Dresden Files – Book List

Harry Dresden is a wizard, Chicago's only professional wizard, in fact. He is wisecracking and occasionally abrasive, but he's a good man at heart, and that's often a problem. Try as he might, Harry can't help but get involved in the machinations of vampires, werewolves, faeries, and all manner of supernatural creatures. He is a thorn in the side of the conservative White Council, the governing body of wizardry, but they also can't ignore the fact that he's saved mortalkind once or twice.

Narrated by Harry himself, the Dresden Files is a great mix of urban fantasy and mystery, with a healthy bit of humour as well. There's just so much to like about watching Harry try to solve a mystery that, more often than not, is punctuated by regular attempts on his life and the lives of people around him. Speaking of which, aside from Harry, the cast of supporting characters that Jim Butcher has nurtured through 12 books is another reason this series is spectacular. We get to see all these characters grow and change through their involvement with Harry: Karrin Murphy, a Chicago cop who goes from sometime-ally to trusted friend; Thomas Raith, White Court vampire, who has a deep connection to Harry that figures prominently in later books; and Molly Carpenter, initially an awkward teenager who eventually becomes Harry's apprentice.

The Dresden Files is more than just a series of one-off mysteries. It's an evolving story arc with dynamic characters, a fascinating mythology, and excellent writing.

Reviews

1. Storm Front

by Jim Butcher

Storm Front cover image
ISBN:
0451457811
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 322 pages
Published:
Roc, 2000

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Returning to the first book in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series is like returning to a favourite vacation spot—one of those cozy ones that are well-known and well-regarded but never very busy for reasons you can't quite figure out. The temperature is just right, the weather is just like you remembered, and you have all the time in the world . . . to watch Harry get his ass kicked.

Harry Dresden. Those are the only two words you need to know. He is one of the best protagonists I've ever encountered. A combination of private investigator, wizard, and thick-headed gallant man, Harry is often clever but always getting into some sort of trouble. He has a powerful instinct to do what's right, but it doesn't always fire at the most appropriate times. When in doubt Harry follows a simple set of steps: make a wisecrack, think on his feet, and duck (not always in that order).

I haven't read Storm Front in years, and reading it again was such a pleasure. And the series improves so much with subsequent books: as good as Storm Front is, it cannot match the quality that comes with a more developed, more mature Dresdenverse. In this book, we have Harry and the mystery; as the series develops, we get Harry, the mystery, and the world itself, with all of its various characters. Storm Front is the genesis of this powerful series, introducing us to Karrin Murphy, Johnnie Marcone, Morgan and the White Council, etc. But standing alone, just how good is this book?

Well, it was good enough to get me to order the rest of the series as it existed at the time.

Whether you're a fan of urban fantasy, of mystery, or of both, Storm Front is the perfect storm of magic and mystery. The way Butcher describes magic is captivating and representative of his overall ability at writing action scenes. He feeds us exposition at appropriate times, never breaking up the unity of the scene but always augmenting it with pertinent information. In this way, we learn about wizards, the magical world, and Harry's own past. Meanwhile, Harry becomes involved in a case that soon has very personal stakes for him.

Butcher packs in enough characters and plot twists that it almost feels like too much. For a small book, Storm Front is remarkably full. It works, however, because Harry Dresden is a great narrator. Butcher gives him a clear voice, and through him we experience the entire story. We feel his elation when things go right (not often enough) and the pain and frustration when everything goes pear-shaped (business as usual). Because of the quality of its narration and storytelling, Storm Front is more than a simple pulp mystery: it's a great ride.

2. Fool Moon

by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon cover image
ISBN:
9780451458124
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 342 pages
Published:
Roc, 2001

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Time for another confession: I am unfairly prejudiced against werewolves. Maybe it's because I have an irrational fear of dogs, or maybe it's just the whole icky shapeshifting aspect, but I've never liked werewolf-oriented fantasy. When my favourite supernatural series has a book or episode featuring werewolves, I just don't enjoy it as much. For that reason alone, while my re-reading of Storm Front persuaded me to give it a fourth star, I was biased against Fool Moon from the start. If, on the other hand, you like werewolves, you might be predisposed the other way.

But my disclaimer digresses! Werewolf plot elements aside, Fool Moon seems to have less magic and exposition about the magical world of the Dresdenverse that I find so appealing. Aside from a couple of potions, a demon summoning, and a whole lot of combat evocation, Harry doesn't perform much magic, and we don't learn anything more about the White Council, the Nevernever, etc. While this book introduces the Alphas and changes the dynamic between Harry and Murphy (again), it's one of the most stand-alone novels in the Dresden Files. Hence why one's enjoyment rests so much on one's disposition toward werewolves.

When I first read the series, I didn't pay much attention to Harry and Susan's relationship, mostly because I was strictly a Team Murphy kind of guy. Yet the entire reason I'm re-reading the Dresden Files series is in preparation for reading Changes, in which Harry and Susan's relationship plays a major role. Furthermore, by neglecting this part of Harry's life, I've neglected a major part of his character.

Harry's reliance on Susan testifies to the veracity of their bond and his feelings for her. Harry allows himself to be vulnerable around Susan. This runs counter to his code of chauvinistic chivalry, and it may be a byproduct of necessity rather than design—but we all need to be vulnerable at times; we all need someone on whom we can rely.

This theme echoes throughout the book. Carmichael, Murphy's partner, dies while defending Murphy from the loup-garou loose in the precinct. Of course, Carmichael is the resident Dresden-doubter at SI, so we're not supposed to like him, no matter how much Harry goes on about him being a "decent guy." It's clear from Murphy's reaction, however, that she was close to Carmichael—professionally—and his loss is all the more significant for that reason. The Alphas rely first on Tera and then on Harry; MacFinn also relies on Tera. In this light, Harry's lack of trust in Murphy at the end of the book seems particularly unfortunate, especially after the events in Storm Front damaged their friendship. Harry feels responsible for Kim Delaney's death, because he denied her knowledge that might have saved her life, believing it was protecting her from retribution from the White Council. Now Kim is dead, forcing Harry to reexamine how much he withholds from Murphy. Often it takes tragedy to force us to confront our convictions.

Regardless of whether werewolves whet one's fiction palate, the plot of Fool Moon takes a backseat to its characterization. This isn't epic fantasy, where an orphan farm boy discovers he's the Chosen One and saves the kingdom (that would be Butcher's Codex Alera series). Fool Moon embodies the dark and gritty nature of the mystery and urban fantasy genres, which dictate that magic is serious business and somebody always gets hurt. Usually Harry. Because he always tries to do the right thing, and bad guys, for some reason, don't like that.

3. Grave Peril

by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril cover image
ISBN:
9780451458445
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 378 pages
Published:
Roc, 2001

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

So I don't like werewolves but do like vampires. Some of you will never forgive me, I know. Others will be happy I've taken a side. But if you hold up Fool Moon against Grave Peril, there's no contest. Dresden Files #3 is where it the magic happens. (You may groan.)

With another in media res opening, Jim Butcher plunges us back into the Dresdenverse while simultaneously expanding it even further: Knights of the Cross, ghosts and more spirits, and a look at the fabled Nevernever, complete with a faerie godmother. It sounds like too much, but Butcher makes it work.

There's a trademark cadence to every Dresden Files book that becomes clear if you read enough of them (especially in quick succession). The story takes place over a few days (although the plot extends backward several months to a demon-summoning sorcerer). Harry starts off stressed, gets more so, gets beaten down by every bad guy in sight, then figures out a way to save the day. While the pacing is predictable, the books are far from formulaic, because of the characters. With each new character, Butcher introduces an unknown element, something that changes the way Harry reacts and alters the playing field.

Murphy's role in Grave Peril is as an offscreen damsel in distress. This is one of my complaints about the book, because Murphy is one of my favourite characters, and there is zero Murphy-Dresden banter here. It irks me. Instead, Harry's stand-in sidekick is Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross and wielder of Amoracchius, a kick-ass holy sword. I have nothing against Michael; he's a nice guy. But he's not Murphy.

Nevertheless, Michael and his family complicate things for Harry just as Murphy's distress complicates things. Grave Peril is a perfect example of why superheroes don't reveal their secret identities to their loved ones: good villains punch the heroes in the loved ones. Harry lacks a secret identity, so the first dominoes to fall will always be his friends. But because Harry has a darker side to his powers, he can't just isolate himself from friends and family, for that way lies madness. Plus, there's another obstacle: he can't stop caring. When you get down to it, Harry will always do the right thing, even if it's not the smart thing.

Bianca, Red Court vampire with a grudge against Harry the size of a small state, makes this very clear in her gift to Harry at her ball. Oh yes, there's a vampire ball. A masquerade, even. And a dragon shows up. It's pretty awesome, it contains some of the pivotal events in the book. Most importantly, Butcher weaves character conflict and plot conflict together in the form of Harry's faerie godmother, Lea. Not only does Lea take Susan's memories of Harry from her, but the faerie also gives Michael's sword to the vampires for unmaking. The first is a tragedy that seems like a permanent, lasting one (this is not to be, but Butcher doesn't let us down on that count). The second prompts Harry to Do the Right Thing, even when it looks like it will get him and his friends killed.

Even though we know Harry will succeed (this is the Dresden Files after all), we never know the cost of each victory. In the case of Grave Peril, it is surprisingly high. Not only does This Mean War, on a personal level Harry and Susan's relationship has changed forever. I'm not talking about Susan's memory loss; no, just when you think you've figured out the tragedy Butcher plans to exact, he introduces a twist that turns the knife and makes it even more painful.

Harry emerges from this book physically whole but psychically battered. He can no longer be with the woman he loves. He's precipitated a war between the White Council and the Red Court vampires. And all because he dared to take out one sorcerer and do the right thing. Being a hero is tough. Not quitting is even tougher. Since I've read this series before, I know it's only going to get worse. And that just makes the books better and better.

4. Summer Knight

by Jim Butcher

Summer Knight cover image
ISBN:
9780451458926
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 371 pages
Published:
Roc, 2002

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Faeries are even better than vampires. Firstly, you can actually make a deal with faeries and compel them to honour the deal. Secondly, that makes them even more deadly, because they're usually clever enough to twist the deal so it ends up harming you anyway. Just as Jim Butcher can't claim credit for vampires, he can't claim credit for faeries, but he sure can claim credit for the characters he creates to personify each species.

I hadn't noticed it before, but the antagonists from both the vampires and the faeries are female. Bianca and Mavra; Titania, Aurora; Mab, Maeve. On one hand, the overabundance of femmes fatales might be worrying. Then again, for the forces of good we have Karrin Murphy. While she's not as powerful as a vampire and certainly can't take on a faerie queen, she still kicks chlorofiend ass. Harry's lucky to have the help he does.

