Friday, August 8, 2014

Dresden's Eleven

 Good cover, though I always have to wrestle against 
them to remind myself that Harry doesn't wear a hat.

I really enjoyed Skin Game. Easily the best since Changes in my opinion. Definitely in my top five. Immediately after finishing it, I said it was my second favorite in the series over all behind Changes, but now that the afterglow has worn off and I've had more time to think on it,  I feel it's not as strong as Small Favor (and possibly Death Masks and Grave Peril as well).

Seems like people are really digging the greater scale of the series in the wake of Changes, at least if /r/dresdenfiles is anything to go by, but I think the series had started to drift away from the urban elements of urban noire. The hidden intrigues and petty human motives behind all the supernatural violence.

As Butcher edges us toward his end game the scale is only going to grow. Even with the increase in scope and gravity, The Dresden Files has always been more Sword and Sorcery than Epic (tl;dr for those who don't want to click the link: the former tends to focus on individual actions, moral ambiguity, and characters, while the latter tends to be more concerned with wide-scale battles, politics, and kingdoms). I am fans of both, but I like S&S more, and I think it lends itself more readily to the focused tone of books 3 through 11, where everything felt like a case file, or in Skin Game's case, a caper. So this return to form, however brief, is appreciated.

The main reasons I am not a fan of Storm Front and Fool Moon is that Butcher was trying too hard to write detective novels, and he just isn't very good at them. Even though Harry is clearly modeled after detective heroes, the sign on his door says Wizard, and that's what he is. He gains evidence with magic, which many mystery fans (understandably) consider to be cheating, and more criminally, Butcher withholds crucial evidence and does unfair things to the reader's perspective to artificially prevent them from figuring things out. He does that in Skin Game too; more flagrantly than ever before, in fact. But mysteries aren't why I read the Dresden files.

I read them because they are the best damn pulp adventures on the market. By Grave Peril, Butcher had figured out that is what he is good at. Pulp has a lot of negative connotations because a lot of pulps were truly god-awful. Even the bad ones do archetypal characters, and seedy worlds rife with crime very well though. Butcher preserves those elements, and elevates the genre with immaculate mythological world-building, and by subbing Noire archetypes with D&D classes. The liberal dose of nerdy self-deprecation also does the series a ton of favors. It endears him to his audience and prevents him from getting precious about his world. He also keeps improving his prose and pushing the creative envelope.

For example, midway through the book, we learn what the Parasite in Harry's head is. Caution: from here on out, it is nothing but spoilers. A lot of people suspected the parasite was a "shard" of Lasciel that had survived Lash's self-sacrifice. Most authors would go with that and call it a day, but instead Butcher revealed that it was the psychic offspring of Dresden and Lash; a Spirit of Intellect (like Bob) gestating in Harry's mind. He simultaneously satisfies fan expectations, subverts them, and explains how beings like Bob are made. He also made Harry Dresden "pregnant" in a way that I find hilarious without being appallingly gross.

To go back to the archetype thing, in this book, most of the heist crew corresponds to a standard thief roles. Nicodemus is the schemer who plans on screwing everybody else over. Genoskwa is the muscle. Binder is the cockney crook (which you've got to have). Ascher is the femme fatale. Valmont is the lock-picker. Grey is the disguise guy. Tessa is the "kid" who dies. Murphy is the point-man. And the plat de resistance; Michael is the guy who comes out of retirement for "one last job" by the literal grace of god. Dresden is the good guy doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

The eleventh is Waldo Butters, who doesn't really fit the list because he is not directly involved with the heist, but he is a major player and I needed to justify my title. Even before he becomes a polka-loving, Jewish Jedi Knight of the Cross (a concept that justifies the book's price of purchase by itself) Butters had taken a level in bad-ass, by crafting a ton of magical tools. Picking up the shattered Sword of Faith (after his faith in Harry had wavered and been restored) only for it to become a lightsaber is the coolest crowning moment of awesome since Harry rode Sue the T-rex through downtown Chicago. Fun fact: one of Odin's soldiers asks when Butters will start training in martial combat, and his response is "About five minutes after I get a functional lightsaber." Awesome foreshadowing turned stealth pun.

