Category Archives: detective fiction

Books about mysteries and detectives.

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
– Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Review 76: Changes


Changes by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 20

Well, the title promises changes, and that is certainly what you get in this book. And the first of these comes right on page one: Harry Dresden has a daughter. Surprised? Yeah, well so was he.

The mother is Harry’s old lover, Susan Rodriguez, whom he hasn’t seen in many years. The reason for their separation is pretty simple, the kind of story you’ve heard over and over again – boy and girl meet, avoid their obvious attraction to each other for a while, and finally hook up. Boy tells girl all about the world of supernatural horrors in which he lives, girl finds it more intriguing than horrible, and manages to get herself bitten by vampires. Girl is able to resist turning all the way, but knows that she can’t be around boy lest her emotions overwhelm her and she devours him whole. Boy and girl have one last night of fun together, girl vanishes into South America to join an underground cabal of vampire hunters.

Boilerplate, really.

No sooner does Harry discover that he has a daughter that she finds out she’s been kidnapped, taken as a hostage by the Red Court of vampires for some purpose that is no doubt terrible and nefarious. As much as Susan knows it will hurt Harry to find out she’d been hiding their daughter from him, she also knows that he is the only one with the power and the resources available to get her back.

After all, Harry is a Wizard, a member of the White Council, if not one of their favorite members. He has contacts within the council that could prove useful, as well as resources that reach from Heaven to Hell. A far cry from the lone wolf that we met way back in Storm Front, Harry now has connections and resources that will allow him to take on some of the most powerful beings in the world as they attempt to use his daughter for their own evil ends.

As the title implies, of course, Harry does have to make some very serious choices in this quest; choices about how far he’s willing to go in order to save his daughter, to say nothing of whether saving his daughter is even the right choice to make in itself. After all, the Red Court has been at war with the White Council for some time now, and the slightest mistake one way or the other could just make the whole thing worse. The last thing the White Council wants is their least favorite loose cannon (and, not for nothing, the guy who got the whole war started in the first place) complicating matters unnecessarily. The supernatural world is pretty much ready to fly apart as it is, and one mis-step could mean death and destruction on a scale greater than anyone has ever known.

In the end, the choices that Harry has to make in this book will haunt him for the rest of his life, if not longer. I would probably not be wrong in saying that this book marks a major turning point for the series.

If you’ve been reading this from the beginning, which you really should have, then this is going to be a rough book. I’ve made mention before of how Butcher likes to play hardball with his characters sometimes, but this book is so much more than that. This book is an all-out attack on everything that Harry holds dear to him, a scouring of his life that puts him into an entirely new situation. What this is in preparation for is anybody’s guess, but I can tell you this much without really spoiling anything – Butcher had better damn well have the next book on a fast track or he’ll find me sitting on his front porch with a torch and a pitchfork and a haunted look in my eyes. [1]

Given that, as of this writing, the book has just come out, there’s not a lot I can say about it in detail. If you’ve been following the series, you’re going to read it no matter what I have to say, and I don’t want to ruin anything for you. All I can really say is that this isn’t my favorite of the series, at least not upon first reading. It’s a little rushed in parts, and has one too many deus ex machina moments for my liking. The only thing that mitigates that is the knowledge that Butcher wastes nothing in his storytelling, and even the biggest miracles come with a price that will have to be paid. And I expect that the payoff will be something to see. Having said that, though, Changes will probably hold up as one of the most significant of the Dresden Files books once the series is done. In terms of what happens to the characters in this book, it’s really like nothing else that’s come before it.

So brace yourselves, kids. This one’s a bumpy ride. As with all the Dresden Files books, though, it’s well worth it.

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“Harry… I’ve got a bad feeling that…. I’ve got a bad feeling that the wheels are about to come off.”
– Karrin Murphy, Changes
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[1] Yes, yes, I know that, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the author is not my bitch. Still and all, waiting for the next book to come out will be like trying not to fart in church – interminable, impossible not to think about, and oh so relieving when the opportunity finally arrives.