Summer Knight is the debut of another major theme in the Dresden Files. Harry isolates himself from his friends in an attempt to find a cure for Susan's condition. It's obvious that he can't continue in such a state for much longer; withdrawing from society is seldom a solution (unless you're Salinger). Indeed, Butcher ramps up the conflict in this book to remind us just how much Harry needs friends and allies. In Grave Peril, Harry shoulders a lot of the legwork, and the climax is his alone. The conflict in Summer Knight is on another level altogether: this time, instead of war between the Red Court and the White Council, we're talking a war between seasons, between the Faerie Courts. No matter who wins, humanity loses. Harry can't stop that alone.

Although he seems to dodge a bullet here, this isn't the end of Harry's journey. That's most evident in Harry's conversations with the faerie queens: both Mab and Aurora judge Harry by the scars they perceive on his psyche; the two Mothers were equally creepy in their evaluation. The burden of power—and the accompanying responsibility—will continue to weigh heavily upon Harry.

Are mortals meant ever to confront such power? The fates of both the Summer and the Winter Knights seem to suggest not. Easily overlooked are the changelings, the human-fae hybrids who must choose to become one or the other. Meryl chooses to troll up, preferring to sacrifice her humanity and her life to aid the cause. Lily and Fix take a different path.

I know that Harry gets more powerful as the series goes on. His encounters with various non-mortal agencies leave lasting marks on him, and he receives many mantles or grants of magic that prove a serious temptation. I don't think Harry could ever be a Lloyd Slate no matter how much power he has. Yet his weakness is his protective streak, especially for women. As we saw in Grave Peril, there is nothing Harry will not do to try to save someone for whom he cares, right up to instigating bloody war.

Butcher combines faeries with a murder mystery and Harry's own increasing desperation and destitution. It has some of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse in it: more mythology on the faeries, a very close look at the power structure of the White Council, and great scenes between Harry and Murphy. Summer Knight does what's very difficult, and manages to keep lots of material balanced and use it to deliver lots of story. That makes it exemplary, both as a stand alone novel and as a part of the overall arc of the series.

5. Death Masks

by Jim Butcher

Death Masks cover image
ISBN:
9780451459404
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 378 pages
Published:
Roc, 2003

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I'm discovering that it's almost impossible to review a Dresden Files book without resorting to spoilers. So many awesome things happen that trying to discuss the book without mentioning them would be a severe handicap to any review. Death Masks is no different in that respect. After Summer Knight put the fate of the world on Harry's shoulders, Death Masks returns to the personal conflicts that embodied the first three books of the series. Once again, Harry's life is on the line—as are the lives of his loved ones—and he's forced to make many choices that he might even live to regret.

Right, so enough with the generalities. Here come the spoilers.

Susan's back! Even as Harry prepares to face off in a duel against Duke Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire, Susan waltzes into town ostensibly to "gather her things" before disappearing back to South America forever. Her appearance mitigates the dearth of Murphy in this book. She makes a couple of appearances, but they're far from the chlorofiend-chainsawing Valkyrie we saw in Summer Knight. I have a soft spot for Murphy that Susan can't quite fill, but Susan does make an able female sidekick for Harry (in more ways than one!).

Also making a reappearance after a lengthy absence is Gentleman Johnnie Marcone. We learn what his big secret is—after he helps Harry take on a Fallen Denarian, of course—in a twist that, as Harry puts it, means we can no longer hate him. Which is important, because even though he's a crook, Marcone is still human. He isn't a monster, and although he's not an upstanding citizen, he's an example of what makes humans different from monsters. Monsters do bad things because that's what they do; it's their nature, and they can't help but be monstrous. Humans, on the other hand, choose to do bad things. They usually have reasons for those choices—and like Marcone, they can often be very precious reasons.

Harry knows all about making choices. In Storm Front, he chooses to take the high road even when it alienates him from Murphy and casts suspicion on him in the eyes of the Warden Morgan. In Fool Moon, the lure of the hexenwulf talisman is almost too much for him to bear. In Grave Peril, of course, he chooses to save Susan at the cost of war between the White Council and the Red Court. And in Summer Knight, Harry refuses the mantle of the Winter Knight.

But now Harry is faced with the temptation of the Denarians. In return for picking up a coin and letting a Fallen angel in, the human host gets near-immortality and immense power. As many characters observe throughout Death Masks, Harry casts himself as the hero because he doesn't trust himself to stay away from black magic. By putting himself in danger and forcing himself to do the "right thing," Harry ensures he stays on the straight and narrow. So while the Harry we know wouldn't be tempted by a Blackened Denarius, there is a Harry who would. Alas, because Jim Butcher loves to make life complicated for Harry Dresden, a throwaway scene at the end of the book makes it clear that Harry will have Denarian problems for a long time to come.

The Denarians are, of course, an interesting paradox. Are they monsters or are they humans? The Knights of the Cross exist to offer them salvation, even those who collaborate willingly with their Fallen angel pals. Harry doesn't think collaborators deserve salvation, much less survival. The former see the Denarian hosts as victims, sinners led astray; Harry sees them both the Fallen angel and the human host as a monster.

Therein lies the question: what does it mean to be human? Everyone has a different answer. In a world seemingly non-supernatural, we can't even decide who qualifies as human (much to my chagrin), so imagine the quandaries in fantasy worlds like the Dresdenverse.

Take the Archive, for instance. On one hand, she is the embodiment of all human knowledge. Demonstrating that knowledge is power, the Archive takes out several vampires in record time. Oh, did I mention she's a seven-year-old girl? That's the other hand: for all her knowledge and the responsibilities that accompany it, the Archive occasionally acts the age of the body she inhabits. She exhibits a fondness for Harry's cat, Mister. She likes cookies and believes children should have a strict bedtime.

And then Harry goes and gives her a name. It seems like a typical, offhand Dresden whim. But to me, it's the most important scene in the book. With a single action, Harry humanizes the Archive into Ivy. I'm not suggesting this was an intentional act either. Rather, it's just second nature for Harry to treat humans like humans, regardless of how much magic they're packing. As long as Harry retains this innate respect for life, he won't be like Ortega, and he will be a good guy, and he will be our hero.

6. Blood Rites

by Jim Butcher

Blood Rites cover image
ISBN:
9780451459879
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 372 pages
Published:
Roc, 2004

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Vampires on the set of a porno! Vampires who feed through sex rather than blood, no less! And one of them is Harry's half-brother.

Yeah, that's right. I dropped a major S-bomb in the third sentence of the review. You see that spoiler alert? I don't fool around with those things. Deal with it.

Speaking of dropping bombs, Jim Butcher does that a lot in Blood Rites. As with Death Masks, the story concerns Harry's personal life rather than a world-threatening conflict surrounding Harry. It's an intensely personal story, and one where Harry learns a lot of secrets. He learns he has family, meets his mother (after a fashion), and loses trust in his mentor, Ebenezar McCoy. In Blood Rites, Butcher turns Harry's world upside down. More than ever before, we know that the Dresden Files will never be the same again.

I love the mystery in this one. The mystery is, in most ways, deliciously disconnected from the supernatural world. Yes, the White Court soon proves integral to the plot. Yes, the murders happen through ritual magic. But the target of this malevolence isn't a supernatural being; he's just a porn star producer with a heart of gold. Those practising the ritual magic, while backed by the White King, are the producer's ex-wives. Their motives are revenge, a delightfully human concept.

Oh, but you know what's even better about Blood Rites? Yes, that's right: Murphy's back. And how! After a disappointingly dull role in Death Masks, Murphy has returned to help Harry kick monster ass. Not only that, but we get some serious characterization, learning about Murphy's relationships with her family and one of her ex-husbands, who is now engaged to her younger sister. Butcher juxtaposes Harry and Murphy's interaction with Murphy's family reunion. It says a lot about Murphy's feelings for her family that she prefers Harry's company. Oh, and she helps him take on some Black Court vampires and then go after the king of the White Court. 'Cause she's awesome like that.

This whole book is pretty much one awesome scene after another. There's a surprising amount of exposition, as Butcher manages to reveal all those surprising twists for the Dresden mythology. But it's sandwiched by a dizzying array of action sequences. First Harry rescues puppies, then he tussles with Black Court vampires (or "blampires" as he calls them), and before we know it, he gets in the middle of a dispute between Lara and Thomas Raith. Harry likes to find trouble.

And we like it when Harry finds trouble. Butcher has a way with fight scenes, managing to make them miraculous without resorting to too many deus ex machina moments. Case in point, as Lara prepares to shoot Thomas and Harry, Harry goes for the gun stuck in Thomas' jeans . . . and it doesn't quite work out as planned:

Thomas's damned jeans were so tight that the gun didn't come loose. I leaned too far in the effort and wound up sprawling on my side. All I got for my oh-so-clever maneuver was scraped fingertips and a good luck at Lara Raith in gunfighting mode.

I love watching Harry screw up. He's a powerful wizard and a good human being, but he's also fallible. (The falling frozen turkey that kills a blampire a few pages later is a totally deserved deus ex machina. Totally.) Once in a while, once in a very long while, Harry is able to draw upon his inner strength and "cut loose," as Kincaid so admiringly puts it. But only when it's to defend those he loves. So sometimes Harry can play action hero, but mostly he's the guy with the crazy plans, the plans that are probably suicidal, the plans that never quite work out right—but in the end, they do work out. Mostly.

And so, I've decided that Blood Rites is the first Dresden Files book that deserves a vaunted five-star rating. The plot is perfect, the story is scintillating, and Butcher's writing is at its best. Though this is not the best place to start reading the Dresden Files, mind you. Rather, this is the payoff. The first five books are great, but Blood Rites is nearly perfect. And from the loose ends that Butcher carefully plants at the beginning, end, and throughout this book, Harry's troubles are only set to get bigger.

7. Dead Beat

by Jim Butcher

Dead Beat cover image
ISBN:
9780451460912
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 424 pages
Published:
Roc, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Let us take a moment to look back at how far Harry Dresden has come from busting a sorcerer in Storm Front. Since then, he has started a war between the wizards and Red Court vampires; he has killed a faerie queen and prevented a war between the Summer and Winter courts; he has been offered the mantle of Winter Knight and picked up the Blackened Denarius of Fallen Angel Lasciel. Last time we saw him, Harry was taking down a scourge of uppity Black Court vampires along with not-so-human mercenary Kincaid and all-too-human Chicago police officer Karrin Murphy. Harry's gone from "Chicago's only professional wizard" to "vampire-bane, faerie-killing wizard." As if losing the woman he loved wasn't bad enough, now Harry has to contend with the shadow of a fallen angel yammering at him to accept her coin so he can gain power.

