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 Physics of Magic #1: Magical Deliquents by Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg

Read: 8 January, 2014

Kira is a Walker, a magical race. When she begins her studies at the University of Waterloo, she begins to draw humans into her world – and all of its dangers.

Magical Delinquents is a self-published book written by an acquaintance. Unfortunately, it suffers from many of the same issues as other self-published books I’ve reviewed – notably formatting problems and typographical errors. In this case, the narrative also had an unpolished feel to it, particularly around the time-hopping toward the end, and would have benefited from a good editor and at least one more draft.

That said, the plot was a solid one. It’s the first book in a series, so a lot of time was spent on exposition. Still, the adventure was a fairly exciting one, the characters interesting, and the world-building has fantastic potential. Where this book really shines is in its descriptions of hospital and first aid care – the author is a nurse, and that’s clearly evident. The level of detail is quite a bit higher than is usually the case, and the hospital location used as the setting for several scenes felt very well fleshed out (complete with its own “culture” as the various doctors and nurses interact with each other).

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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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The Dresden Files #9: White Night by Jim Butcher

Read: 2 November, 2014

Several women with magical abilities have been committing suicide, but Murphy thinks that all might not be as it seems. When she brings in Harry, it quickly becomes apparent that Thomas has been involved.

This instalment may be the most referential to date. Several characters returned, and many of the plotlines that Harry has been juggling over the past few books finally get resolved (or, at least, seem to).

Over the last few books – certainly since Dresden’s first encounter with Lasciel – things have been getting darker. It’s been clear for a while that, at some point, Dresden was going to have to take a long hard look at what he’s becoming. This is the book where that happens, and I’m glad that Murphy got to be a part of it (she calmly and kindly leads Dresden toward the introspection he’s been avoiding, as a concerned friend).

Molly is an interesting sidekick, though largely untouched. She has a few hijinks moments, learns a few lessons, but largely stays out of the fighting. Which is not a bad thing. I think I might feel quite differently about Dresden if he brought her into things so soon.

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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 #5: Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Read: 5 April, 2014

I’ve heard it said that the Dresden Files don’t really come into their won until the third book, and that they get better from there. It’s hard to tell if that’s really true, but I’m certainly getting much more engrossed in the world and characters as I get to know more about them.

The female characters, in particular, are getting much more interesting. I’ve complained before about the subtle (and not-so-subtle) sexism in the Dresden books. Well, Dresden is still a bit of an arse, but he’s getting better. Though Murphy is largely absent in this book, Dresden does at least talk to her and tell her what’s going on. It was always so frustrating in earlier books where he would bend himself completely out of shape to avoid telling her anything, just because he wanted to “protect her” (rather than, you know, helping her to protect herself by giving her the information she’d need to do so).

Susan, who features more prominently this time, is completely badass. In fact, I found it quite interesting that Dresden takes an almost completely passive role in this book as he encounters baddies who are just to big and strong for him. Over and over again, he is the one who is rescued – a few times by Susan. It’s a great inversion and makes for a nice change.

The religion stuff was a bit silly (like Nicodemus referring to the book of “Revelations”, plural), but it was easy enough to just go along with it. I did like how different Shiro and Sanya are, theologically, from Michael. When Michael was originally introduced, it was a bit of a groaner to have this perfect Knight of the Cross figure who ticked off all the stereotype checklist boxes. But Butcher adds some really interesting worldbuilding detail by having Sanya be an atheist and Shiro a sort of pantheist – yet all three are Knights of the Cross. The theology/rules are never explained (at least in this book), but it added a lot of nuance to what could have remained a very flat party.

I think that Molly was an another, less successful, attempt at this. Before we meet her, Michael’s family is presented as Duggar-perfect, but she’s clearly a rebel and isn’t going along with the image Michael and Charity project. That being said, “rebellious teen” is hardly ground-breaking material. Neither, for that matter, is Wise Old Japanese Warrior.

Still, I found that Butcher really tried to invert a lot of stereotypes in this book – including ones that he himself had used previously. It was refreshing and interesting, and shows that he’s getting more experimental in his writing – perhaps moving out from his comfort zone a little.

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The Book of Wizard Craft by Lindy Burnett

This helpful little guide provides young apprentice with all the instructions they need to get started as wizards – from how to make your own wizard robe, to choosing the right owl, to throwing the best wizard party.

I found the artwork, layout, and writing to be fun and engaging. Remove the dust-cover, and the book even looks like it might be found in a wizard’s tower.

This would make a great gift for kids who are into crafts, especially if they are into fantasy or Harry Potter. In particular, I think it would be great leading up to Halloween, or if a child would like to redecorate their bedroom (a wizard tower-themed bedroom!).

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The Dresden Files #3: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Read: 31 March, 2013

Dresden and his friend Michael – a Knight of the Cross – are kept busy. Ghosts are going crazy all over town, and the veil that separates the real world from the Nevernever has been weakening.

I’ve been told that the series really starts to pick up with this book and I think I can see it (though it could just be that I was expecting to like it better so I did. Brains are weird like that sometimes.).

The last two books had started to show a predictable pattern: Mystery is introduced, Dresden makes two potions for funsies, Murphy messes everything up because she’s blinded by her distrust for Dresden, potions just happen to be exactly what Dresden needs, showdown, The End. But Grave Peril breaks from the formula quite significantly.

For one thing, there’s two new major characters introduced: Michael Carpenter (aptly named for a devout Christian) on Team Dresden, and Lea, Dresden’s Fairy Godmother and most definitely not on Team Dresden. While I found Lea interesting, I did find it strange that she would pursue Dresden so doggedly in Grave Peril yet not make any appearance at all in earlier books. I don’t think that this absence was ever explained (or retconned, as the case may be).

Potions don’t make an appearance in this one, which is a shame because it’s the aspect of Dresden’s magic that I enjoy reading about the most. However, leaving them out did keep the series from falling into too laughably absurd a pattern, so I suppose it’s okay.

The last big difference from the other two books is that Grave Peril puts a bit more focus on Dresden’s moral choices – the idea of having to choose between a small number of people he cares for and a large number of people he doesn’t know, or whether it’s worth killing a baddy if it means also killing innocents as well (and what Dresden’s share of guilt in such a situation might be). It added an interesting dimension to the series and a little food for thought – though, of course, the questions were merely raised, never answered.

Through much of the book, Murphy is unconscious and out of the picture, and I find it sad how much of a relief that was. She’s a terrible character. Her propensity to make getting the baddies far more difficult than it needs to be because of her lack of trust has really been getting old. Perhaps even worse is the fact that neither character-Dresden nor narrator-Dresden ever acts like her attitude is a problem. He’s always apologetic, accepting his guilt, and seems to believe that being irrational and angry all the time is what makes a strong female character. Compare her to her replacement in Grave Peril, Michael. Michael and Dresden are able to work together as a team, trusting each other when information needs to be withheld, respecting each other enough not to withhold it unless absolutely necessary, and able to protect each other without it being a gender thing. Michael is, in many ways, what Murphy should have been from the beginning.

One thing that confused me, and perhaps someone could explain it to me in the comments, is why Dresden mentions the possibility of calling Murphy for backup twice, despite knowing that she was unconscious. The first time he’s corrected, but the second time it’s just mentioned and dropped. Was that an editing error or did I miss something?

Anyways, I did enjoy this book much better. It had a few twists where it seemed to be following a predictable pattern and then veered off, which kept things interesting. I found that the resolution of the mystery was rather flimsy (spoiler: two baddies were working together, though I couldn’t figure out why they would do so except for their mutual dislike for Dresden), but that’s okay. I enjoyed the ride.

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