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Review 72: Turn Coat


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.

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“Sometimes irony is a lot like a big old kick in the balls.”
– Harry Dresden, Turn Coat
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Review 68: Small Favor


Small Favor by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 21

This is the tenth book in the series, and if Butcher’s own plan can be trusted, it marks about the halfway point for the series as a whole. Having made it this far with the series is a remarkable achievement, and if he can keep it up all the way to its projected end, I will be a very happy and impressed reader. So, a few words about the book itself, and then some thoughts on the series.

Honestly, if you’ve been following my reviews of this series, you can be pretty sure what I’m going to say about it – I devoured the book and enjoyed every minute of it. In this edition, Our Hero Harry is faced with death and danger on all sides, as usual. The everlasting Queen of the Winter Sidhe, Mab, wants Harry to rescue John Marcone, the boss of the biggest organized crime racket in the city, from the clutches of fallen angels who have immeasurable power and millennia of experience. What they want with Marcone – and other, more innocent and tragic characters – isn’t clear, but what we can be sure of is that the full extent of their plans will far exceed simple kidnapping.

Meanwhile, he’s being attacked by agents of Queen Titania, the queen of the Summer Sidhe, for reasons that are not all that clear to anyone, especially Harry. His attackers are beasts of legend – the Gruffs. You may have heard of them when you were a child – goatlike creatures with a talent for eliminating trolls. They are brothers, and if you manage to defeat one of them, you can be sure that his big brother will be along soon to take care of you. And you most certainly don’t want to get on the bad side of the eldest of the Gruffs, let me tell you that. Nice guy, but he’s clean your clock no matter who you are.

So, things aren’t so good for Harry Dresden. But, then, when are they ever? Going up against forces way over his head is pretty much a theme for Harry’s life, and while we can be reasonably certain that he will prevail (after all, there are about ten more books to go, and they’d be hard to write without him), we don’t know how much damage he will take in the doing so. Although if you guessed “a lot,” you’d be pretty well on the mark.

That goes for pretty much every book in the series. Harry is an underdog, or at least he starts out as one. By the time you get to this book, he has some measure of authority, responsibility and respect, as well as a serious reputation amongst people in this world and others. So, this makes it rather harder for him to be an underdog. Instead of simple vampires, werewolves and the occasional necromancer, we now have to deal with the Big Guns like Mab, Titania and The Fallen. Which brings me to my first prediction for the rest of the series.

Harry Laid Low. At some point, I figure all that he’s built up will have to come crashing down. Gross physical harm aside, he’s put himself in a much better position than the one he was in way back in Storm Front, and if he continues the way he has, he will cease to be the underdog and become the overdog, if there is such a thing. While it’ll be interesting to see how he handles being higher up on the food chain, I don’t think it’ll sit well with his character.

That would be unfortunate, because it’s Harry’s character that really make this book. I’ve talked to those who aren’t too keen on investing in this series because it’s not quite different enough from the other modern, urban fantasy out there. And in a way, they’re right. A lone wolf investigator with a mysterious past and unknowable potential who has a talent for making big enemies? That could either be this series or the Nightside books by Simon Green, and I’m sure there’s a few more that follow a similar pattern. Butcher isn’t breaking open new ground with this series, at least not as far as I can tell. And a main character who is a wizard named Harry with a mysterious destiny and a tragic past? Yeah, like I’m sure you haven’t thought of it already. I don’t think that’s Butcher’s fault, though. Harry seems to be the kind of character who shows up in a writer’s head long before the book gets published, and Gary Dresden or Fred Dresden doesn’t sound as good.

Though Christopher Dresden has a nice ring to it, I must say. Why aren’t there more fictional heroes named Chris, anyway? Weird.