Indeed, Harry and The Dresden Files have come a long way since book one. I'm reviewing this with you because long-running series can make it difficult to see this transformation take place (unless you read the books nearly back-to-back, as I've been doing). Dead Beat has a very high quotient of grey-area morality. Taken in context, it's clear that this is a result of all that's happened to Harry in the five years since the events of Storm Front. And on this second read-through, I admit that Harry seems a little less likable than I remember. I have to wonder how much of that is wishful thinking on my part and how much might be contrived drama on Jim Butcher's part.

Take Lasciel, for instance. Harry's excuse for picking up the coin—instead of the baby who was about to touch the coin—is that some part of him must have wanted the coin and the power implicit in possessing it. Later we meet his darker subconscious, who confesses to being the id to Harry's superego. OK, I can respect that. It is harder to believe, however, that Harry chose to bury the coin rather than turn it over to Michael or Father Forthill. I don't buy Harry's fear that Michael wouldn't look at him the same way, or worse, that Michael would somehow have to come after Harry and hunt him down. Harry has seen how the Knights of the Cross operate. They exist to save members of the Order of the Blackened Denarius; they would save Harry too. Maybe this is the work of Harry's subconscious again, but it all feels a little too contrived.

Likewise, I'm not so happy with the abruptness with which Harry hands over the Word of Kemmler to Mavra at the end of the book. I don't normally complain about loose ends, since I appreciate the series' ongoing arc. It feels out of character for Harry to cooperate with a blackmailer, especially one who is a Black Court vampire.

Although I don't think the writing here is perfect, I'm not going to blame all of Harry's characterization on bad writing. Dead Beat is about Harry as a person and how much he has changed in five years. Numerous characters, particularly Billy, express their discomfort with Harry's new attitude. Even though he's still a wisecracking badass, his development of that brand of weariness particular to heroes is far ahead of schedule. So I see how Harry's out-of-character behaviour is intentional on Butcher's part; I just wish it were handled more neatly and with more of Butcher's usual skill.

And no matter how awesome certain moments in Dead Beat are, they don't make up for the absence of Murphy. But you all know I'm on Team Murphy, so I won't belabour the point.

Similarly, I wasn't impressed by the small role for Gentleman Johnnie Marcone. He has some serious Magnificent Bastard crowning moments of awesome in later books, I know, which is why I wish that he didn't show up unless he had a significant role to play. In Dead Beat, I almost feel like he existed only as a deus ex machina to get Harry from point A to point B. (Incidentally, I hope there isn't a Team Marcone, but if there is, I am definitely not on it.)

Maybe I'm being harsh, but that's only because I love the Dresden Files so very much. Thus, in order to keep myself honest, I have to err on the side of criticism. I have to generate seven paragraphs of disclaimers before I can get to the good stuff. See, Butcher has discovered the secret to writing a good series novel. It is this:

I don't care about any of the stuff above if the main character goes into battle on a necromantically-reanimated Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. Bonus points if the drum beat (required to keep the zombie under control) is provided by a polka-playing medical examiner.

So, yeah. Dead Beat is awesome if only for that reason. There are more, of course. Harry's moral dilemmas, although sometimes contrived, are very intense. Now that he's a Warden, Harry is in the interesting position of serving for the "Man" he's been thumbing since day one of being a White Council wizard. It doesn't help that the acting captain of the Wardens is none other than Morgan, who has single-handedly been persecuting Harry ever since Storm Front. Deals with Lasciel aside, Harry's induction into the Wardens is probably one of the most significant events in the book, since it's a big change in his lifestyle, pay grade, and responsibilities.

I can't be quite as enthusiastic about Dead Beat a I was about Blood Rites. Yet you can't go wrong with a reanimated T-Rex—well, not if you're reading a Dresden Files novel. So this is a solid instalment in the series, introducing interesting changes into the Dresdenverse even if the events of this book themselves weren't as compelling as previous ones.

8. Proven Guilty

by Jim Butcher

Proven Guilty cover image
ISBN:
9780451461032
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 496 pages
Published:
Roc, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Proven Guilty is probably my favourite Dresden Files novel my second-favourite Dresden Files novel, after Small Favor. It has almost all of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse in it: Murphy, the Carpenters, Faerie, and sticking it to the White Council. Jim Butcher manipulates the relationships he's developed over the past seven books to play on motifs of love, family, and temptation. If Dead Beat showed us how much Harry has changed, Proven Guilty offers us hope, in more ways than one. Butcher reaffirms Harry as a hero even as he reminds us of Harry's fallibility. Magic and shadow of a fallen angel aside, Harry Dresden is, like the rest of us, only human.

Can I let you in on a secret, though? Parts of this book frustrated me.

I know, right? This is the best Dresden Files book thus far, and still I'm complaining. What's the deal? I just have such high standards when it comes to what I really love—and in case you can't tell, much love for the Dresden Files.

When reading this book, it seems to lack the structure that Butcher's formulaic mystery style lends to the previous novels. Although still in Butcher's style, Proven Guilty is slightly more haphazard with its scenes and events, to the point where, near the middle of the book, I had to remind myself what the hell was going on. The mystery is more nebulous—vampires and necromancers the antagonists are not—and the good guys are, at least at first, more disorganized. In summary, something about Proven Guilty felt off. It irked me.

See, I have one weakness (well, two if you count kryptonite, but don't tell anyone that, 'kay?): too often I seize upon a vision of what a book should be, and then I pan it for being something else, even it's still acceptable. Wait . . . now that I think about it, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I guess I only have one weakness—er, I mean, no weaknesses.

But I digress.

As with most brilliant books, Proven Guilty's weakness is actually its strength. We're talking the kind of strength that creeps up on you with ninja-like stealth only to pounce at the last moment with hawk-like precision and rhinoceros-like force. While I was being all shallow and conservative and yearning for "yet another Dresden mystery," Butcher was getting creative on us and writing something innovative.

Proven Guilty is the most character-driven Dresden Files novel yet. Although the lives of the characters have always been important, and Harry in particular tends to drive the plot whichever way he damn well pleases, the effect is amplified here. Rather than a concrete, moustache-twirling villain like we saw in Death Masks, it turns out the original mystery was caused by Molly Carpenter.

I love Molly. A minor character seen on the fringes of Harry's life, Michael's oldest daughter spontaneously becomes a profound person. She offers us a look at Harry when he as a teenager: inexperienced, hormonal, and bursting with magical ability. Harry no doubt sees the resemblance, hence his offer to vouch for Molly. Even as Butcher promotes another character to the main cast, he promises us a relationship that will reveal more about what makes Harry tick—and plague Harry with an annoying teenage student in a quid pro quo to all these years of being a wiseass.

If you want to get metaphorical—and I do—Molly's tribulations represent the struggle of adolescence: defining one's identity, dealing with interpersonal relationships and hardships, gaining independence from one's parents, etc. Similarly, Harry has to struggle with what his magic means for his relationship with Murphy. They both acknowledge a mutual attraction (go Team Murphy!), but there are so many ancillary concerns that they elect not to get involved.

This is the triumph of fantasy. By juxtaposing them with supernatural counterparts, Butcher emphasizes the humanity of his protagonists. Once-human, now-faerie Lily has changed, become bound to Titania despite a desire to help Harry. Thomas, even more amiable to Harry, confesses his weakness that led to joining the Wild Hunt. In contrast, Harry is tainted by the shadow of Lasciel, yet he still tries to do the right thing. Even with all his power—and the accompanying responsibility—he is still only human; if ever that's in doubt, the repeated references to his lack of a sex life remind us of that.

Harry has been a hero, a leader, and a brother. Now he has to be a role model. That's right: it's time for Harry Dresden to grow up. Be afraid! Be very afraid!

And as for the real antagonist, the one behind Molly's role in the mystery, Mab's apparent madness (Mabness?), and the Big Bad who orchestrated everything from the beginning . . . he or she remains in the shadows. Although it's been hinted at in the past, Proven Guilty makes the threat explicit. In a way, this book feels like a culmination of the entire series thus far, a sign that Butcher has an over-arching plan even as each book remains a self-contained adventure. Therefore, while it is not an endpoint, Proven Guilty is an important milestone in the Dresden Files. It's the culmination of seven volumes, and the vibrant promise of much more to come.

9. White Night

by Jim Butcher

White Night cover image
ISBN:
9780451461407
Format:
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published:
Roc, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

When I began re-reading White Night, I wondered why I had previously given it five stars. The plot didn't sound very interesting from the description on the dust jacket; it certainly didn't compare to Proven Guilty, which is now my gold standard of Dresden. Had I slipped into an alternate universe where I mistakenly gave out five star ratings to four star books?

Turns out, no, I was still in my universe (as much as one can say this is one's universe, after all). About halfway through the book, I began to remember why it was good enough to earn all five of those stars. Three quarters through, I was convinced: White Night is great Dresden Files material.

The first part of the book seems underwhelming because it lulls you into a false sense of normalcy. It seems more like a typical Dresden Files mystery, more reminiscent of Fool Moon than the more arc-oriented later instalments. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it did feel like a step backward. While I had faith that Jim Butcher was just waiting to drop the plot bomb on me, that wasn't enough to keep me satisfied.

As the mystery deepens, Madrigal Raith's involvement becomes apparent, and the plot goes from finding a serial killer to defusing a coup in the White Court. That's more like it! Butcher reaches even further back to bring us Helen Beckitt (and I have to admit, I barely remembered who she was, even though I re-read Storm Front a little over a month ago). Like Proven Guilty, White Night reminds us how much Harry has changed. He's made a lot of enemies, and eventually some of them will come back for more.

Still, the plot of White Night doesn't have the same gravity as Proven Guilty or even Dead Beat. Harry does precious little investigation—as the series grows longer, it appears that the length of time between any two consecutive attempts on Harry's life approaches zero. The characters in the Ordo Lebes never felt like more than background noise, fixtures that can serve as victims or obstacles as the plot requires.

White Night also has a lot less fancy magic in it. Aside from some use of Little Chicago—a scene which, I admit, is quite cool—Harry mostly practises evocation. Or, as it becomes in Harry's hands, messy gouts of fire. I love my messy gouts of fire, but the intricate and intense nature of performing thaumaturgy is one of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse. That being said, we do see some more of Molly's talent, particularly her propensity for veils. Molly's role in White Night way below sidekick, barely even apprentice. While she does appear in few scenes, however, each of them carries with it a deep importance to Harry's character. The lessons he teaches her are the lessons he has learned—or, thanks to Murphy, is re-learning—himself.

If Proven Guilty gave us a glimpse of Harry in the past, White Night shows us Harry struggling with the present. In particular, Jim Butcher makes rare use of a flashback to the previous summer, where Harry is in New Mexico training new Wardens. He tangles with ghouls, who capture and then kill two of the young trainees. Then he loses it, executes one of the ghouls the Wardens had captured, and lets the other one go with a warning: "Never again." That, combined with his sudden ability to speak ghoul (thanks to the shadow of Lasciel), makes Ramirez a little afraid of Harry.

