Tag Archives: detective fiction

Review 136: Side Jobs

Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 14

There’s a reason that clichés become clichés. That’s because, no matter how much we may hate them, they concisely describe some feature of human existence that is common to us all. The reason everyone uses them is because they’re just so… right, and there’s really no need for us to come up with something else. It’s like saying, “Yes, I could use a screwdriver to put together my new IKEA desk, but everyone does that. I’m going to invent my own, completely new tool instead.” So we use clichés, no matter how much we don’t want to, because there’s no reason not to.

A wizard with a gun riding a zombie tyrranosaur in the middle of a lightning storm? Puh-LEEZ. Not that old thing again... (Art by Dan Dos Santos)

Having said that: Reading this collection of Dresden Files stories is like visiting with an old friend. One of those people you’ve known for ages, never get to see often enough, and always know you’ll spend a good time with. From the moment you start reading, you know where you are, you know who you’re dealing with, and you’re ready to jump right into the story without a whole lot of character building, exposition, and the nuisance of trying to decide if this is something you’ll like to read. If you’re picking up Side Jobs, odds are that you already know The Dresden Files, and odds are that you’ll really enjoy these stories.

Most of them have been published before, in one form or another, but if you don’t follow the various anthologies that are put out from time to time, these’ll be new to you. They’re not especially necessary to understand the overall series plot, but they do help to flesh out some characters and ideas that have already been presented – and hand us a few new ones as well..

The first story, “A Restoration of Faith,” is a little rough, as Butcher himself admits. In the introduction to the story, he tells us that it was written when he was still in school, before he had really built up his writing chops and figured out his voice. And it does show, but in a kind of amusing way. As if, to continue on with our cliché of the day, you got to see the high school photos and videos of a friend you’ve only known in adulthood. It’s a little awkward and a bit weird, but you can see the person he would one day become. In the same way, we get a glimpse of the young Harry Dresden, just getting his start as a private investigator. Working with Ragged Angel Investigations to get his license, Harry finds himself in one of his classic intractable positions: find a little girl whose parents don’t particularly want her found. To make it more fun, she doesn’t really want to be found either.

The story looks at what Harry does and why he does it, and how no matter how dark the world gets, he sees himself as a person born to hold a light in the darkness. He saves the girl, of course, with his classic nick-of-time timing, and the story ends with the introduction of Karrin Murphy and a rather punny ending. It’s not really the Harry Dresden that we know, but we can see the Harry Dresden that he will become.

LARPing is like this, only moreso.

The other stories are good fun, too. In “It’s My Birthday, Too,” a story written for an anthology with a birthday theme, Harry sees the worlds of fantasy and reality collide. Violently, as usual. His brother Thomas has a birthday, and Harry has so few opportunities to do “normal” things – like celebrate birthdays – that he’s determined to see that his brother gets his present. He tracks Thomas down to a shopping mall which, after hours, plays host to a LARP club. For those of you not in the know, LARP is Live-Action Role-Playing, wherein people like I was a decade ago dress up in costumes and pretend to be vampires and werewolves and wizards and things. When done well, it’s good fun, and it’s a great way to put on another personality for a few hours. Unfortunately for this group, their session gets interrupted by some real vampires. Drulinda, of the Black Court, is out for some social revenge against her former peers, and she’s willing to kill everyone she finds in order to get it. Harry and Thomas work to bring her down, of course, while also bringing the rest of the mall down at the same time.

In “Day Off,” Harry tries to take a little bit of time for himself. With no cases to work, no calls from the Chicago police, and no official duties with the White Council, he is intent on having just one day to be somewhat normal – sleep late, go out with a girl, that kind of thing. Of course, things don’t work out that way, because he’s Harry Dresden. Instead, he ends up with a group of wannabe wizards who think they can take him on, a couple of bespelled, amorous werewolves, and an apprentice who is only moments away from blowing herself up. It’s good fun, and reminiscent of Dante in Clerks, who laments that he’s not even supposed to be there.

Of course, Michael isn't nearly this adorable.

“The Warrior” is, in many ways, a response to the readers who thought that Michael Carpenter got kind of a raw deal at the end of Small Favor. Michael had been a Knight of the Cross, a literal warrior of God, who had helped Harry fight the forces of evil many, many times. He’s very different from Harry in many ways, but their differences work well together. What’s more, Michael is a genuinely good man, of the Atticus Finch variety. He is honest, dedicated, and devoted to his friends, his family and his duty. That’s why, when he was nearly killed at the end of Small Favor and forced to give up his position as a Knight, a lot of readers were upset.

Why? Well, because horrible things aren’t supposed to happen to people as good as Michael, and yet they had. What’s more, without his strength and his sword, it was hard to see how he could continue the work that he so obviously loved. This story, then, is all about how the battle to make the world a better place isn’t always about the big fights and battles against entities of indescribable evil. It’s also about small gestures, about stopping to talk to someone when no one else will. It’s about a word or a gesture or a joke, and the way that these little things can have huge effects later. Michael may not be swinging a sword around anymore, but we know that he is still part of the fight.

