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 #8: Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

Read: 30 September, 2014

The tone is set when Dresden attends the trial of a sixteen year old boy accused of dark magic. The kid had stumbled into mind control without knowing the laws of magic, and now the White Council can only make one choice: the penalty for breaking the laws of magic is death. As Dresden leaves the trial, the Gatekeeper gives him a cryptic warning of dark magic being used in Chicago.

The first few books in the series were pretty campy, trying to be Noir and coming off more like the hammy versions of the genre. The last few books, certainly since Blood Rites, have felt a little like place-holders. Very little actually happens in Blood Rites, making the book feel more like just a vehicle for the big reveal at the end. Dead Beat had a lot more going on, but still seemed to be trying to get through a load of exposition.

Proven Guilty had some of the same feel to it, and we learn a great deal of background about the “Dresden Pack.” We also see quite a bit of pay off in Dresden’s character development as he deals with his strained relationship with the Carpenters, his connection to the fallen angel Lasciel, his “will they, won’t they” relationship with Murphy, his feelings about Ebenezar, and, of course, his rather difficult relationship with the White Council.

There were several difficult issues tackled in the book, perhaps the biggest being Molly, the Carpenters’ seventeen year old, having a crush on Dresden. While I understand that it’s a situation many would rather not read about, and I see several reviews calling Butcher some variation of “creep” for writing about it, I actually quite appreciated it. The fact is that this situation happens, and it happens a lot to young girls who have troubled relationships with their families (and are therefore already vulnerable in all sorts of ways). Acknowledging that the older man might be tempted, that the refusal might be difficult, just added realism to scene. Throughout, Dresden modeled the (mostly) appropriate course of action for the older man to take – he refuses, he sets explicit boundaries, and he never ever takes advantage of the situation (except, of course, for the impromptu lesson involving an ice bucket challenge).

I also appreciated how Dresden and Murphy handled their feelings for each other. While certainly not ending the “will they, won’t they” subplot, I was pleased to see them talking out their feelings and options like mature adults. Dresden also gains a new understanding of his mentor, Ebenezar, and begins the process of repairing their relationship. All in all, Dresden grows up a lot in this book, and seems set on a good course to repair all the damage that came to the fore in Dead Beat.

That said, there was a little “plot critical” silliness. The events of the book circle around a horror movie convention: SplatterCon!!! Yet despite two separate incidents that, collectively, led to several deaths and hospitalizations, it’s just assumed that the con will continue. Never is the possibility of cancelling the rest of the event seriously considered. I can understand continuing on after an incident that left an old man beaten up in a bathroom, but once someone dies, it almost seems in poor taste to keep on celebrating horror movies.

Butcher has gotten much better at setting up tricks that will come in handy later in the book. Early on in the series, Dresden would pick a few potions to make, seemingly out of a hat, only to find that they happen to be the exact potions that he needs. It was a little silly. Here, however, Little Chicago is introduced early on, but it’s given a firmly plausible purpose, even if it happens to be exactly what Dresden needs later on. There’s also some teasing, where Dresden thinks that he will need it, but then doesn’t, then later does for a different reason.

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The Dresden Files #7: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Read: 9 September, 2014

The main mystery of the book involves the surviving apprentices of one evil necromancer, and the search for a book that could give them god-like powers. But, as seems to be more and more the case as we make our way through the series, the real story is the cumulative effect of Harry’s choices coming back to bite him. On the seventh book now, there have been more than a few.

While Blood Rites felt a bit like a character exhibition placeholder – where much was revealed but the book itself felt thin – Dead Beat made all that gathered information feel like it mattered. It’s also the first time that I really got the sense that Harry is changing, and not just in the sense that he’s getting more powerful. He’s also becoming more corrupted, and more vulnerable to pushes from the baddies (psychologically speaking).

I’m interested to see where this all goes!

Best line: “Polka will never die!”

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The Dresden Files #6: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Read: 14 July, 2014

Thomas the White Court vampire makes a reappearance when he asks Dresden to help protect a porn movie director from a dangerous entropy curse. Meanwhile, Mavra of the Black Court vampires has returned, and she’s out to kill Dresden.

After the last few books, it was nice to see Harry move away from the “save the world from imminent destruction” plotline and instead focus on the “save Harry from imminent destruction” model. There are only so many times in a row that I can keep up my suspension of disbelief in the face of world destruction that can only be averted by one person.