There's a scene even earlier in the book, where Mac asks Harry if he's the one committing the murders. Now, Butcher was stretching a bit here to demonstrate how much Harry has changed in the eyes of the magical community. I'm not sure I believe Harry has gone dark enough to warrant that kind of suspicion. Nevertheless, it's still a tense and very solemn moment.

Even as Harry looks at how much darker he's become, someone else close to him is moving toward the light. She really steals the show in the last part of the book, and I had totally forgotten about it. She is also one of the reasons I decided White Night was worth five stars.

I'm talking, of course, about the Heel Face Turn of Lash (as Harry nicknames the shadow of Lasciel living in his head). Ever since he picked her up in Death Masks, I've been wondering how he gets rid of her, because I knew she wasn't present in the most recent books. Lash's sacrifice and demise is the best thing about White Night, because it says so much about Harry and demonstrates Butcher's ability to write tragic figures.

I don't see Lash's change of heart as unrealistic, despite the fact that she's the shadow of a millennia-old fallen angel who is unspeakably evil. Emphasis belongs on the word "shadow." Lash is not Lasciel but a photocopy, as Harry puts it, and one that will be destroyed if he ever does pick up the blackened denarius that holds Lasciel's consciousness. And if Lash is just a pale reflection of the true fallen angel, stuck in Harry's poor, old, feeble mortal brain, Harry might be capable of changing her just as she is capable of changing him. Watching Lash gradually accept the idea of having an independent existence is a very heartwarming experience. It demonstrates why Harry is the hero: he's trying to save a copy of a fallen angel, which might be as far from humanity as one can get. Sure, he's doing it to save his own skin too, but I have no doubt that he is sincere in the effort.

And then Lash goes and sacrifices herself so that Harry can survive the climactic battle (which otherwise sucks). This was a rather sudden turn of events; I kind of wish Lash had stuck around for another book and continued to ride shotgun in Harry's head. Regardless, this was a great way to remove Lash from the equation but keep Harry's mind (and spirit) somewhat intact.

Harry stumbles on to the mystery in White Night because Madrigal Raith couldn't resist dragging him into it. In doing so, Raith dooms the enterprise and sets back the Black Council's plans (whatever those may be). It is becoming clear that Harry is more of a liability for the bad guys than they could ever have imagined way back in Storm Front. I doubt things will get any easier for Harry—and I wouldn't have it any other way.

10. Small Favor

by Jim Butcher

Small Favor cover image
ISBN:
9780451461896
Format:
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published:
Roc, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Second review, read from June 7-8, 2010.

When I re-read a book I've already reviewed, I tend to write a new review to reflect how my opinion of the book has changed with a second reading. In this case, my opinion hasn't changed much. If anything, my admiration of Small Favor has increased. I stand by my original review, and I recommend you read that for my full thoughts on this book.

Some addenda though.

Reading the series in near succession like this gives me a new appreciation of how Small Favor brings back some of the light-hearted "fun" Harry Dresden. We haven't seen much of him since Proven Guilty. It seems like Harry has more wisecracks this time around, more insolence—although that may be, as Nicodemus observes, merely a function of the insanity of the situations Harry has to face in this book.

Seriously, though. Asking a gruff for a doughnut? Wow.

It occurs to me that my original review did not have a spoiler alert attached. This hasn't happened since Summer Knight, but I suppose I won't break with tradition now. The specific plot of Small Favor is of little importance. What matters is its sheer awesomeness.

Jim Butcher combines so many elements of the Dresdenverse—the Denarians, the Archive, Marcone, Murphy, Thomas, the Wardens, the Knights of the Cross, Summer and Winter courts—and yet the story is still simple and focused. There's plenty of snappy dialogue, wonderful descriptions of battle scenes and magic-working, and new dimensions on old relationships.

On top of that, the Black Council story arc continues. Someone has been manipulating the Denarians, and one of them was involved in the attack on Arctis Tor—the one that left the gates wide open for Harry's little incursion. It looks like the Black Council set up Arctis Tor, and contributed to the developments in this book as well.

I loved Harry's encounter with Uriel and the corresponding development with his powers. Butcher excels at improving Harry as a character and as a wizard without turning him into a Marty Stu. Sure, Harry gets a power boost in this book—but as Bob says, "And [Uriel:] did you a favor. . . . You just know that can't be good!" Nothing comes without a price, and it seems like the more Harry gets involved in these matters, the worse his situation gets.

I love the Dresden Files, and Small Favor is an example of why.

First review, finished on June 22, 2008.

This may be the best Dresden Files book yet.

At this point in the series, there is so much backstory and established "facts" that it can feel confusing to navigate it all, yet somehow Jim Butcher makes it feel easy. The pacing of the narrative, the division of characters' actions and duties, all of it comes together to make the book readable and enjoyable. Butcher has an excellent handle on how to set up a scene, create tension, and leave you in suspense at just the right moment.

It's a shame that Sci-Fi chose to create an "alternate" Dresden Files universe when they adapted these books. Had they stuck with the original storyline, they would have enough material for several seasons, and the show might actually have not sucked. But that's neither here nor there. The book.

I had trouble putting Small Favor down. As I said before, the pacing just makes it so exciting that I needed to know what happened next. The conflicts in this story are also heartbreaking (with what happens to the Archive and, later, to Michael) and compelling--how is Harry going to get out of this one.

Some people may find Harry's wisecracking attitude camp or annoying, but I love it. Okay, "Hell's bells" annoys me a bit. However, I've figured out why I like it so much--it reminds me of John Crichton from Farscape. Anyone who has seen that series knows that Crichton is the only human being in that section of the galaxy. Whenever he is in imminent peril, he makes a cultural allusion (be it pop culture, literature, or just some proverb) that no one--particularly the arrogant, gloating enemy--understands. This forms a bond between him and us, the audience. Butcher does the same thing with Harry, and the first person perspective only amplifies this feeling.

The plot was rich and interesting. After ten books, one may worry that an author is running out of ideas, but Butcher still looks like he has plenty left. He has managed to hew enough detail out of this universe that there are plenty of antagonists to square off against Harry and the good guys--but the moral ambiguity (gotta love moral ambiguity) means that these antagonists almost always try to foil each others' plans.

The blending of mystery with urban fantasy is tangible and potent. Few can do it so well. This novel is great in that respect, because urban fantasy lovers can read it and get exposed to a little mystery they might otherwise ignore; mystery lovers likewise get some urban fantasy. Yet Butcher remembers the golden rule of genre writing: the genre is a setting, not a story. This book is not about faeries, or wizards, or magic, or solving a crime. It is an action adventure with motifs of temptation, redemption, suffering, and all that makes us human. It's a story, set in a world of faerie, magic, and crime. What's not to like?

11. Turn Coat

by Jim Butcher

Turn Coat cover image
ISBN:
9780451462565
Format:
Hardcover, 420 pages
Published:
Roc, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Second review, read from June 10-11, 2010.

As with my review of Small Favor, I will refer you to my first review for this book. I'm not even going to add many notes, because I like my original review that much, and I doubt I could improve upon it significantly.

The only thing I have to say is that re-reading the series in quick succession has given me a better context in which to appreciate Turn Coat. Even though I only gave it four stars, it's still better than some five star books I've read, and it's an excellent instalment in the series.

Having just finished reading Turn Coat for a second time, I am more moved by a book than I have been in a long time . . . I don't think even Proven Guilty affected me in this way. Butcher alters irrevocably so many of Harry's relationships in this book. There is a death that is unexpectedly tragic and all the more potent. And there are so many more questions coming up from the past about the island, Harry's mother, the Gatekeeper, etc. Anyone who accuses this book of lacking complexity, of being just another volume in a mystery series, needs to take a second look.

First review, finished on August 31, 2009.

Following the disappointment that was The King's Grace, I needed a book that I knew I'd love. So naturally, I turned to the latest Dresden Files novel sitting on my shelf. After eleven books, only two types of people will be left reading a series: those who love it and those who hate it. The former will read it because they are addicted to the endorphins the books release and drool with eager anticipation prior to each new iteration. The latter will read it because they are addicted to the endorphins released when they write snarky reviews. Don't get me wrong: I love writing snarky reviews—that being said, you'll notice I'm firmly on "Team Dresden."

Jim Butcher has managed to create a sustainable fantasy environment and avoided jumping the shark. He's got a solid cast of supporting characters who keep the plot moving, and his system of magic is well thought-out but not so complicated as to make my head hurt. Finally, Butcher's writing has a rhythm that, while obviously formulaic, always feels fresh and exciting. Every Dresden Files book summons forth laughter as well as tears, making me cheer for Harry's wisecracks and cry for the price he—or more often, those around him—pay for his half-baked schemes to save the day.

At this point, I'm about to do something that may earn me the enmity of certain people, as I shall assume a level of presumption the likes of which we have not seen since the Dyson corporation decided Skynet was a good idea. Yes, that's right: I'm going to compare Harry Dresden to the Doctor (of Doctor Who fame).

Now, these two heroes obviously aren't synonymous; I see Dresden as more of a glimpse at who the Doctor might have been when he was younger and far more inexperienced. One striking parallel, however, is that both Dresden and the Doctor use people as weapons. The Doctor has his companions; Dresden has Murphy, Michael and Molly Carpenter, his werewolf buddies, his Pizza Guard of Little Folk, etc. Although Dresden is almost always the mastermind behind incredibly complex and improbable attempts to foil the current villain, his plans usually carry considerable risk for his comrades. To be fair, Dresden also sustains injuries in the line of duty; his badly burned hand is just one example. But it's this knowledge that people get hurt because he's doing the right thing that weighs most heavily on Dresden.

Dresden is not the single-handed bastion of awesomeness that the Doctor is. His companions all contribute their own form of awesome to the mix. I can't help but enjoy the plucky Molly Carpenter, who's just beginning to come to grips with her abilities (both magical and mundane) as she struggles with the consequences of her past and normal, human growing pains. In Turn Coat, not only does she perform ably as an apprentice, but I loved how she uses her sex appeal to charm a Private Investigator into giving up the name of his employer. Because, honestly, I have zero interest in seeing that particular duty fall to Dresden.... Likewise, we get glimpses of Karrin Murphy as both a tough, kick-ass cop and a friend of Dresden who genuinely cares about his wellbeing, even though he's generally a pain. Even as he narrates the book from the first person view of a witty wizard, Butcher manages to assemble an ensemble cast that's the core of everything good about Turn Coat and its fellow Dresden Files novels.

