odd and out-dated) be as large as the farming floor? Are there apartments beyond the nursery? Do people trying to get home after a shift have to walk through the nursery in order to reach their homes?

But the fact that I spent so much time trying to envision the silo and how it’s supposed to work isn’t really a strike against the book. It means that the silo felt real enough for something fuzzy to stand out.

There were a few weak moments in the book. One was with the characterization of Jules – I found it difficult to really grasp her. When she’s first introduced, she’s completely uninterested in the outside. She can’t be bothered with it, she can’t understand the obsession with seeing the screens or cleaning the sensors. She’s happy in Mechanical, and she urges other characters to focus on the silo, not on the outside. But then, soon after she takes over as the POV character, we find out that she used to pour over children’s picture books and dream of the outside. Right from childhood, she is described as having been a dreamer for the broader world. This is a detail that doesn’t come up again. It is merely brought up, out of the blue and contrary to the character we’ve been getting to know up until that point, and then dropped.

This grasp of characters may be a bigger problem. I noticed it with other POV characters, like Jahns and Holsten. They seem distinct when we first meet them through the eyes of a different character, but once they slide into the control chair, they all start to seem very much alike. Jahns becomes very much like Holsten, and Jules becomes very much like them both. By the end, where the narrative bounces back and forth between two primary POV characters, they are largely indistinguishable in voice.

I also found that the narrative loses a lot of focus near the middle. There are a few chapters there (I noted this observation on p.282 in my copy) where the writing quality drops very suddenly. Throughout that portion, characters seem to be acting based on authorial need (like when Jules doesn’t wonder how the plants could be growing in pitch dark – since the author knows that the silo does in fact still have power), rather than their own drives.

But these are relatively minor gripes. The world is compelling, and the mystery carries the story quite well until the characters grew on me. There were times when I found myself reading almost breathlessly, desperate to see how the characters get out of the latest jam. Setting up a few POV character deaths early on, combined with some flash forward trickery, raised the stakes. I couldn’t trust that the main characters would survive, and had evidence to believe that they wouldn’t. It made reaching the end quite thrilling.

Where the book suffered, it seems to have been a victim of its publishing history. The serial aspect of it, combined with the lack of an editor, would explain the variations in quality and occasional lack of consistency. But I am, of course, being nit-picky, as usual.

Having now read the book, I’m not sure whether I will be ordering it or not. It was an enjoyable read, but I don’t know if it was an enduring read – something I’ll want to come back to again and again in future, something I’ll want to lend out for others to share. That’s the trouble with novels that rely too strongly on a “mystery box” – once the answer is known, there needs to be something else for readers to come back to. I think that Wool comes close, and does try to have some profundities about human nature and such, but the ideas were too shallow, too overshadowed by the mystery to stand on their own.

On the name: Like others, I puzzled over the name. It’s strange, and there’s no wool in the book (as far as I can tell). There is, however, the expression “pull the wool over their eyes,” which is the central theme of the book.

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The Dresden Files #14: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

Read: 31 January, 2016

At the end of Ghost Story, Harry Dresden’s tenure as the Winter Knight began. Now, Mab has given him his first assignment, and it’s a doozy!

Butcher’s favourite word this book is “oblique.” There was one page where it appeared three times, and it just kept coming up again and again. It was bad enough to be a drinking game!

Then there was the casual sexism. It’s been toned down over the last several books, but Dresden’s claim that women have up to five levels of conversation at the same time was just ridiculous. Worse yet, it just went on and on, this was only a few pages after Dresden goes to a place where men look for casual sex and has a whole conversation with Titania about how he’s totally okay with the gays because freedom is important. It was so cringe-inducing, and sadly immature.

But other than that, I enjoyed the book. Dresden’s changing roles keep the series from getting stale. And it’s been interesting to see him do without more and more of his standard tools.

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The Dresden Files #13: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Read: 4 January, 2016

Changes, the last book in the series, ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Specifically, the main character was shot and died.

Well, this is Dresden, so it’s not like a little thing like death is going to stop him. He’s back in Chicago for Ghost Story, kicking ass, solving mysteries, saving the world… only, this time, he’s a ghost.

It’s an interesting premise. The “ghost comes back to solve his own murder” thing has been done before, but you don’t see it too often with the main character of a series, over a dozen books in.