Two stories that really stood out were “Backup” and “Aftermath,” mainly because they were told from the point of view of someone who wasn’t Harry Dresden. In “Backup,” we get a story told by his brother, Thomas. A vampire of the White Court, Thomas feeds off emotion, rather than blood. This doesn’t make him any less dangerous, of course. More dangerous, actually, in that so many of his potential victims give themselves to him willingly. but Thomas is trying his best to stay on the side of Good. Through his eyes, we not only get to see Harry from a new point of view, but we also get to see a lot more of a world that Harry never gets to see. Because of who he is, Harry will never really get a good look at the inner workings of the White Court and the Oblivion War – a concept that is fascinating and frustrating, because we know that Harry can never get involved in it. By telling a story through Thomas, Butcher expands the universe of The Dresden Files and makes it even more interesting.

Don't say I didn't warn you....

The other non-Harry story is “Aftermath,” which takes place after the most recent novel, Changes. Told from the point of view of Harry’s oldest friend, Karrin Murphy, it’s a look at what’s happened in Chicago in the hours after Harry’s disappearance (and presumed death). Without him (and without the now-destroyed Red Court of vampires), there is a huge power vacuum just waiting to be filled. Whether it’s the mafia or mermen, the absence of Harry Dresden is an opportunity for many. Murphy gets involved in the hunt for special people, anyone with a trace of magical nature, who are to be used for their power. Without Harry to rely on, she has to use her own knowledge and resources to save her friends. At the same time, she has to face the reality that Harry is gone, maybe dead, and that is more terrifying than all the monsters that might try to take over the city.

It’s a great collection of tales, one that’s quick to get through. If you’re just itching for the new book to come out, this should hold you over for a little while.

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Harry Dresden. Saving the world, one act of random destruction at a time.”
– Jim Butcher, “The Warrior”
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Review 104: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

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The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

This is the second of the Dirk Gently books – and the final one – and is no easier to explain than the first. But I’ll try.

Ah, just like college.... (photo by Gene Han)

In this story, Dirk is contracted to meet a client one morning at 6 AM, and play bodyguard. The time is vital. The client has made it a point that Dirk absolutely, positively has to be there by six, and he’s willing to pay handsomely for it. So when Dirk wakes up at 11 AM, he suspects that he’s screwed up royally.

His suspicions are confirmed when he arrives at the home of his client, who is sitting quite comfortably in an armchair while his head is rotating slowly on a nearby turntable. The only clues to his grisly demise are his ravings about a green, scythe-wielding monster and a mysterious packet of papers, written in a language that Dirk cannot begin to understand. But he does know their shape – they’re a bill. But for what services, and rendered by whom? So now Dirk has to figure out who, or what, did this to his client and why.

But there’s more to this story (isn’t there always?) An American woman, Kate Schechter, is one of the survivors of the explosion of an airline ticket counter, something that everyone who knows about explosions is calling an “act of god.” But which god would do such a thing, and why? Lucky for her, Kate is about to find out, and she’s also about to find out why gods aren’t quite all they’re cracked up to be.

This, of course, does not happen in the book. I needed a picture of Thor that wasn't the super-hero.... (art by Boris Vallejo)

There aren’t a lot of greater themes in this book – it’s an adventure, of sorts, but as far as overarching messages go, it’s pretty thin other than watch out for eagles and be nice to homeless people. It’s entertainment as only Douglas Adams can deliver it. There is some thought given to gods, however, which is a topic I always enjoy. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett asks where gods come from, and what sustains them. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman asked the question of what happened to gods who were brought to America by their believers. Adams asks what happens to gods once we don’t actually need them anymore.

We made them, after all, and most of the time we made them immortal. We needed gods to be bigger than we, stronger than we, and generally everything we weren’t. And then we went around infusing them with humanity – with jealousy, courage, rage and fear. When we were done with them, we let them go. But that didn’t mean they went away. An immortal is an immortal, and without work to do or followers to deal with, what is a god to do? In the case of Odin, the father of gods and the ruler of the Norse pantheon, the solution is very simple. What’s more, it keeps him pampered and cared for, which is all he ever really wanted.

While I love Hitchhiker’s Guide first and foremost among Adams’ works, I really wish he could have lived to write more Dirk Gently books. The character is a person of reprehensible ethics and somewhat tarnished morals, but you can’t help but love him. Lurking refrigerators, coffee-thievery and all, you find yourself wishing that you could hang out with Dirk, while at the same time knowing that he’d probably invite you out for lunch and somehow make you pay for the meal. He’s a bad person, but an excellent detective – and a great character.

So pick this one up and give it a read. It’s fast, it’s fun – you won’t regret it.