Having spent so much time establishing Dresden as an underdog, Butcher takes the Dresdenverse and turns it on its head: the eponymous turncoat is none other than Warden Donald Morgan. Arguably the most loyal wizard of the White Council, Morgan has spent the past 10 books looking for any reason to turn Dresden in on charges of violating the Laws of Magic. He's sure he's been framed for the murder of a member of the Senior Council, and he's come to Dresden for help. As much as Dresden is loath to help his former enemy, he knows that Morgan's innocent; moreover, he suspects this is the latest move by a traitor in the White Council. What starts as an internal matter threatens to weaken the White Council in the eyes of its powerful enemies, and Dresden, as usual, is in the thick of it.

For the most part, I'll confess that I found the political intrigue less satisfactory than in previous Dresden books. There's a big deal about the fact that someone's a traitor, leaking information to the White Council's enemies and influencing the decisions of the Senior Council. Yet when the big reveal comes, it's disappointing. Likewise, not much else seems altered in the political status quo—"Gentleman" Johnny Marcone doesn't appear in Turn Coat at all. Butcher puts out some strong foreshadowing that the next book will be a gamechanger, but I would have liked to see something more substantial in this book.

The unintriguing intrigue relegated Dresden's family matters to a back-burner, but they're more shattering than the politics. Thomas, Dresden's White Court vampire half-brother, has been making his living (literally for him) by nibbling on the life energies of his hairdressing clients. In Turn Coat, a malevolent skinwalker, of Navajo mythology, kidnaps Thomas because it wants to trade him for Morgan. The skinwalker tortures Thomas while he's in its clutches, and the consequences of the torture drastically alter Thomas and Dresden's relationship, as well as Thomas' lifestyle. I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out in future books.

In addition to Marcone, Molly is the only Carpenter who appears in Turn Coat. I see the wisdom of eschewing Michael and Charity, since we've been Carpenter-heavy for the past several books, and Butcher has written a short story about Michael. It would have been nice for Harry to pop by and say, "Hi, your daughter and I might be executed for aiding a fugitive from the White Council. Have a good week!" Wait, OK, I can see how that would not go well....

As usual, Dresden is at his best when he's at the end of his rope and has about three hours left to live. His enemies consistently overestimate Dresden's reliance on magic to get the job done: almost all of Dresden's Turn Coat triumphs are a result of using technology (by proxy) or non-magical means of foiling the enemy. Magic serves a direct combat and defencive role; beyond that, Dresden thinks outside the box. And that's why I love this series: Butcher's protagonist is a problem solver who actually creates plans to beat the bad guys beyond "fight until they're all down for the count" (although I admit that might enter into the plan under 'Plan B' at some point...).

Turn Coat's another fine addition to the Dresden Files series, and any fan should be pleased. I have some qualms about it, mostly owing to the understandably increasing complexity of the Dresdenverse and Butcher's ability to balance a compelling narrative with his bevy of characters and continuity. The book lives up to a label like "action-packed thrill ride", but after the heavy-hitting consequences of White Knight and Small Favor, I expected more than Turn Coat delivered.

Pay close attention, however, when you read the book. Butcher continues to scatter subtle clues as to the texture of an overarching narrative that spans the series and extends into Dresden's past: the mysterious Gatekeeper continues to be a fickle friend, and Ebenezar McCoy's journals reveal that Dresden's mother had something to do with the powerful island featured in the climax. Clearly, Butcher's playing a long game. These hints at a grander scope to which we're not yet privy will always keep me reading, because they promise us that no matter how much trouble Dresden finds ... it's eventually going to get much, much worse. And I can't wait.

12. Changes

by Jim Butcher

Changes cover image
ISBN:
9780451463173
Format:
Hardcover, 441 pages
Published:
Roc, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The title of this book, breaking as it does Jim Butcher's pattern of two words of equal length for each previous title in the Dresden Files, says it all. There are definitely changes; as such, the spoiler warning here is not to be taken lightly.

If you haven't read the book and at all plan to read it, turn back now.

So it's just me, the people who have read it, and the people who won't read it (apathetic people and haters alike), yes? Well come closer, and I shall tell you a tale of one man against a universe that, while humourless, has a fitting sense of irony. Come closer, and I will tell you how the blackest, bleakest, bitterest moments of life reveal the best—and the worst—of humanity.

Butcher alters the Dresdenverse in a legion of ways with Changes; I won't waste time enumerating them here—after all, if you care, you've already read the book, yes? Besides, we'll come to them in due time as we discuss what they mean for Harry and those closest to him.

For the past few reviews, I've riffed a lot on the sweeping themes I see beneath the arc of the Dresden Files. Part of that is pragmatic; re-reading the first eleven books in quick succession depletes the number of ways I know how to say, "Good story! Great characters! Go Harry!" But I do feel that the Dresden Files is more than just formula urban fantasy/mystery. More than delivering a plot, Butcher tells a story, which means there's a theme to accompany it.

Reading the dismissive reviews of Changes, I'm seeing a lot of disappointment over the changes. Complaints that they feel random and unexpected, that the characters are inconsistent, that there are never any big consequences to Harry's mistakes . . . and I can't help but feel like they've missed something. I think all fans feel that way about reviewers who dislike a book. Yet I didn't see the changes in Changes as all that surprising. Almost everything here has been foreshadowed, to some degree or another, much of it for a very long time.

Take one of the major changes, Harry becoming the Winter Knight. (I warned you not to continue reading if you haven't read the book! This is what you get!) Mab has been cackling in that chilly eldritch way ever since the position opened back in book four. Every time she extended her offer to Harry, he would refuse. She would say, "One day," and he would reply, "Not today." And there was a reason for that exchange.

Mab, chilly eldrbitch that she is, knew this day would come. She's untold millennia old and has far more experience dealing with mortals than Harry has dealing with faerie queens. She can afford to be patient; in the end, she was right. All it took was the proper motivation to have Harry seek out a deal.

So, while I can't say I was happy that Harry chose to become the Winter Knight, I am not surprised. Likewise, I'm not surprised at Susan's return—and while Harry's child might have been a surprise until I read the dust jacket, it's a sensible development in the series. One of the best ways to escalate conflict is to make it more personal; you can't get much more personal than a child in danger. That's called cranking the conflict up to eleven, and it will have serious consequences. When a child's life—your child's life—is on the line, the gloves come off, and rules get broken.

In my review of Small Favor, I compared Harry Dresden to John Crichton, from Farscape. I'm going to do that again, because the parallels are really striking in Changes. Like Crichton in The Peacekeeper Wars, Harry finds himself in an utterly FUBAR situation. With chaos just a couple steps away, Harry is fighting for the life of his child, and he realizes that everything he's done before, everything he can do alone, is not enough, won't be enough.

Consider this exchange from The Peacekeeper Wars:

Aeryn: This is what you want. This is what you want. Crichton: No, Aeryn, it is not what I want. It's just that fate keeps blocking all the exits. And no matter what I do I just keep circling closer to the flame. Aeryn: Then pull back. This war is not your responsibility. Crichton: You and the baby are my responsibility. How am I supposed to protect you from the Peacekeepers and the Scarrans and the Tregans and the lions and tigers and bears? With this? Winona? This gun? No gun is big enough.

Like Crichton, Harry realizes that he has to do more than beat the bad guys this time, and it will take more than one rag-tag wizard and his band of merry men (and women!) to do it. So he makes the classical tragic choice of the hero, sacrifices his purity to save someone he loves. And even though the genre is urban fantasy and the plot is often more like a hardboiled mystery than an epic quest, Changes feels more like epic fantasy because of this tragic, Shakespearean element. Butcher has not consistently impressed me with his writing style, but I remain impressed by his writing ability.

Despite my regard for Changes' theme and consequences for the Dresdenverse, I can't call it an excellent Dresden Files novel. The last portion of the book, including the climactic battle, was amazing. However, the first part was unfocused, messier than the tight plots enforced by the more mystery-oriented books earlier in the series. And this is where the critics do get it right: Harry is literally all over the place, and the one-two action-sequence-then-dialogue-scene formula doesn't hold up under the stress of constant new threats coming out of the woodwork.

For example, at one point Harry is on the run from the Eebs, a crazy Red Court vampire husband-wife hit team. He stumbles into the stronghold of the Erlking, lord of the goblins and leader of the Wild Hunt. If you recall, Harry got on the Erlking's bad side in Dead Beat. The subsequent dialogue was entertaining, but it was followed by a rather dull battle sequence that didn't seem necessary.

While Thomas is involved in the story, we don't see much development in his relationship with Harry after the events in Turn Coat. Aside from the resolution to Harry's relationship with Susan, about the only thing we do see is Harry finally making a move on Murphy. About time! As I'm firmly Team Murphy, I was happy with this turn of events—and should have known what would happen on the next page. Just when I thought Butcher had delivered every twist he had prepared, he slapped down the ultimate change.

Harry Dresden is dead, but the Dresden Files are not over, and this isn't the last we've seen of Chicago's only professional wizard. Changes is not perfect, but for its tapestry of human behaviour, it is emblematic of why I so adore the Dresden Files.

13. Side Jobs

by Jim Butcher

Side Jobs cover image
ISBN:
9780451463654
Format:
Hardcover, 418 pages
Published:
Roc, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This review contains spoilers for the ending of Changes and possibly other books in the Dresden Files series. It does not, however, contain spoilers for the short stories themselves in Side Jobs, so I have not marked the review with a spoiler alert.

This is how much I love the Dresden Files: not only will I buy every book as it is released, a practice I eschew for a great many other authors I still adore, but I will go to great lengths to buy that book on release day if at all possible. My experience buying Side Jobs testifies to this determination. It was a stormy Tuesday morning when I woke up and realized it was the release day for this book. By stormy, I mean torrential rain and wind that managed to knock down power lines in several places throughout the city. So not only did I make a special trip to Chapters in the rain for Side Jobs, but I negotiated around closed off streets and braved intersections where the traffic lights had no power. That is how much faith I put in Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden. When I sit down with one of these books, I know I'm going to enjoy it, and that is a nice type of anticipation to have once in a while.

So the question with Side Jobs, as it is with every Dresden Files book, is not if I like it, but how much. And let's be honest with ourselves: if you are a Dresden Files fangirl or fanboy as I am, you're going to buy this book even if it sucks. Fortunately for you, this book is a must-have for any collector of the Dresden Files, be ye fanatic or simply a casual connoisseur of the Dresden.

A few of the stories—particularly the first two, "A Restoration of Faith" and "Vignette"—are not that good, and I'm not going to talk about them. Instead, let me discuss some of the stories I liked, the story I loved, and that final novella, "Aftermath," in which we learn what Murphy goes through immediately following the events of Changes.

Some of these stories are funny. Not just snarky and entertaining in Harry's trademark, sarcastic way, but outright comedic. Part of this comes from the reasons Butcher wrote each story, such as the comedic sci-fi/fantasy anthology for which he wrote "Day Off." Yet I think it's also a side effect of Butcher writing Harry for a shorter length of story. Humour is a nice route to exploring a character, and character studies can make for great short stories, especially when paired with fantastic action sequences or descriptions, as we see in "Day Off" and "Last Call." Despite the often serious consequences in his adventures, Harry is still a very funny guy.