And it was good to see Dresden have some new challenges for a while. He’s always so powerful that he just blasts through enemies, but in Ghost Story, he can’t. Suddenly, he has to sneak around and let others do a lot of the direct action. And Butcher makes a big deal of this – having Dresden note over and over again about how his perspective has changed, and how he can’t just kill the enemy henchmen anymore because they can’t kill him, so he’ll have to find another way. It was a little preachy, but this is Dresden.

The action and pacing are as exciting as ever, and I did enjoy all the new discoveries Dresden made about the magical world now that he got to see it from a different angle.

My only problem with the book (other than the Catholic priest with a KJV on his nightstand – what was that about?) was that nothing that happened actually matters in the long term. His brief interlude as a ghost (no spoiler tags because of course Dresden isn’t really dead) is all about revisiting the repercussions of his choices in Changes. Which fits with the ghost motif, but leaves us with a book that doesn’t really advance the plot. Two baddies come back and are defeated, but we’d thought them both defeated anyway so it’s not like any plotlines are resolved. We get to see the changes in Dresden’s allies, but that could have been divulged differently, and in the next book. And while dying is a pretty big deal in character arch terms, it gets taken back at the end so what was the point?

Overall, the book felt a bit like a filler episode. Not that I’m complaining, per se, since Dresden is my filler reading when I need something light and fun and exciting. But it would have been nice for there to have been more long term meaning to the events of the book.

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The Dresden Files #12: Changes by Jim Butcher

Read: 23 March, 2015

The story is meant to start with a punch as the opening scene has Dresden receive a call from Susan in which he learns that a) they have a daughter, and b) she’s been taken. Unfortunately, the “secret child out of left field!” plot has been done so often that what should have been shocking was more eye-rolling.

I feel like if a major reveal like this is going to happen, there needs to have been some clues (even if they weren’t seen as such at the time) leading up to it. The girl is something like eight years old, that’s eight years of Susan keeping a perfect secret and never acting strange. At the very least, some of this could have been retconned, with Harry suddenly making sense of some odd comment or behaviour that took place between novels. The way it’s done here, however, just feels like a cheat.

Thankfully, though the cheat is rather central to the plot, it’s the only real criticism I can offer. This book ramps up the danger and brings about several showdowns that have been building up for the better part of the series.

One reviewer complained that we never really fear for Dresden’s safety any more because he’s just become so incredibly powerful. And that is true to a certain extent. I mean, he still struggles, and his tasks are difficult, but he spent the better part of the final showdown wearing what amounted to invincibility armour.

However, I think that there are two factors that balance this out. The first is that we are continuously introduced to even more powerful enemies as Dresden works his way up the supernatural food chain (not to give away too many spoilers, but everyone’s favourite one-eyed deity makes an appearance in this book). The second is that the danger to Dresden has shifted (and did so in a very clear way back in Death Masks). It’s not the safety of Dresden’s physical body that is keeping me at the edge of my seat, but rather the safety of his self as he makes impossible choices in order to get all that extra power.

Besides which, I’m not sure this series could have held my attention if he was still just fighting local werewolves and the odd rogue wizard. The early books were very formulaic, and seeing Dresden meet and beat the same kinds of dangers over and over again would have quickly lost its luster. A good series knows to ramp up the stakes, shake things up, and force the main characters to either change or break. And I think that Changes does this beautifully.

Speaking of changes, I mentioned to a friend after I finished Turn Coat how funny it was that the series had entirely dropped the whole “Wizard P.I. with an office” bit it had ridden so hard in the early books. In fact, I couldn’t remember Dresden’s office having been brought up at all in several books, and wondered why he was bothering to keep up the rent now that he’s a Warden and that all his clients have his private number, so to speak. So, of course, Butcher heard me and responded, and I got a little chuckle out of that (largely due to his perfect timing).

(SPOILER COMMENTS: I had a few problems with the book that require spoilers. The easiest to deal with is the ending, which was a really good cliff-hanger that I hope pays off properly in the next book, but just kept dragging on as Butcher couldn’t seem to just stop writing. It was a shame, and I felt it reduced the impact of what would otherwise have been a very satisfying close (satisfying if the payoff in the next book works, of course).

There was a colonialist undertone to the book that didn’t quite sit well with me. I mean, Dresden literally dresses up like a Conquistador to go kill Mayan gods, and there’s a bit in there about how this will free the Mayans from the evil of their gods, and that all hit a little too close to the rhetoric that justified the wholesale genocide of aboriginal peoples. Sure, everything had a neat explanation in the context of the book, but oof! It came off really tone-deaf.

