Tag Archives: wizardry

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.

——————————————————
Harry Dresden. Saving the world, one act of random destruction at a time.”
– Jim Butcher, “The Warrior”
——————————————————

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Side Jobs on Wikipedia
Side Jobs on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

2 Comments

Filed under adventure, anthology, brothers, children, death, detective fiction, Dresden Files, family, fantasy, friendship, Jim Butcher, mystery, police, short stories, vampires, werewolves, wizardry

Review 129: The Day Watch

The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

The previous book left us with an unbalanced Moscow. The forces of Light gained a powerful ally in the form of Svetlana Nazarova, a potential Great Sorceress. Even before she knew she was an Other – one of that mysterious class of beings who can work magic, who can curse, bless and change their shapes – she was able to create a curse that very nearly destroyed Moscow. She, and the city, were saved through the bravery of Anton Gorodetsky and the Night Watch, who guard against the excesses of the forces of Darkness. In the end, the Light prevailed.

But this battle between Light and Dark is far from over….

Summer camp is different when Others are around

As with The Night Watch, this volume contains three books. In the first, a young witch named Alisa Donnikova has overreached herself. In a fight with the Night Watch, Alisa poured every last drop of her magical energy into supporting her fellow Day Watch members, an act of selflessness that nearly cost her her life. Burned out, she’s directed to take a break at a children’s summer camp in the Crimea. Posing as a camp counselor, she would be in a prime position to feed off the nightmares of impressionable young girls.

A word about Others and their powers. The foundation of an Other’s power comes from humans. While any Other has her own reserves to call on, she may… feed on the normal people around her. The Light Others take happiness and joy – literally. Have you ever been feeling really good, and then somehow the feeling just drains away? That’s what the Light Others do, and it powers them to no end. Much like a flowering shrub, pruning someone’s happiness doesn’t make it go away forever, and it may even come back greater, but still – in order to become stronger, the Light Others have to weaken people.

Those on the side of the Dark, on the other hand, feed off of fear and anger, but when they do, that fear and anger remain. It’s like warming yourself by the fire – as long as you keep feeding it, it’ll keep you warm. A Dark Other at the height of his power could probably super-charge himself just by going to a snowed-in airport for a day. Believe me. This stew of rage and frustration is a little too much for Alisa, however – she must subsist on the “thin broth” that is children’s nightmares.

He's a real catch, ladies!

While she’s there, however, her plan hits a snag in the form of a handsome, solid, beautiful man named Igor. Despite herself, she falls in love with him, and she falls hard.

The fact that he’s a Light Other doesn’t come up until it’s much too late.

The second story brings a mysterious figure to Moscow. Vitaly Rogoza has no memory of who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he has to go to Moscow, and that he has power – the power of a Dark Other. Despite his personal amnesia, he has no trouble ingratiating himself with the Moscow Day Watch, and soon discovers that his power appears to have no upper limits. Why this should be, no one knows. Is he some Dark magician, beyond classification? Or is he something else entirely – something new and terrible? Whatever he is, what is his goal, and what is his link to the theft of Fafnir’s Talon, a Dark artifact of unspeakable power?

The third story brings it all together – the sad fate of Alisa Dinnokova, the theft of the Talon, and the rise and fall of the Great Sorceress Svetlana Nazarova. What’s more, the greater plans of the Light and the Dark are laid bare – and changed forever.

As before this book is heavily laden with the philosophy of Good versus Evil, Light and Dark. More importantly, it addresses the issues of freedom, a central tenet to the forces of Darkness. How free, they ask, can we really be?

The Light wants to make humanity better. They believe that, given the right influences and incentives, humanity can be great. But they need to be guided. Molded. Shaped. Consequently, the Light occasionally embarks on grand, world-changing plans, few of which actually work out the way they intend.

No one ever said freedom was nice....

The Dark, on the other hand, worships freedom. Every person, they say, should be free to choose his or her own path. If that path means doing good, then so be it. If it means doing evil, well, that’s cool too. The point is that every person is capable of deciding how their lives should be led, and no one – human or Other – should be able to take that freedom away from them.

It’s one of the oldest questions there is – how much freedom do we really deserve? And it’s a question that can never be definitively answered. But in these books, it’s fun to watch it play out.

————————————————
“There are some who think that we Dark Ones are evil. But that’s not true at all. We’re simply just. Proud, independent and just. And we decide things for ourselves.”
– Alisa, of the Day Watch, The Day Watch
————————————————

The Day Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Day Watch at Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under death, ethics, fantasy, made into movies, mystery, politics, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

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.

—————————————————–
“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
—————————————————–

[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.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under children, detective fiction, Dresden Files, fantasy, Jim Butcher, vampires, war, wizardry

Review 75: The Eyes of the Dragon


The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

Sometimes you are surprised.

Stephen King has long been associated with horror, and deservedly so. His career began with works like Carrie, Christine, Firestarter, The Shining and so on, all designed to scare the everlovin’ out of any poor soul who picked up the book – and usually succeeding. What’s more, the books often became movies, thereby allowing that segment of the population who doesn’t read much to be terrified.

So for years, King has been called one of the scariest authors alive. I’ve seen cartoons attempting to portray Halloween at his house, bedtime stories for his children, and the horrible, dark confines of his imagination. The mind of King is where the terrors dwell, most think – the monsters, demons and vampires.

And Flagg.