The stories that really shine, however, are those where Harry displays his heroism in the face of those serious consequences, even if it's sometimes chivalrous to the point of chauvinism. Two of the stories collected here, "Something Borrowed" and "Heorot," involve a fiancée or wife, respectively, being kidnapped by a monster. The monsters have different motivations (one has revenge on the mind, while the other wants to breed), and the resolutions are different as well (I loved seeing Harry team up with Gard, and I loved the action sequence in "Heorot.") But I can see how this concentrated dose of chivalry might make one uncomfortable with Harry or with Butcher; why does the wizard always have to rescue damsels in distress? Recall that even when Butcher seems to be yielding to one trope, he's subverting or averting another. Almost all of the female characters in the series are strong, either physically, emotionally, or both. You've got metaphorical Valkyries like Murphy, who shines in "Love Hurts" and "Aftermath," and literal Valkyries like Gard, who kicks ass in the same "Heorot" that pulls a damsel-in-distress on us.

One way in which the short stories deviate from the novel formula is in their perspective, which isn't always Harry's. There are two such stories in Side Jobs: "Aftermath" is one, and the other is "Backup," a novelette from Thomas' point of view. The latter is interesting for two reasons: for Thomas' viewpoint, naturally, but also because it adds to the mythology of the Dresdenverse in a way a Harry Dresden story cannot. As Butcher explains in the preface, Harry can't know about the Oblivion War, but it's a plot point that fits perfectly with other Dresdenverse lore (and tickles that part of my brain dedicated to speculating about the Outsiders, such as He Who Walks Behind, who seems to have a plan in mind for Harry). I love the mythology around the Dresdenverse, which is both creative and enduring in a way that only makes me want more.

Speaking of more, the cliffhanger in Changes definitely left me wanting more, and Side Jobs teases us with a new story set forty-five minutes after the end of Changes. The appropriately named "Aftermath," however, doesn't quite live up to the hype. This is completely understandable, because "Aftermath" is a story about Murphy and her role in Harry's life, not a story about Harry told from Murphy's point of view. So what we get is much better, actually: we get to see Murphy snap into action when she realizes there is a possibility that Harry won't be coming back from this one. And her reaction demonstrates how much Murphy has changed over twelve Dresden Files novels, how much she has grown as a character. Even as she refuses to admit Harry is dead—"There's this voice inside me that keeps pointing out that we haven't seen a body. Until I have …"—she steps into to take his place, to carry the torch, as it were, "Until Dresden gets back."

And I can think of no way more fitting to celebrate Harry Dresden and his life than that. To see so clearly how Harry has affected so many people's lives, to see Murphy and the Alphas step up and say, "It's on us now," is so moving. We have come such a long way from Storm Front, when Murphy was a detective who tolerated Harry and certainly didn't trust him. In the last ten years, they have formed a bond that is deeper than friendship (even if, as we see in "Love Hurts," it can never quite be more than that on the surface). And to see her honour and remember Harry by fighting the good fight, despite all she's been through, is awesome.

Still, "Aftermath" pales in comparison to the single best story in Side Jobs, one which surprised me. Damn you, Jim Butcher, for making me laugh and cry at the same time. When I began reading "The Warrior," I actually thought I would dislike it. Firstly, Michael has always grated on me as a character, and it's not just his constant faith in God. I love him for giving us Molly, who is one of my favourite characters, but he never quite seemed as round or complex. And then Butcher hits me with "The Warrior," which not only made me love Michael and laugh at Harry but, despite being an atheist, choke up at Uriel's homily about how Harry's actions have made the world a better place and Michael is still fighting the good fight:

I just stared at him for a moment. "But … I didn't actually mean to do any of that."

He smiled. "But you chose the actions that led to it. No one forced you to do it. And to those people, what you did saved t hem from danger as real as any creature of the night." He turned to look down at the church below and pursed his lips. "People have far more power than they realize, if they would only choose to use it. Michael might not be cutting demons with a sword anymore, Harry. But don't think for a second that he isn't still fighting the good fight. It's just harder for you to see the results from down here."

That's not all that's great about "The Warrior." There are intriguing tidbits in Uriel and Harry's conversation, doors opened that I hope are later explored more thoroughly:

Jake shrugged. "But if you hadn't, you'd have died in that harness, and he'd have died on that island."

I scowled. "What?"

Jake waved a hand. "I won't bore you with details, but suffice to say that your choice in that moment changed everything."

Finally, we have what may be my favourite moment in Side Jobs. Harry has come to the park, where Michael is coaching his daughter's softball team. And one of the girls has gone off by herself, upset because she doesn't think she's a good enough player. Harry suggests that no one can be perfect, that you can't just retreat into your house and live in Bubble Wrap. And he explains why:

I snorted. "They still make you read Dickens in school? Great Expectations?'

"Yeah."

"You can stay at home and hide if you want—and wind up like Miss Havisham," I said. "Watching life through a window and obsessed with how things might have been."

"Dear God," she said. "You've just made Dickens relevant to my life."

I'm pretty sure there are English teachers who would kill to hear a student say that, and to watch Harry cause that to happen was both pleasant and sensational.

Side Jobs isn't perfect. It is hard for an anthology to be perfect. Still, as I said before, if you are a Dresden Files fan, you should read this. If you are a collector, you should buy this. It's a wonderful addition to the series, with some truly great stories you might not have had a chance to read, particularly "The Warrior." Although "Aftermath" might not have any of the resolution you were hoping for after Changes, I think it's an excellent story about how Murphy deals with the shock of losing one of the most important people in her life. And it's a foreshadowing of how difficulty the days are going to become—for Harry, and for those left behind.

I can't believe I have to wait until April for Ghost Story!

14. Ghost Story

by Jim Butcher

Ghost Story cover image
ISBN:
9780451463791
Format:
Hardcover, 481 pages
Published:
Roc, 2011

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Can we take a moment to bask in how far the Dresden Files, as a series, has come? From its humble beginnings in Storm Front, this urban fantasy series about a Chicago wizard/private detective has become my golden standard for urban fantasy. Over the course of 13 books, the Dresdenverse has expanded from wizards and sorcerers to an epic mythology comprising monsters and magical beings of all kinds—and its characters, plots, and themes have all kept pace with that growth. It's safe to say that this is one of my favourite series I've ever read, that I'm a fanboy, if you will. On my bookshelves, my Dresden Files books abruptly shift from paperback to hardcover at White Knight as I caught up to the series' publication. Beginning with its previous instalment, Proven Guilty, and ending its sequel, Small Favor, this marked what I consider the highest point, so far, of the series. Don't get me wrong: the subsequent volumes have been excellent, just not quite as good as those three books. Ghost Story has not changed my mind on this count. Nevertheless, it is a marked turning point for the Dresden Files.

My friend Aaron saw me reading this at lunch, and so of course I had to rave about the Dresden Files and, being the book pusher that I am, "suggest" that he borrow the first book from me. (I am a coercive suggester, no matter how good-natured my friends might be about it in front of me. I know they're just trying to placate me so I will not spam them with more book recommendations. Too late!) Anyway, I love introducing friends to new series and watching their reactions. Speaking from experience, having re-read all of these books last year prior to reading Changes, I know how powerful it is to see these characters and their universe grow with each subsequent book. It's an awesome and inspiring feeling, and I marvel at Butcher's ability to construct such intricate narratives that draw upon the richness of previous books.

Now that we've considered how far the series as a whole has come, can we stop for a moment to celebrate Karrin Murphy? Seriously, along with Molly, she's one of the best things about the Dresden Files (we'll get to Molly in due time, don't worry). And it didn't strike me until Ghost Story how drastically she has changed. In the first book, she was so suspicious and leery of Harry. She didn't quite see him as a con artist, like her partner Carmichael did, but she viewed him with that same mixture of distrust and disdain that cops often have for consultants (worse yet, psychic consultants). Murphy was a reluctant and sceptical member of Chicago PD's "Special Investigations" unit. Since then, Murphy and Harry's relationship has evolved to the point where they trust one another implicitly. They've saved each other's lives so many times, and Murphy has gone from doubting that magic even exists to actively understanding how certain aspects of magic work. As of Ghost Story, she has lost her job with the police and has been attempting to hold together the network of magic practitioners—the Paranet—that Harry helped to establish. And she is so close to breaking, because she has gone through so much in the past few years. Harry's death didn't help either.

My only regret with Butcher's portrayal of Murphy is that there wasn't enough of it. I don't mind that she was paranoid and suspicious of Harry's ghost—considering how often people have tried to use Harry's image to get to her, that's totally logical. More importantly, on the visceral level, she didn't want to believe that Harry's ghost was legitimately him, because she wanted to believe Harry was still alive out there, somewhere. She keeps repeating that they didn't find a body—no body, no proof that he's dead. But if Harry is a ghost, well that's pretty definitive. (Unless you are Queen Mab and a sentient island, in which case it is but a flesh wound.)

Harry is not wholly responsible for Murphy's current state, but he is a factor, and that's something he has to confront in Ghost Story. As with all ghosts, Harry has unfinished business—ostensibly he gets sent back to solve his own murder, but the substance of this book is how Harry confronts his aborted relationships with the people he left behind. Set six months after Changes, Harry's sudden absence has been felt in a big way:

"You don't know how many things just didn't come here before, because they were afraid."

"Afraid of what?"

She looked at me as if her heart was breaking. "Of you, Harry. You could find anything in this town, but you never even noticed the shadow you cast." Her eyes overflowed and she slashed at them angrily with one hand. "Every time you defied someone, every time you came out on top against things you couldn't possibly have beaten, your name grew. And they feared that name. There were other cities to prey on—cities that didn't have the mad wizard Dresden defending them. They feared you."

That's Molly, telling Harry why it's been so hard since he left. She has been going around trying to forge a new defender for Chicago, an alter ego dubbed "the Rag Lady". And it's tearing her apart, because as long as she does this, her psychological wounds from Chichen Itza will never be able to heal. But she feels a burden now that Harry is gone, like she's the only one capable to even attempting to stand in his place and defend the city.

We get to see more of Molly's internal turmoil and doubt later in the book. In fact, it's fairly central to the story. One of the most disturbing facts Harry must come to terms with his how he has failed Molly as her teacher. Butcher highlights this in several ways. The Leanansidhe, Harry's godmother, has taken over his duties as teacher, and her pedagogical approach reminds Harry of his former teacher, Justin du Morne. Both believe that pain is a necessary component for learning. Although I doubt Harry comes so far as to agree with them, by the end of Ghost Story he acknowledges that his behaviour toward Molly has been contradictory: he coddled and cared for her like the daughter of one of his best friends, yet he also used her when it seemed necessary, when her talents could help solve whatever problem he was currently facing. That pattern of behaviour culminated, of course, with the assault of Chichen Itza and the physical and emotional trauma Molly endured there. Harry spends much of the book contemplating whether he should have ordered Molly to stay out of that confrontation, but it's not until the end that he learns his worst offence is something he ordered Molly to make him forget.