Which leads me to my last bit. The series started off with an undersmell of sexism that has, off-and-on, gotten better. Here, however, women and little girls are tortured and killed for the purposes of giving Dresden his manly manpain. Again, it’s a narrative cliché that has been done to death, and that has reinforced structures that cause real-world harm. While I certainly found the story very compelling, and it’s satisfying to watch Dresden evolve through the choices he makes, it would have been nice to try something a little different for once.)

I also wanted to make a little note on James Marsters’s reading. For a while after I had a baby, I had to do the bulk of my reading through audiobooks because free hands are so hard to come by with little ones around. And while I’ve mostly transitioned books like the Dresden Files back over to paper copies now, I’ve stuck with audiobooks for this series through the sheer pleasure in listening to Marsters’s performance. While it’s still absolutely wonderful, I noticed that he was doing more unique character voices for this book. It was largely fine, though a bit odd since the narrative structure of the series has Dresden relaying the story to us (in other words, it’s not Murphy speaking, but Dresden telling us what she said), so the individual voices don’t really fit in such a context. But that’s easily overlooked and not very important. The problem I had in this book is that a few of the voices, Mrs. Spunkelcrief (Dresden’s landlady) in particular, were very jarring. In her case, the voice sounded sufficiently like Mickey Mouse to put the audiobook production team in danger of a trademark lawsuit. It was only for a small handful of characters, and they were characters who got very little narrative time anyway, but I found it off-putting.

To wrap up, I thought the book was great, and it really shook things up and I look forward to seeing how the changes play out in the next book.

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The Dresden Files #11: Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

Read: 30 January, 2015

The trend of the series over the last few books has been to circle the Black Council, rather than each mystery being, at least ostensibly, isolated. It’s interesting to see how far the series has come from the original few books – how long has it been since Dresden has been to his office? At least the office gets a mention in this book, though for all Dresden’s talk of money woes, it seems interesting that he keeps paying rent for it when his time seems so devoted to Warden matters lately.

The mystery itself was a bit of a let down. When Dresden notices a detail he wouldn’t ordinarily notice, and then mentions it at least twice in different parts of the book, it becomes far too clear who the traitor was going to be. I don’t try to guess the endings to mysteries, and I like to let myself be blown away in the reveal. So for me to know who the traitor is as soon as he comes on stage is really quite telling.

Still, the story is good. Dresden makes heavy sacrifices, and the characters are changed by the events of the book. In a series, that is generally a very good thing, and something that Butcher is handling better than most authors.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this books is all the extra insight we get into the White Council. We’re no longer bound to Dresden’s rather slanted view of them, and instead get some frank explanations from people who are more knowledgeable about and invested in the Council. It adds a great deal of nuance, and moves us away from viewing the Council as strictly an antagonistic force.

This was an excellent addition to the series, and it’s a pleasure to see Butcher grow as an author.

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The Dresden Files #10: Small Favor by Jim Butcher

Read: 21 December, 2014

The Summer Court is sending Gruffs (remember the billy goats? Yeah, those gruffs) after Harry, the Winter Court is sending Hobs, and Marcone has been kidnapped. All this results in a rather complicated (and dangerous!) affair that reveals a lot more about the Fallen and the Heaven/Hell conflict.

The last couple books seem to have been setting up the character pasts, with little more than vague hints about the overarching plot. Here, the characters are established and we appear to be moving into the big reveal.

I like Sanya quite a bit, and was glad to see him make an appearance. I also liked getting a bit more backstory about him – particularly with regards to being a black man growing up in Russia.

Fidelacchius finally became important again, as Harry tries to find a new owner for it. (SPOILERS: I was concerned that Dresden was going to end up becoming a Knight, in addition to being a Warden and everything else. It would have just been so Mary Sue-ish. I kept hoping that Murphy would take it up instead, and was very glad when she was chosen. I was even more glad when she refused it, and gave a perfectly character-consistent reason. I’m still hoping that she’ll become the new Knight eventually (particularly given how Fidelacchius seems to match Murphy’s style of sword), but I’m glad that she didn’t just take it up right away. That would have been very un-Murphy.)

Overall, a solid addition to the series and I’m looking forward to reading the next!

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