Back on topic – what Butcher has done, and what makes me enjoy this series so much, is take the genre and populate it with really interesting people. One of the things I enjoy so much about Harry is that he seems to be someone I’d like to hang out with – he has a sense of humor that I enjoy, and seeing how many of my friends tend towards wise-assery, I think we’d get along well. Other characters, like Murphy, Michael, Molly (lots of M names), Thomas, Bob, Mouse…. They’re complex, they’re interesting and occasionally surprising. You really come to care about them, because Harry cares about them and you care about Harry.

Which reminds me: Predictions 2 and 3 – The Death of Karrin Murphy and The Corruption of Molly Carpenter. These are two people who are extremely close to Harry, and invoke his much-debated sense of male chauvinism. A few people seem to take issue with Harry’s desire to protect women, which appears hopelessly old-fashioned. Maybe it is, but Harry (and by extension Butcher) seems to be okay with that. Murphy is Harry’s best friend, the one character who’s stood by him since the first book, and has grown to be his closest ally. She has gained his trust and his faith through fire and trial, and in this book is actually able to assert her authority (in a wonderful, wonderful scene) to save Harry’s skin.

So, she has to die. It’s one of those Hero’s Journey things – the hero has to lose those things closest to him in order to come out the other side as a True Hero. He needs Murphy, he really does, and he needs to be able to stand without her. If that means that she’s taken out, well…. I don’t know if or when it’ll happen – I’d bet somewhere in the climactic final books.

As for Molly, she’s an interesting person. A young person who, after a very rocky start to her life as a magic-user, has been given a second chance by Harry. For his part, Harry’s job is to make sure she turns out right, to make sure she learns how to use her powers responsibly and wisely, for the betterment of others. As of this book, she’s doing very well – her powers are becoming more refined, and she’s got a good handle on what it means to be a responsible wizard.

But first, she has to see her dark side, look it in the eye, and face it down. So, at some point, Molly is going to slip. Whether through impatience, arrogance or circumstance, she’s going to risk both her and Harry’s lives by using her powers for Evil.

There you go, then. It’s a great series, very enjoyable, and I’ll be following it to the end. I highly recommend you do the same.

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“Let’s sum up: an unknown number of enemies with unknown capabilities, supported by a gang of madmen, packs of attack animals, and superhumanly intelligent pocket change.”
– Murphy, Small Favor
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Review 63: White Night


White Night by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 12

We’re coming up to the theoretical midpoint of the series, since Butcher has suggested that he might take it to twenty books or so. Given that number, I’d say it’s time to look at the series-level story as well as the particular adventure for this book. It’s pretty clear that Butcher has a much larger story arc that he’s working on, moving us slowly away from the one-shot mysteries of the early volumes and into a larger world.

If we want, we could divide this series into thirds, and right now, I’d say we’re well into the second third. I would put the first from Storm Front to Blood Rites, with the scarring of Harry Dresden, the discoveries he makes about his mother, and the damage done to his relationship with his mentor. It’s Harry losing his lone wolf status and beginning to become a part of a larger community. He has friends now, something that was missing at the beginning, and people he truly cares about. In other words, he has much more to lose.

The second third began with Dead Beat and continues through this book. Harry becomes part of The Establishment, has something living in his head that could probably get him killed, and takes on a young apprentice, giving the former lone wolf a lot more responsibility. His decisions now have greater impact on both the mortal world and the world of the magic-users. He’s going up against far more powerful foes, and encountering moral dilemmas that prevent him from knowing when he’s actually doing the right thing.

This book is, in my opinion, a weaker sample than the ones that have come before it. Probably because it’s the one with the most convoluted and difficult to explain back-story, one that the reader has to piece together along with Harry and friends.

