Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
“Hell’s Bells” count: 25
One of the problems involved in writing an ongoing series (or so I imagine) is the problem of escalation. The new stories have to be better than the old ones, or your readers will get bored and wander off to see what else is going on. Even with the hard core fans, the writer has to consistently challenge the character in order to make each story more interesting than the last. So if your hero is fighting some fairly minor-league bad guys in one book, his foes in the next book have to be greater than or equal to the previous ones.
Harry Dresden’s story started off with a pretty heavy-hitting minor leaguer: a black magician who was using thunderstorms to power magical murders. From there, we saw Harry go up against werewolves, necromancers, the Faerie, and fallen angels. He’s come out on top every time, though sometimes just barely, managing to triumph over foes that are very much out of his league. So where to go from here?
In order to avoid – or at least slow down – the escalation problem, Butcher appears to be refocusing the series story arc. Whereas before we had individual catastrophes that threatened people, cities, or worlds, we’re now looking at something more complex. Something that cannot easily be killed by a silver bullet or a well-placed ray of sunshine, or even a zombie Tyrannosaurus Rex. We’re looking at a Conspiracy now, which changes the overall shape of the story dramatically.
Of course, this is a Harry Dresden novel, not the mad ravings of some Moon Landing deniers or 9/11 Truthers or those guys who believe that the leaders of the world are actually alien reptiles. As intellectually challenging as a good conspiracy can be, it just wouldn’t be right if there wasn’t blood and fear and terror – it wouldn’t really be a Dresden Files book if the very first page didn’t make you say, “Woah!”
Which this one does, when Morgan – a Warden of the White Council and the man who probably hates Harry Dresden more than anyone else in the world – shows up on Harry’s doorstep, wounded and hounded and asking for sanctuary. From the other Wardens, no less.
A murder has been committed, deep in the heart of the White Council’s sanctum in Edinburgh, Scotland, and one of the most powerful members of the Senior Council is now dead. To all appearances, Morgan was the murderer, and the evidence is damning – bank records, for one, connecting him to the Red Court of the Vampires. What really made him look bad, though, was being found standing over the still-warm body, sword in hand. That’ll usually set off the Guilty alarm every time.
So, pursued by the entire White Council, Morgan turns to the one man he knows would be willing to help him. The fact that it’s the man he’s dedicated his life to destroying must have made it that much more of a bitter pill to swallow. All he can do is hope that Harry will be able to protect him not only from the Wardens, but from the bounty hunters and reward-seekers who are looking to profit off his return to the magical authorities – alive or dead, of course.
There’s a secondary plot as well, and as with Blood Rites, it’s one that will no doubt pay off heavily in future books. Part of what has made Harry become more connected to the world over the last eleven books was the discovery that he had a half-brother – Thomas, of the White Court of Vampires. They share a late mother, the ever-enigmatic Margaret LeFay. Having never met his mother, and having lost his father at a young age, Harry has latched onto this one family member he has. Indeed, he and Thomas get closer in every book. They look after each other and keep each other honest, as brothers are supposed to do. Thomas is one of the things that keeps Harry grounded.
When Thomas gets caught up in the hunt for Morgan and abducted by a creature of horrifying power – the Naagloshii – as a bargaining chip, Harry stands to lose the only family he has. The terms are simple: give Morgan to the Monster, or see Thomas destroyed. Harry Dresden being who he is, refuses to accept either one of these outcomes, and does his best to keep both men safe. But even this may just be a holding action, a delay against the inevitable, and what ultimately becomes of Thomas will no doubt fuel a great number of storylines to come.
Of course, the Conspiracy is at the heart of this, run by a shadowy organization that Harry has dubbed The Black Council. It is they who have been sowing discord over the last few years – giving powerful magical items to mortals, aiding minor-league sorcerers to become heavy-hitting murderers. They have infiltrated the White Council completely, and the extent of their influence is unknown. It’s up to Harry and his allies to not only prove Morgan’s innocence but to prove the existence of this dark cabal.
The principles of escalation are still in play here, but Butcher has chosen to go with an increase in scale, rather than power. Sure, the naagloshii is pretty damn powerful, a creature that Harry would have no chance of defeating on his own, but it is simply a pawn of the Black Council’s machinations. From here on out, Harry won’t just be fighting monsters – he’ll be fighting institutions. He’ll be battling secrecy, tradition, prejudice and denial, simple human traits that can be more destructive than any disgusting shape-shifting abomination.
I don’t think I really have to say, “Read this book” anymore. If you’ve gotten this far in the series, you’re going to read it whether I tell you to or not. If you haven’t been convinced to read the series by now, I don’t think I am able to convince you. All I can say is that a lot happens in this book, even aside from the action and interesting plot twists. There’s a mystery that pays homage to both the American tradition of hard-boiled realism and English intellectual investigation. There’s loss, both great and small, and a fundamental re-alignment of an entire magical community. The more I think about it, the denser the book becomes, which is a fantastic thing.
If Butcher can keep this up, I’ll gladly follow where he leads.
“Sometimes irony is a lot like a big old kick in the balls.”
– Harry Dresden, Turn Coat