But this book is where King really strayed from the image that had been built for him in popular culture. This story isn’t a horror story, no matter what the quotes on the back of the book imply. This is a fantasy story. It has some tense and scary moments, yes, but it’s a fantasy through and through, built with some of the most well-worn elements of fantasy storytelling. We have all of the necessary elements before us:

The King – King Roland (no relation to the Roland of the Dark Tower Series, as far as we know), the fairly capable and mostly well-liked king of Delain. He has served his kingdom well, and grown old and, if not wise, then at least experienced. He’s not the best king, nor is he the worst. The most that can be said of him is that he tried his best and hoped that his son would do a better job than he had. Of course there is also….

The Queen – Queen Sasha, beloved of Roland. She was the light of his life, and the guiding hand on his shoulder. Many in Delain agree that Roland could have been a despot were it not for his beautiful and kindly wife whose compassion and good sense would eventually save the kingdom. She bore two sons, the first of whom was…

The Prince – Prince Peter, the shining star of the family. Wise beyond his years, strong and fair, everyone loved Peter. He won awards and friends, and was all in all a good son, one that any father would be proud to have. Most people, knowing that Peter would be the next king, felt that the future of Delain was safe. Peter had a brother….

The Second Son – Prince Thomas, forever standing in his brother’s shadow. Not only was Peter older and more capable than Thomas in every way, there was an additional burden on his young mind. With the birth of Thomas, his mother, Queen Sasha, had died. And so it was that Thomas grew up the guilty one. He sought the love of his father, who thought the sun rose and set on Peter. And while Peter made every effort to extend the hand of brotherly love, Thomas felt only resentment and jealousy. Little did he know that his destiny had been guided from the beginning by….

The Evil Wizard – Flagg, that undying demon whose black and poisonous presence had been in Delain every time the country fell into ruin, and who intended to do it once again. A master of spells, potions and poisons, to speak his name was to invite horror, pain and death. He stood in Roland’s shadow, quietly twisting his mind over the years. His ultimate goal was a millennium of darkness for Delain, and he knew just how to bring it about. The only thing standing in his way is the possibility that Peter could be king.

I’m not sure whose story this is, which makes it all the more interesting. On one hand, it’s Flagg’s story. In his dark desire to see Delain in chaos, he manipulates the King and his family to bring the kingdom to the brink. A little patient planning, some good preparation, and Flagg manages to frame Peter for the vicious murder of his father, the King.

Suddenly the Golden Boy is a despised murderer, patricide and regicide, and sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life imprisoned at the top of Delain’s tallest tower, the Needle.

But, then, maybe it’s Peter’s story. He is caught, an innocent victim in this web spun by Flagg. But he was well-taught by his father and mother. His father taught him to be strong and kingly, his mother to be kind and human. The combination made him into something that Flagg could not stand – a good person and potentially a good leader.

Even in his lofty prison, Peter isn’t willing to give up. With some clear thinking and a lot of patience, he manages to work out a plan to escape. Because he is a good man, he has friends willing to help him, to do favors, who will perhaps help clear his name and end the less-than-spectacular reign of his brother, Thomas.

Then again, maybe it really is Thomas’ story. The narrator (the presence of whom gives this story a wonderful fairy tale feeling) takes pains to show us that, while Thomas is a sad, confused, and sometimes cruel man, he’s not really bad.

Full of fear and self-loathing, Thomas is the perfect tool for Flagg. Under his dominion, the kingdom starts to slide towards the chaos that Flagg so richly desires. Thomas is a good example of what happens when a weak person, guided by circumstance and cruel greed, takes power. But even Thomas is not irredeemable – despite the mess of his life, he possesses a secret that could ruin everything Flagg has tried so hard to create.

As with so many of King’s really good books, we are presented with not only an excellent cast of characters, but also excellent storytelling. In many of his author’s notes, he refers to us as Steadfast Reader. He never forgets who has given him his fame and his reputation – the readers. By using a storyteller to present this tale, he acknowledges and speaks to us as though he were telling us the story directly.

Much like it can be a story about many people, it’s a story of many messages. It’s about hubris and the belief that one cannot possibly fail in one’s Evil Plans (happens to me all the time). It’s about honor and loyalty and standing by what’s right, even when the whole world is against you. It’s about being able to redeem yourself, no matter what horrible things you might have done in the past. It’s a story about love and hope and faith, one that never gets old no matter how many times you read it.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this book by now, and I fully expect I’ll read it again in the future. If you’re not a King fan and you’re not too keen on reading about family dogs that turn into killing machines, insane telekinetic teenage girls, or possessed Plymouths that steal the souls of their owners, then this is the book you want to read.

——————————————–
“In those years, Thomas discovered two things: guilt and secrets, like murdered bones, never rest easy; but the knowledge of all three can be lived with.”
– Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon
——————————————–

Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Eyes of the Dragon on Wikipedia
The Eyes of the Dragon on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s homepage

Leave a comment

Filed under adventure, brothers, dragons, family, fantasy, fathers, friendship, murder, revenge, sons, Stephen King, wizardry

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.

—————————————————-
“Sometimes irony is a lot like a big old kick in the balls.”
– Harry Dresden, Turn Coat
—————————————————-

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

Leave a comment

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

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.

———————————————
“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
——————————————–

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

3 Comments

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

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.

—————————————–
“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
——————————————

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
White Night on Wikipedia
White Night on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

Leave a comment

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