In simple terms: the White Court vampires – who feed on emotional energy rather than blood – are in the middle of a power struggle. Their King, of the Raith family (who feed on lust) is about to be toppled by the Malvora (who feed on fear) and Skavis (who feed on despair). The White Court despises open confrontation, and traditionally do their dirty deeds through proxies and cats-paws. This makes it nigh impossible to see any kind of action by the White Court in a straightforward and clearly understandable manner. It’s certainly more interesting than the standard vampire direct approach, but it creates additional challenges for the author and reader.

In the middle of this power struggle, someone is killing women of magical talent – not strong enough to be members of the White Council of Wizardry, but women with talent nonetheless. And there’s a guy who looks an awful lot like Harry Dresden who’s been seen sneaking about with these women. Given the rumors flying about, rumors that Harry has become darker, angrier, and considerably more powerful, well… people think the worst, as people often do.

It’s once again up to Harry to not only clear his own name, but to also clear his brother, Thomas of the White Court, who’s been very obviously keeping secrets. All the while, he has to keep from being seduced by the shadow of a Fallen angel in his head, make sure his young apprentice doesn’t stray from the straight and narrow, try to help his first love protect the women she’s sworn to help, and generally try not to get killed by any of the horrible things that want to kill him.

It’s a fun read, as they all are, with some great character moments in it – one of the true strengths of the series. Butcher’s characters behave, by and large, like real people, saying things that we could imagine saying to our real-people friends. His writing is, as usual, compelling and engaging (with the exception of some incredibly purple writing over on page 235 – “We’re all of us equally naked before the jaws of pain” – that stood out like a drag queen at a bake sale). The books are all very quick reads, but it isn’t because they’re simple – this book defies simplicity – but because they’re interesting to read, with very few wasted words and a good sense of what the reader needs to know.

As soon as it got to the White Court civil war, however, Butcher began front-loading a lot of information that probably should have been more liberally sprinkled throughout the previous books. I knew about the Raith family, and their penchant for Lust, and I knew that the White King wasn’t exactly the power on the throne. But I wasn’t prepared for the Byzantine levels of power-plays that go with White Court politics, and found it kind of rushed. It is possible that I was being a Lazy Reader, and indeed on the second read I found it easier to follow, but still – when you’re dealing with villains who disdain clear and obvious action, you need to make sure the readers can keep up with the story. It’s a fine line to walk, especially in a first-person narrative – the reader can’t know more than the protagonist does, so feeding those hints to the reader is difficult work. Putting another White Court storyline into the series before this one might have helped, but if we look at the series story arc, there may have been no good way to shoehorn that in.

There were far more interesting story points in there that I would like to have seen expanded upon: Molly Carpenter’s training, the evolution of Lash, the darkening of Harry’s reputation within the magical community…. They’re all interesting, and no doubt essential to the goings-on of the later books. And I’m pretty sure that what happened to the White Court will also be really, really important as well – I just hope Butcher remembers to make sure we have it all clear in our heads.

This is all just nitpicking, as the intrigues of the Vampires aren’t my favorite part of the series. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who would be perfectly happy if the rest of the series was just Harry the Vampire Slayer, and I can’t say I blame them. To each their own, right? Regardless of my preferences, I can say that the world of the Dresden Files is complex and ever-shifting, which is worth making time to read it.

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“Life’s easier when you can write off others as monsters, as demons, as horrible threats that must be hated and feared. The thing is, you can’t do that without becoming them, just a little.”
– Harry Dresden, White Night
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Review 59: Proven Guilty


Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count – 14

It’s one year later….

Many things have changed for Harry Dresden, some of it good and much of it not so much. He has family now, in the form of his half-brother Thomas (who happens to be a vampire of the White Court) and a giant dog named Mouse. His relationship with Karrin Murphy of the Chicago Police Department is as solid as it’s ever been, and making very tentative exploratory steps into becoming a different type of relationship altogether.