There's a spoiler alert on this review for a reason, people.

Although I had my suspicions about the identity of who pulled the trigger, the ultimate person behind Harry's death eluded me right up until the big reveal. I'm sure there are plenty of people who find it unsatisfactory or even cheap, but I think it makes perfect sense. Harry arranged a hit on himself, because he knew that when he donned the mantle of the Winter Knight, there would be no going back. Ever. To me, this cements irrevocably the poignancy of his sacrifice for Maggie: he was out of options, and the only way to save his daughter was to sacrifice himself in a way from which there was no escape. Harry Dresden, master of twisting the arms of various magical creatures, had finally found his own personal kobayashi maru, his no-win scenario. So he tried to cheat.

And he failed. Epic fail, even. Mab brought him back, with some help from the not-so-friendly neighbour island of Demonreach, and he still has to serve her as Winter Knight. Fortunately he isn't so worried that she can twist him into a monster now, but Harry's brilliant plan to evade his duties as Winter Knight by dying did not succeed. Oh well.

Still, having Molly wipe his memory of this set-up was a cruel thing to do to his apprentice. The fact that she had the strength to comply with his request speaks volumes about Molly as a person. And I think it's a very interesting part of the relationship between Harry and Molly, because he trusted her enough with this important task—but at the same time, it's also an example of how human and how flawed Harry remains, despite his terrible legendary status as a monster killer. He is not a monster. But he is oh, oh so human—and one of the paradoxes of humanity, of having free will, is that we can embody both amazing good and horrible evil, and unlike the amoral creatures of Faerie or the Nevernever, we can recognize those dissonant aspects of ourselves and cringe, look away, even deny. We are complicated tangles and snares of emotions and desires and beliefs and actions, and with the moral dilemmas made explicit in Ghost Story, Butcher cuts cleanly through this Gordian knot in order to put that on display for all of us.

While reading Changes, I anticipated that Harry would try to void his deal with Mab to become the Winter Knight by dying and then being resuscitated. So I was somewhat prepared for his death, although its method and madness still made me start—I should have known that Butcher wouldn't be so mundane as to do it the way I had predicted. Similarly, I knew with Ghost Story that Harry would rejoin the world of the corporeal and living by the book's end; there was no question of it. I did not foresee that Mab's deal would still be in effect, and so Uriel's seven words meant as much to me as they did to Harry. The subsequent conversation between Harry and Mab was one of the best moments in the book. Harry stands up to Mab and tells the Faerie Queen of Winter how she will behave—but that's par for the course. What's intriguing is that Mab demonstrates how badly she wants Harry as her Winter Knight. She could have let him die and chosen someone else, but she wants (needs?) Harry Dresden, enough that she worked with a semi-sentient landmass to revive his body.

Speaking of Demonreach, I am so eager to learn more about that island. Ever since Harry got a brief glimpse of references to it in McCoy's journals, I've wanted to know more. It's obvious that there is more of a connection between Harry's past and Demonreach than Butcher has revealed. This is just one of the many tantalizing aspects of the series that continues to run parallel to each book's main plot.

If Harry and Mab's conversation is one of the best moments in the book, Harry's little whirlwind tour of his friends and family, courtesy of Uriel, is the most frustrating. Butcher uses Uriel as an unabashed source of exposition, and it is clunky. It made me cringe, and I wish he had found a better way to explore what had happened to Harry and why he came back to solve his murder. Furthermore, all those glimpses at the people important to Harry were more confusing than helpful. I did like learning that Maggie is in the more-than-capable hands of the Carpenters, but what was up with our look at the domestic life of Thomas and Justine? I have no idea what that was, and I'm just going to pretend it didn't happen until Butcher manages to explain it better….

Narrative issues aside though, Ghost Story is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a major turning point for Harry and for the series. This is the moment when Harry can no longer ignore who or what he is: he is not just some guy who solves magic-related mysteries; he is not just a member of the White Council or a Warden or a mentor. He is a major player in something much larger, something that has been in motion perhaps before he was born. There are forces we've only begun to glimpse that are manipulating Harry, as well as other entities. (I think the Black Council are either pawns or complicit lieutenants in a scheme related to the Outsiders/He Who Walks Behind.) In previous books, Harry has accepted that something sinister has been going down in the magical world and that he can have a role in fighting it—but now he has to confront how major a role that is, how crucial he is to the entire enterprise, for both his friends and his foes. Because as great as it is for Harry's allies that he is now back in action, let's remember who brought him back: Mab and Demonreach didn't do this for the sake of being nice.

I haven't talked too much about the specific plot of Ghost Story, about the reappearance of Corpsetaker as the antagonist or how Harry gains a better appreciation for Mort. To be honest, all that seemed secondary to my reaction to what Ghost Story does for the series as a whole, and more importantly, my reaction to how Harry changes as a result of coming back from the dead. The plot itself? Good. Sufficient for its purpose, and I'm sure that for some, it's really the star of the show. For me though, there is so much more going on here. Maybe as a fanboy I'm reading too much into it, but I like to think that I'm just teasing at much deeper threads of discussion. Like Doctor Who, Buffy, and so many other series that I love, the Dresden Files is just so rich and densely-layered in its mythology and metaphor that it's more than just a series of related stories: it's something beautiful and profound. Ghost Story reaffirms this. It does not, as a story on its own, regain the heights of Proven Guilty or Small Favor. As an instalment of the Dresden Files, however, it is of incalculable importance.

15. Cold Days

by Jim Butcher

Cold Days  cover image
ISBN:
9780356500898
Format:
Hardcover, 515 pages
Published:
Orbit Books, 2012

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Harry Dresden is back, baby!

Seriously, I’m going to drop major spoilers about halfway through this review. I’m not kidding around here.

After dying (or nearly dying) and solving his own murder as a ghost, Harry has returned to find his body in the care of Mab. Harry has not escaped his obligations as her new Winter Knight, and so Cold Days opens with a montage of his physical therapy—Mab trying to kill him in creative ways—and a party at the Winter Court in his honour. Harry refers to this as his “first day in the prison yard” and, to continue the metaphor, he smacks down one of the biggest and baddest fae he can find to show that he means business.

Harry Dresden is most definitely back.

The Winter Knight is the Winter Queen’s hitman for mortal targets. But Mab’s first assignment for Harry is to kill the Winter Lady, Maeve, who is most certainly not a mortal. Not only does this make it difficult for Harry to carry out his assignment, but he has to wonder why Mab wants Maeve dead—and whether it is in his and humanity’s best interests to comply. Of course, the truth turns out to be a good deal more twisted and complex than it appears on the surface. As Harry leaves Faerieland and returns to Chicago to sort this out, Jim Butcher delivers us another fast-paced and fascinating story with stakes reminiscent of Small Favor and Changes.

Whereas Ghost Story forces Harry to confront how he has shaped other people’s lives, by seeing how his death and absence has affected them, Cold Days is about Harry confronting his new role as the Winter Knight. Suddenly, he is suspect, tainted by the touch of Winter. The mantle of Winter Knight changes its wearer, and numerous people warn Harry that he is going to turn into a sex-hungry, domineering, violent man who only exists to kill and fulfill Mab’s cruel designs. It’s just a matter of time, they say. Power corrupts. And Harry is scared, because he fears they’re right. He wants to resist, hopes he can resist, but with each passing hour he notices changes in himself—and others, like Murphy, notice it too. And Cold Days takes place on Halloween—barely a day and a half. How much will Harry have changed after a month? A year? Two years?

This has long been a problem for Harry, though. Throughout the Dresden Files, forces have tempted him and tried to corrupt him. Perhaps the most potent example is the shadow of Lasciel, Lash, that lived in his mind for several years, trying to persuade him to use Lasciel’s denarius. So far Harry has resisted all of these attempts, something he chalks up to a strength of will and a knowledge that there is always an alternative:

There’s always a choice…. That’s the thing, man. There’s always, always a choice. My options might really, truly suck. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a choice.

Much has been made of the fact that humans have souls and free will, while other creatures—like Mab and Maeve and their Summer counterparts—do not. As recently as Ghost Story, Uriel stepped in to remind Harry that whatever else Mab might try—blackmailing him, cajoling him, coercing him—she cannot change who he is, cannot affect that essential core that makes Harry himself. Only Harry can do that. What started as a series following Chicago’s only professional wizard has turned into a much more epic exploration of optimism and the power of free will. This is all the more important after what happens at the very end of Cold Days. The last 25 pages of this book are off the chain and are entirely the reason I’m giving this five stars instead of four.

This review has a spoiler warning for a reason, people.

Mab, answering Harry’s eleventh hour summons, shows up to the battle on Demonreach. We’ve learned that Demonreach is a maximum security prison, built by the original Merlin, for dangerous immortal creatures. And Maeve and Lily have been working to undermine that prison’s security and trigger its destructive failsafe. Lily thinks she’s working against a contagion caused by the Outsiders, one that infects people and co-opts them. But Maeve has already been infected, and Demonreach’s destruction will only further the Outsiders’ plans. At this point, Butcher has already significantly expanded our knowledge of the Outsiders and how the Fae relate to the eternal struggle against them.

And then Mab, through Murphy, kills Maeve. And Molly becomes the new Winter Lady. Oh. Em. Gee.

Up until that point, I had been enjoying Cold Days. As much as I liked Ghost Story, my principle complaint with it had been that its actual plot was quite lacklustre; the book itself was only good because of how it advanced the overall series arc. This book doesn’t suffer from that problem: it both advances the series arc and has its own compelling story to tell. But in those last 25 pages, and in turning Molly into the Winter Lady, this book achieved another whole level of epic awesomeness, because the ramifications of these developments are stunning.

Leaving aside the upheaval caused in the Winter and Summer Courts by Maeve and Lily’s deaths and the two new Ladies, let’s look at where this leaves Harry, Molly, and Murphy. Murphy has already expressed reluctance at getting involved with Harry because she will age but he—and Molly, as a fellow wizard—won’t. Harry is definitely attracted to Molly, but he doesn’t want to get involved with her. He feels that it would be a breach of trust, having known her since she was a child, despite Molly making it clear that such a change to their relationship would be OK with her—and that’s the other problem, because Molly is in love with him, but he doesn’t return the feeling.