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“Nobleness was one word for making a fuss about the trivial inevitabilities of life, but there were others.”
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

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Review 79: Guards! Guards!


Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

One of the dangers of reading Discworld books, of course, is that you may never stop. Much like potato chips, it’s hard to just have one and then move on to something else, especially – and this may strike some of you as a bit odd – when you’ve already read them.

There are people who never re-read books, and don’t see the point in doing so. “You already know the ending,” they might say, “and you know how the story goes. What’s the point in reading it again?” I never, ever understood that. I mean, if you have a good story, well-told, why wouldn’t you want to read it again? If it had meaning for you and struck a chord deep within whatever it is you might call a “soul,” then reading it again is almost mandatory.

I can certainly see our Straw Man’s point if the book is bad, or even just mediocre. There are plenty of books that I’ve read that I’ll probably never pick up again. But the Discworld series doesn’t contain any of them.

This one is the first in the Guards track – one of four major story tracks within the series – and it quickly made the adventures of the Ankh-Morpork city guard some of my favorite stories.

The book opens in darkness and mystery, a kind of film noir feeling that permeates the whole story (although I am challenged to think of any noir film that featured a dragon as the main antagonist – but more on that later). Captain Samuel Vimes of the Night Watch is about as low as he can go. He’s drunk, it’s raining, and he has finally seen himself for what he’s always believed himself to be. A wreck. A bum. A loose end in the city, respected by no one and nothing, with the exception of the two other poor souls in the Watch with him. If we were to cast Vimes in the movie, we’d have to cast Bogart at his drunkest.

Vimes is a mirror of his city, really. Ankh-Morpork is the biggest city on the Disc, and it embodies all the worst elements of cities everywhere. It’s crowded and dirty, a place where people would sell their own mothers for a chance to get ahead. It’s ruled by a system of guilds and merchants, an ever-fluctuating oligarchy all directed by a Patrician who wields his power with pinpoint precision. Crime not only flourishes in Ankh-Morpork, it positively thrives, regulated and controlled by its own guild.

In short, there’s no place in the city for the Watch, and no place in it for Vimes. Maybe long ago he harbored thoughts of saving his city from itself, but no longer. Now all he wants is his next drink.

He’s not the only one thinking of a better city, though. In the dark recesses of Ankh-Morpork, a secret society meets. They are a shadowy group of bretheren who believe that the only thing keeping their city from being a good place to live is the lack of a king. Ankh-Morpork had kings once, and is so often the case, the dimly-remembered past looks a lot better than the immediately visible future. And so the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Bretheren gather with a singular goal in mind – to create a king.

It’s not that easy, though. You can’t just pull some schmoe out of a crowd and say, “Here – start kinging.” There needs to be no doubt in people’s minds that this person has been tapped by destiny to become their king. Like if he, say, slew a dragon or something….

Into all of this strides Carrot Ironfoundersson, a young dwarf-by-adoption who has been sent by his foster father to learn how to be a human being. And what better way to do that, they suppose, then to volunteer for the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch? Within moments of his arrival he begins to upend the very structure of the city itself. Carrot is everything that Vimes – or anyone else – wishes they could be: honest, forthright, idealistic, the kind of man who would arrest the head of the Thieves’ Guild for stealing. He knows the law and believes in it, which makes him just the wrong person for the Watch. Or, as things turn out, just the right one.

What begins as a magical conspiracy ends up being a murder-mystery, with a giant, fire-breathing dragon as the main murder weapon. Faced with this threat to both himself and his city, Vimes and Carrot, Nobby and Sergeant Colon are the only people who are willing to put themselves between the city and the dragon. Not, all things considered, the place they most want to be, but they’re all there is.

It’s a really good book, and an excellent introduction to the Guards track of the Discworld series. It is, of course, very funny – that goes without saying in this series – but also very meaningful. It has a lot to do with dreams and ideals, and the manner in which we are willing to achieve those dreams. Some by trickery and subterfuge, like the dragon-summoners, others by sheer honesty and idealism, like Carrot. And even those who have given up on their dreams, like Captain Vimes, can be persuaded to pick them up again, dust them off and give them another go.

It’s a story of redemption, not only for Vimes, but for the city of Ankh-Morpork. Much like Vimes, the city looks hopelessly lost at the beginning of the book – all rain and darkness and death – but by the end we have a glimmer of hope that it can become a better place. A place where the law can win out over corruption and decay, and where good people, standing up against million-to-one odds, can sometimes come out on top.

And if that’s not a story that deserves to be re-read, then I don’t know what is.

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You have the effrontery to be squeamish. But we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But this much I can tell you, you ape – we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.
– The Dragon, Guards! Guards!
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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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The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Turn Coat on Wikipedia
Turn Coat on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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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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The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Small Favor on Wikipedia
Small Favor on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, Dresden Files, fantasy, Jim Butcher, wizardry