He has a job – a real one, as a Warden – and all the responsibility that goes with it. The job of Wardens is to be the police and foot soldiers of the White Council of Wizards. When a Wizard breaks one of the seven Laws of Magic, the Wardens can act as investigators, judges and, all too often, executioners. The irony, of course, is that the same Wardens used to watch Harry like a hawk, as he had been accused of using magic to kill, thus breaking the first law. He got off light, under a “One strike and you’re out” form of probation with the melodramatic name of The Doom of Damocles. The Council needs Wardens, though, and Harry got tapped. Like it or not, he’s part of the Establishment now.

As if all that weren’t enough, he also has the shadow of a fallen angel in his head and an ongoing war with the vampiric Red Court to contend with. And in the midst of all this, he’s given two small, seemingly unconnected jobs to do: find who’s been dabbling in black magic in Chicago and find out why the Red Court vampires have been allowed to use the lands of the Faerie to attack the White Council of Wizardry.

They should be simple, or reasonably so. But they’re not. They never are.

Someone is using black magic to create fear. That fear is allowing terrible, terrible Things into the world, creatures that feed on fear and take the forms of some of the most terrible movie monsters we know (all of whom are, of course, based upon real characters, with only the names changed to protect Butcher from Lawyers). These creatures have already killed, attacking at a crowded horror movie convention, and Harry is determined to see that the person who called them forth pays for doing so. With blood and pain, if possible.

The discovery of the Black Magician, however, puts Harry in an impossible situation where he has to test his loyalties to both his friends and the Council. Fortunately, Harry being Harry, he puts his friends first and is determined to do the right thing, whatever it takes.

Oddly enough, “whatever it takes” happens to involve storming Arctis Tor, the stronghold of the Winter Faerie Queen, to chase down the creatures that stole off Molly Carpenter – the daughter of Michael, the Knight of the Cross. With his friends by his side, Harry goes off into what is almost certainly Certain Death, knowing that even if he saves Molly, she may ultimately be doomed.

When all is said and done, we get another glimmer of insight into how Dresden’s world works. It’s not a very nice place, and although the history of Wizarding is something that Butcher has avoided thus far, we get the impression that it was, until recently, a tumultuous profession. Easy to understand, really – you get someone with Phenomenal Cosmic Power, and odds are that he’s going to abuse it. Perhaps bend someone to his will, or try to turn some hapless victim into a frog. Even such things as time travel and contacting the Things that live beyond the Outer Gates would be possible, were it not for the swift and draconian execution of the Laws of Magic.

Harry represents an institutional change here – he’s someone who’s suffered under the Laws, who has seen how the merciless application of a rigid law can do more harm than good. Now, as a Warden, an authority figure, he has a chance to change all that. But it won’t be easy for him – wizards are a conservative bunch, by and large, and many of the more powerful ones are not well inclined to the idea of changing with the times. But they will have to change – their numbers are depleted, the war is going badly, and it seems that there is a Black Council out there, well-equipped to fight and destroy their White counterpart.

And of course there’s his relationship to the world beyond the Council. As was noted in the last book, Harry has changed. He’s become famous, not so much for saving the day and foiling the plots of evil masterminds, but for bringing death and destruction wherever he goes. As much fun as that sounds, it seems that watching people flinch when you raise your voice is not something that stays fun for very long.

And still in his mind is the shadow of Lasciel, a Fallen Angel, the merest fraction of whose consciousness is enough to tempt Harry into greater and greater levels of power – for a price.

It is, as with the rest of the books, a very good read. The tone has changed somewhat – it’s more tired, more cynical than the early books, which reflects the internal struggles that Harry is going through. But it’s fast-paced and exciting, with more than a few very interesting surprises along the way.

Also, because of the movie convention setting, there are plenty of good movie references peppered throughout the book. It makes me feel closer to Harry, since quoting movies was a major form of communication with my friends and me back in college. People here in Japan just don’t do it, and I feel the loss.