Now Molly is the Winter Lady, making her kind of Harry’s boss. And as we saw with Lily earlier in the book, it’s only a matter of time before Molly turns into a Maeve-like clone, with all the same urges and predilections. Much like Harry, she is doomed by the mask she wears—or is she? Butcher has suddenly made the stakes so much more interesting, something the series needed. He can only spin out Harry dealing with the challenges of being the Winter Knight for so long. Adding Molly’s struggle to the mix adds a new dimension. On one hand, it might make Harry’s job slightly more bearable, at least in the short term. On the other hand, it further amplifies the conflict between fate and free will and adds a new urgency to the ongoing theme of how one’s masks and roles change one.

Masks and identity, much like the motif of free will, have always been huge in this series. Identifying things, naming things, has been half the battle in many cases. From true names that bind to the human-like forms adopted by gods and Dragons alike, the Dresdenverse takes nomenclature and identity very seriously. And this is another area in which humans differ so much from supernatural creatures. Humans change. Fae, demons, vampires, etc., do not. Oh, their forms and functions might change, as Kringle remarks to Harry at the opening of this book, as the stories about those creatures change. But Butcher takes the trouble of reminding us, time and again, that for immortals the flow of time has much less meaning. This is a result of their own stasis. Harry and his mortal friends have changed so much over the course of this series, whereas the immortals have remained relatively the same. It’s this distinction, in addition to that pesky free will, that makes humans so interesting and disruptive to immortals’ designs. Humans might not be the most powerful players, but they are the least predictable and the most mutable with time.

At the beginning of this series, Harry Dresden was just a private investigator who happened to be a wizard. He saved Chicago, even the world a few times. That got him noticed, and gradually he began tangling with bigger foes and messier conundrums. He has had the Sword of Damocles over his head, been chased by Wardens of the White Council, been a Warden himself, and become the guardian of a semi-sentient island. Eventually he became the one who was feared, the big, badass Harry Dresden—though, for some reason, the bad guys continued to underestimate him. Now he’s the Winter Knight, the Winter Faerie Court’s mortal hitman, and his onetime apprentice has become the Winter Lady. They are on the forefront of a war against the Outsiders, who will stop at nothing to undermine reality itself.

Cold Days marks yet another turning point in this series. The previous five books, beginning with White Night, have had Harry move from stumbling around in the big leagues to become a player in his own right. He is facing the consequences now, but more importantly, he is beginning to move from the big leagues to the bigger leagues, as he learns more about the purpose of the Fae and his own role to play in larger things to come. I’m quite looking forward to the next books—in particular, as much as I enjoyed this one, it was extremely Harry-centric, without much time devoted to the secondary characters. But I am looking forward to the next book, because Butcher just keeps delivering fantastic new twists and developments that advance the story and keep things fresh. After fourteen books, that’s saying a lot about a series, and it’s one reason I love the Dresden Files so much.

16. Skin Game

by Jim Butcher

Skin Game  cover image
ISBN:
9780451464392
Format:
Hardcover, 454 pages
Published:
Roc Hardcover, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

It’s hard to believe I’ve had to wait over a year between Dresden Files books! I’m glad I developed this sideline of being a teacher while I waited.

As with previous reviews, this is full of spoilers. And, to be honest, I don’t really understand why someone who hasn’t been following the series up to this point would be much interested in what happens in book 15. If you’re really curious about whether Dresden Files is for you, check out my reviews from the beginning; the reviews of the first few books don’t have too many spoilers.

So from here on out, I’m going to assume it’s just me and my fellow fans. I’m also going to assume that, like me, you’re still relatively enthusiastic about the series—you don’t think it has jumped the shark or declined steeply. Because if you have—and you have that right, as a reader—then this review is not for you. I am here to praise Jim Butcher, not to bury him.

Harry has to team up with Nicodemus and a group of lesser bad guys to steal something precious—the Holy Grail, no less—from the vault of Hades. He has no choice; as Mab’s Winter Knight, he is hers to loan out in repayment of favours she owes Nicodemus … and he can’t refuse as long as there is a parasite in his head that only she can remove.

I love heist stories! And I love that Harry takes Murphy along for backup. Butcher assembles a neat ensemble of villains for Harry to work with. The posturing gets tiresome at times—this is one of the disadvantages to having such a rich universe of supernatural beings, namely that it starts becoming difficult to work out which power trumps which. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and dangerous situation in which Harry finds himself.

The actual heist, though, is unimportant. Skin Game is really about Harry’s return to Chicago after such a long absence. It allows us to revisit some of the characters who haven’t played such a big role lately, and it allows them to reassure Harry that he is not a monster. Well, most of them. Butters isn’t so sure.

The question of how far Harry can go, how powerful he can become, before he becomes a monster has been with us since the first book. The sorcerer whom Harry defeats represents the dangers of abusing magic, of allowing power to corrupt oneself so utterly that one loses all humanity. And that’s only one of the infinite dangers that Harry faces in this world. In my review of Summer Knight, I mention that I don’t think Harry can ever become another Lloyd Slate, that he just doesn’t have it in him. Now look at him, years on, struggling with the mantle of the Winter Knight and the desires it wakes in him.

Butters has reason to question. So does Harry. With each passing book, he seems to become more powerful. But Butcher also gives us voices of faith and integrity. Both Murphy and Michael assert that Harry is basically a good person, and that this goodness will allow him to resist temptation and corruption. They point out that the fact he still cares enough about people to ask these questions, that he makes these deals with beings like Mab to save people rather than for his own gain, demonstrates he is still basically a good person.

It remains to be seen who is ultimately proved right. That’s what makes this series so interesting and enduring. It’s ultimately the story of Harry Dresden, from a young upstart wizard in Chicago to being a Warden of the White Council, the Winter Knight of Queen Mab, and, oh yeah, a father—twice over now.

Reading Skin Game was a pleasure. In some ways it is a return to some of the older formulas in Dresden Files. It echoes back to the less serial, more standalone stories of the earliest novels. Though the characters—with a few notable exceptions, like the perplexing Goodman Grey—are now well-established regulars, the plot is more of a one-off. It puts Harry back in charge, in a way: although Mab was initially pulling the strings, we later learn that Harry has been outmanoeuvring Nicodemus all along. It’s pretty sweet.

Although this feels like the earlier Dresden Files, it’s noticeably a better book. One of the privileges of reading a fifteen-book series is getting to see how a writer’s style and skill changes over such a long period of time. The earliest Dresden Files novels were good; some were even great. None of them approach Skin Game, though—and arguably, this novel isn’t even as good as Cold Days or Changes. But over the past fifteen years, Butcher’s writing has improved noticeably. His plotting is tighter, its intricacies coiled more elaborately. He is better able to move his pieces in the shadows and work his clever tricks off stage, working up to a big reveal.

I’m not sure what else to say. Fifteen books in, and it really does feel like all has been said. Skin Game delivers exactly what a fan of the Dresden Files wants after Cold Days. It introduces new mysteries and problems, such as Harry’s daughter-spirit, and Butters is now apparently a Knight of the Cross. I’m very eager to learn more about Molly’s experiences as the new Winter Lady (spinoff series, please?). And it looks like Murphy’s showdown with Nicodemus has had a lasting impact on her, physically, in much the same way Michael has had to retire after his injuries on Demonreach.

It seems clear that from here on out, Harry has two problems. The first is that Nicodemus is still out there and now knows that he has a daughter. Nicodemus is not a foe to be underestimated; he has survived for multiple millennia despite three Knights with literally God-given powers working to stop him—oh, and now he has the Holy Grail. The second is that Harry still has very little hold over Mab, and it’s only a matter of time before she manoeuvres him into another unpleasant or untenable situation—after all, she has been doing this considerably longer than he has. So it seems like Harry really needs to start thinking of a better game plan.

Damn it, Butcher. Now look what you’ve gone and done … Skin Game has only just come out, and all it’s done is made me want to read the next book already!

17. Working for Bigfoot

by Jim Butcher

Working for Bigfoot  cover image
ISBN:
9781596067301
Format:
Hardcover, 136 pages
Published:
Subterranean Press, 2015

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files universe has a very rich mythology, something I greatly admire about the series. From werewolves to vampires to faerie, Butcher doesn’t just take one or two types of supernatural creatures and run with it—he takes all-comers. He continues this trend with these three novelettes that involve Bigfoot. Working For Bigfoot is a short but nice little collection that takes the edge off waiting for the next novel in the series.

I liked each story for slightly different reasons. “B is for Bigfoot” is interesting because it lacks much in the way of magic on Harry’s part. He mostly acts as a guide for young Irwin, giving him advice on how to deal with bullies. “I Was a Teenage Bigfoot” puts Harry in a slightly more active role—but there, too, he’s more protector and guardian, putting on his Warden cap, and the antagonist backs down pretty quickly. “Bigfoot on Campus” involves the most action and peril—and even then, it’s ultimately not Harry who intervenes to save the day (and that is rather the point).

None of the stories would impress me on their own. Collected here, though, they form a nice progression. They remove Harry from his element—none of them take place in familiar haunts, and none involve any characters we are familiar with—and, as I mentioned above, Harry doesn’t actually use much magic. Nevertheless, these still feel in all respects like quintessential Dresden Files stories—just proving that it isn’t the way Butcher writes magic that keeps me coming back. It’s Harry Dresden, and his inability to keep his nose out of other people’s business, especially when he’s trying to be a do-gooder.

If I had to pick a favourite, it would be the last one. Firstly, Irwin has a much stronger presence now that he’s a young adult. (In the middle story, being sick, he basically lay around and was far too passive.) Secondly, Butcher brings the theme of fatherhood to the forefront here. In the earlier books there are hints of it, and Harry acts rather like a proxy for River Shoulders. However, Butcher has us come full circle, with Irwin finally meeting his father (and acting extremely cool and mature about it, by the way). Finally, I also liked Connie. I love how Butcher deals with the idea that she doesn’t know she’s a White Court Vampire, and how she might actually be “saved” if they handle the situation properly. Again, Harry is all about having compassion in the strangest of circumstances.

(There’s a curious continuity error in my book—in “Bigfoot on Campus” Harry calls Irwin’s mother “Carol Pounder” even though she is “Helena Pounder” in “B is for Bigfoot.” I don’t know if this error was caught and fixed in other editions, but I just thought I’d point it out for posterity here.)

Otherwise, as always this boutique Subterranean Press edition is lovely. From the paper to the artwork by Vincent Chong, it’s totally worth the added price, even for something as short and quick as Working for Bigfoot. Not what I would recommend for Dresden newbies, of course. But for fans it’s a really cool way to celebrate your enjoyment of the books.

Working for Bigfoot is nothing special or extraordinary, but it was never supposed to be. It hits the spot, does what it’s supposed to do, delivers a little more Dresden to the bloodstream. In those respects, it’s fun but forgettable—until I want to come back and read it again.