Goodman Grey is also the best character to be introduced to the series in a long time. Given the title of the book, and his shapeshifting abilities, it took most readers roughly five seconds to figure out he is a Naagloshii. For some reason, this does not dawn on our detective wizard hero until the very end of the book. He is sinister and professional, but just when you think he's a total sociopath, he sucker-punches you with this weird-yet-genuine vulnerability like when Murphy rebuffs his romantic advances, or at the end when he implies that he has some serious paternal issues and that he has to pay some form of cosmic "rent," and he did the whole damn thing for a dollar.

One of the coolest, but also most awful things about this book is Harry and Grey's con. Harry describes him as a complete stranger and foreign entity when he is introduced, even though they already met and agreed to screw Nicodemus for the benefit of the good guys. They even worked out that elaborate code. It's implausible that people could speak so carefully in conversation, but forgivable in a world where people throw fireballs around. It also made me go back and review their interactions, and I love writing that forces that kind of non-standard interactivity with a text. But it is rank bullshit that Harry knowingly, flat-out lies to the reader. He's been an unreliable narrator before, but that's usually because somebody has messed with his mind. I hope that Butcher does not have Dresden deliberately mislead readers more in the future. To me, that breaks character and it really is cheating.

If I were writing it, (with the absurd benefit of hindsight) I would have been upfront about their agreement, stayed mum on the details of their communication method, and throughout the book imply that Nicodemus may have his own deal with Grey, or that he was close to discovering Harry and Grey's collusion. You could hit all the same notes and layer on even more tension.

Other mixed stuff: the meeting with Hades was really good, but also exactly what I expected. Butcher honed to the mythology: Hades, while scary and anti-social, is actually not the prick that most people make him out to be. He probably wouldn't take kindly to people invading his vault, but mythologically he is one of the good guys, so I figured he would side with Harry (interesting to note that there haven't been any evil gods in the Dresdenverse to date). Not sure how I would improve on this one.

A friend of mine condemned Harry and Murphy's dream sex scene, which I was actually fairly impressed with. While very effective at describing sexual desire and appearances, I get the impression that Butcher isn't terribly comfortable writing intercourse, seeing how he has skirted intimate moments in the past, or described them very tame and vague terms. Remember that time when Harry tied up Susan? Boring. I mean, light bondage should feel kinky, right? By comparison, the vanilla sex in this one read pretty intense. My wife thought it was a stronger showing too. My friend suggested Butcher read more Harlequin Romance novels, which I have also not read, because I thought they were notoriously terrible. But I am genuinely curious; did you guys enjoy it? And if that is an example of doing it wrong, who would you recommend as an example of getting it right? Not looking for masturbation material; the book I'm working on has some sex in it and I want it to not be awful.

The only thing I outright hated about this book was Harry talking to his mustached inner-self. I've always found these scenes to be lazy writing, but this one seemed particularly offensive. The quips were not witty enough to justify their volume. Worse yet,  having the parasite's true nature spelled out for readers undercuts its novelty. I'd rather you lie to me outright in a way that makes the story better than be so blunt that you kneecap  a cool reveal. I think a better way to handle this would have been to have Harry tease parts of it out in his quiet moments, and maybe make him worry that he has been infected by Nemesis. Then, when the huge fight in the vault starts, have Lasciel blindside him with the truth. It would make a physical fight into an emotional one, and it would do a better job of preserving the threat that the parasite posed to him. Leave id-Harry on the cutting room floor. You're above that now, Jim!

Maggie and Mouse were the most touching moment in the book, and the most important moment of character progression since Changes: Harry's going to finally act like a father. Also, Butcher teased that we might get a kids book starring Mouse and Maggie which sounds incredible. It was high time that Dresden had a happy ending. He has been through the ringer since Changes--his entire life is just one huge ringer, really--but things are finally looking up a little. In addition to meeting his daughter, everybody who survived the heist makes an actual fortune and at the end of the book, we finally get to see Dresden and Murphy's long-anchored ship start to pull out of the harbor.

I can't wait until Peace Talks is out.

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