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“When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching – they are your family.”
– Harry Dresden, Proven Guilty
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Review 55: Dead Beat


Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count – 13

While I was on my long commute to work (not so bad, as it affords me more reading time), I wondered what the Harry Dresden from Storm Front would have made of the Harry Dresden from this book. I imagine he probably would have been scared. And to be honest, I don’t think I would be able to blame him.

There’s necromancy afoot in Chicago, and as much as he doesn’t want to be, Harry is in the middle of all of it. He’s been charged by one of the most dangerous vampires in the world, Mavra of the Black Court, to find the missing volume of a series written by one of the most notorious necromancers in human history. When the necromancer Kemmler was alive, it took nearly the entire fighting force of the White Council of Wizards to stop him. Now his disciples are all hunting for the book, trying to be the first one to kill everyone in Chicago and become a god.

It’s a mission he can’t refuse. If he should do so, Mavra has evidence in her possession that would destroy the career of one of the people closest to Harry – Lt. Karrin Murphy of the Chicago Police Department. In the previous book, Murphy helped Harry take out a nest of Black Court vampires, killing several humans who had been enthralled to the vamps. These Renfields were human only by technicality, but a photograph of Murphy blowing one’s head off would still be damning evidence. Should Harry not do what Mavra wants, the pictures would be released, and the one thing that Murphy truly loves would be gone.

The point of this book, broadly, is Harry discovering that past actions still have present consequences, and that the choices he has to make are not always good ones. While Harry does save the day, he does so at a cost.

Harry has become legitimately scary by this book. His friends and his allies aren’t sure about him anymore, either his motives or his sanity. The people who have stood steadfastly by him now find themselves afraid of him, and what he might do. And for good reason, really. Harry’s been through a lot in the last few books. He’s lost the woman he loves to the Red Court vampires, he very nearly lost his hand fighting Mavra and he’s now absolutely terrified of using fire magic as a result. On top of all that, he’s discovered that being someone’s brother doesn’t automatically mean you get to understand them. Or like them. Or be able to live with them.

So yeah, Harry’s had it rough. With most humans, it’s hard to see change from the inside, and I’m sure Harry doesn’t think he’s changed all that much. He knows he’s gotten a little angrier, maybe a little more solitary, but from his point of view it’s a logical progression. For people who aren’t with him all the time – Billy the Werewolf, Mac the World’s Best Tavern Owner, for example, the changes are drastic. And truly frightening. Harry’s still a good guy, don’t worry about that.

He’s just not a nice guy.

This book is awash in general awesomeness, and introduces a lot of good new characters, both on the good and bad sides. My favorite is Waldo Butters, the Medical Examiner for the Chicago PD. He goes from being a slightly quirky ME who kind of believes in the weird and unusual (he spent 90 days under psychiatric evaluation when he refused to classify vampire remains as human). By the end of the book, he becomes positively heroic, and is a very good avatar for The Reader. We all like to believe that we would take the world of the supernatural, if it existed, in stride, but we probably would have reacted just like Butters did when he first saw things he was not prepared for – denial, disbelief and then abject terror. He comes around, though, as I’m sure all of us would.

We also get to meet a few of the remaining Wardens of the White Council. The war has gone very hard on their numbers, and there are very, very few available to fight a group of mad necromancers in Chicago. The Red Court has dealt them such heavy blows that it’s not unreasonable to think that there’s a mole in the White Council somewhere. Who it is, though, will have to wait for another book. Their numbers have been slashed, and they need every able-bodied magic user they can get. The deal they offer Harry for their assistance is a surprising one, but makes perfect sense. And it will play heavily into the books that follow.

There’s also one genuine “Holy Shit” moment in this book. I won’t tell you what it is, because that would just spoil the whole thing. All I can say is that it’s at the end of chapter 38. You can’t miss it.

From here on out, this is going to be a very different series. Bigger, darker, as if that were possible, building on the foundation of the previous books to make something far more elaborate and interesting. I can’t wait to see what it ends up being.

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“Polka will never die!”
– Waldo Butters, Dead Beat
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