Unfortunately, the Mavra subplot felt a little tacked on. I think Butcher felt it was necessary to pad out a central plot that really didn’t have too much substance to it (readers – and even Dresden himself – immediately suspect the correct baddies) and as an excuse to bring in Ebenezer to speak to the personal reveals that occur in the book, but the plot itself does very little. Harry is attacked, he fends off his initial attacker, decides to go on the offensive, does so, kills the baddie, oops but did he really? So, in the end, Mavra came and went with no impact in the story (except for an injury that may or may not be important later in subsequent books, and a couple of reveals that really could have been made through other means).

The personal reveals are clichés, but Butcher handles them well by doing the literary equivalent of having large neon signs on them reading: “Hey, look, a cliché! Right here! Isn’t this just sooo trite? Haha!” It works. Over and over again, I reached for a grown and pulled out a chuckle instead.

The series is getting more interesting now that there is an expanded cast of characters, and they’re all amassing a fair bit of depth. This book, in particular, felt like a pause in the action to focus on moving character arcs forward. Unfortunately, both major plotlines felt forced, coming into play just so that Harry can have his big personal reveals. Even so, and even with the occasional sloppiness (how many breakfasts does Harry need in one day?), it was a fun read.

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The Dresden Files #2: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Read: 24 March, 2013

Once again, Murphy calls Dresden out to a crime scene that just doesn’t seem right. The deceased is one of Gentleman Johnny Marcone’s men, he’s been mauled and there are wolf tracks at the scene of the crime. Dresden suspects werewolves.

Unfortunately, my main complaint about Storm Front hasn’t been fixed. Dresden likes to describe himself as a believer in chivalry, wanting to protect the women around him. It would be easy enough to chalk it up to the character since Dresden plays off as a weird combination Noir Cool Guy and scraggly teen doofus (yeah, it’s awkward), but the narrative facts shatter that excuse. The strong female characters, while present, tend to act rashly, making careless mistakes that get people hurt, usually as a result of not wanting to be protected by men like Dresden.

Storm Front had some absurdities in it, but Fool Moon really takes it to the next level. There’s the standard turf war between the FBI agents and the local cops, but in this case the FBI agent opens fire on the cop. Yes, opens fire. As in she shoots her gun. It makes sense for that character to behave in such a way, but it makes absolutely no sense for the local cop not to go completely nutzo-berzerker on her. At the very least, there should a report filed and disciplinary action. The idea that Murphy would simply shrug it off as just another cop turf scuffle is absolutely absurd.

We see this again later when Murphy arrests Dresden for having once held a piece of paper with a symbol on it that was later seen drawn on the floor in a crime scene. She doesn’t even ask him for an explanation (nor allow him to give her one). She just jumps straight to arrest. It’s almost like cops don’t have to do paper work or obey the law in Dresdenland.

I’d say, as a general rule, Murphy is pretty much off the deep end in this book.

I do really enjoy the descriptions of the potions – how they’re made and how they work. The rest of the magic system I could take or leave, but the potions are quite cool.

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The Dresden Files #1: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Read: 11 March, 2013

When I finished the Harry Potter books and whining because it was over, I was told to read the Dresden Files. “It’s like Harry Potter for grown-ups,” according to multiple sources. So I decided to give it a try.

Storm Front starts out as a Noir novel, full of all the classic tropes of the genre. If you’ve seen The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, you know what I’m talking about. The big twist on the genre is that Dresden is a wizard. Though once he finds himself wearing sweatpants and cowboy boots under his duster, it becomes rather difficult to take its genre status too seriously.

Butcher does try to play up the Noir tropes – so you get the stereotypical characters (the hard-boiled cop, the femme fatale, the surly bartender, the gorgeous reporter… That being said, there’s some amount of subtle playing with the tropes, such as the cheerleader-ish hard-boiled cop with the soft face and Shirley Temple blonde curls.

There’s a fair amount of the casual sexism that’s so endemic to the Noir genre – some of it internal to Dresden’s perspective, but some of it reinforced by the narrative (such as the hard-boiled cop crying when Dresden won’t share information with her) – and I found that rather irksome. But I grew up with Bogart movies, so I put my raging feminist aside and really enjoyed the novel, though the depictions of women are problematic and I really hope that improves further into the series.

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