Monday, April 20, 2009

Fiction Review: Turn Coat

If you like detective stories, or you like supernatural thrillers, you should check out The Dresden Files. Jim Butcher's character Harry Dresden has been sitting in my "favorite characters" sidebar for a while now, and for reason. From Storm Front on, the series has been carefully crafted not only to expose an interesting fictional universe but also to show the development of characters (and their problems, and their relationships, and their problematic relationships). When you saw a sword on a mantel, you knew you were being set up for some future impact of the sword being on the mantle.

So when you find Dresden dreaming about conversations with his "dark side" you are put on notice that other characters may later have conversations with Dresden's dark side. When you learn that certain arcane artifacts can be destroyed with certain kinds of potentially accidental misuse, you are put on notice that people knowledgeable of those artifacts can be manipulated by opportunities to see the artifacts destroyed in that kind of accident. These setups cross the spans of multiple books; they show planning, and indicate an author paying close attention to his details.

Butcher made it clear that his new character ideas are engineered to complicate Dresden's life. Confessing which characters in Turn Coat turn out to best illustrate this, of course, threatens unnecessarily unveiling traitors and other fun surprises. But let's have a look at a parallel issue.  From the first chapter of Storm Front, we've seen Dresden depending on others for everything ranging from steady work (to pay his rent) to backup in lethal confrontations.  Turn Coat's environment of universal suspicion strips Dresden of potential allies. This advances a long-recurring theme of loss in the books, while ratcheting up the alone-ness and danger to Harry Dresden in Turn Coat.

So, some background. Harry's girlfriend is driven (in Grave Peril) to another continent by an incomplete conversion to vampirism. (She returned briefly in Death Masks, and we're sure to see her again.) His police ally is demoted in Proven Guilty and stripped of her authority in the department for a temporary absence caused by aiding Dresden. Dresden's stalwart ally and holy warrior Michael Carpenter is permanently crippled in Small Favor, and gives up wielding the holy sword that has protected Dresden's back since Grave Peril. Even his evil fairy godmother, who was at least as often a threat as an asset, has been imprisoned by the Winter Queen at the heart of her fortress in the land of faerie. Dresden is getting lonelier and lonelier. Granted, Dresden's own powers improve – as does his collection of magical gadgets – but his opponents continue to outclass him, outnumber him, and have better information about the problems at hand.

Turn Coat provides more of the same. Over the period of the last ten books, Dresden has been accepted as not-evil by the White Council's Warden and executioner Morgan, and given the cloak of a Warden to indicate his full (?) acceptance by the once-skeptical (and likely still not entirely convinced) Council. Harry Dresden is going legit, right? He's going to have backup, right?

Ha!  Not so fast.  On Page One of Turn Coat, Butcher drags Dresden back into direct conflict with the Council. In the first chapter of Turn Coat, the White Council's arguably most powerful Warden, Morgan, appears on Dresden's doorstep seeking sanctuary from the Council and the Wardens who hunt him on its behalf. We soon learn that Morgan stands accused of the murder of a senior Council member; helping Morgan to clear his name places Dresden once more at risk of execution by the Council, and Morgan's jeopardy costs both Dresden and the Council a powerful ally. New evils are introduced, and the slowly-gathering forces Dresden has been perceiving behind the crises depicted in each of the books make more solid their hold on the Council's leadership.

Turn Coat is dark. Dresden's powers are advanced, but he gains new enemies, and learns more reason to fear the distant and dark powers that have been advancing the cause of chaos and mayhem since Storm Front. Dresden wades into the battle against them up to his neck, and it's clear the risk to Dresden and his (remaining) allies is becoming increasingly significant.

It also shows us that Dresden is much more strongly motivated by his personal feelings against injustice than he is motivated toward seeing any particular numbskull get his comeuppance.  This early choice to do the right thing has echoes of his own (premature) epitaph, carved on the headstone gifted to him by Bianca so many books ago: he died doing the right thing.  In Turn Coat, Dresden gets himself on the wrong side of some of some longstanding bad guys.  And meets some of their bad-guy buddies.  In a bad way.

It's full of the things we love in The Dresden Files: worsening options, worsening choices, and a big smackdown that thwarts evil for a day, but leaves awful things looming for the next volume.  And not in a bad way: every Dresden Files book offers a real, full book – no half-told stories that make you grind your teeth in anger you began to care about the plot problem here. Always a closed story arc.

But that doesn't mean there aren't more opened on the way.

=== SPOILER WARNING ===Dresden's lack of family in the first book -- his faerie godmother hardly counts, as she's as often seeking his enslavement as she is offering aid – rears its head again. In Turn Coat, Dresden makes it clear that his brother – a longtime ally and reliable "nice" vampire – is extremely important to him, and that he is willing to do anything to protect him. There is good reason for this: in White Night, for example, Thomas the sex-vampire actually protects low-power witches from the hunt of other vampires involved in a coup to control the vampires' White Court. Thomas opens a beauty salon where he can taste but not injure humans on which he must feed to survive, and carries on as a homosexual French hairdresser in order to avoid risking inflicting the more serious feeding injuries commonly caused by his family. Thomas is a committed good guy when the curtain opens on Turn Coat. Captured during a chaotic manhunt and tortured to the point he cracks beneath the weight of his hunger, Thomas is revealed as potentially out of control, having discarded his commitment to be a "good" guy in favor of a more traditionally White Court position, valuing effective herd management over human rights. Harry is thus rendered unable to trust an ally, and as easily rendered subject to manipulation by those who would threaten or expose Thomas.

With the loss of his new girlfriend -- whose interest in him is revealed as an effect of hostile mental manipulation -- Dresden is left alone again. What's more, the White Court has learned that he is no longer protected from their predation. The character with whom Dresden appears most likely to find true love -- his cop lady-friend -- has issues with commitment, and is as un-eager as Dresden to discuss feelings. True love being protection against predation by the White Court, and the White Court being a repeat player in the Dresden Files, this quandary is sure to become significant in future volumes. Of course, we'll hear more about Dresden's lover Susan next year. And there is always the possibility Elaine might become a more significant character.

Dresden's apparent alone-ness, interestingly, is amplified by his relationships. He is part of the White Council, but suspects its leadership and is in turn suspected by many of its membership. His relationship with his one-time mentor and current member of the senior Council, having been complicated by the realization his mentor has been violating the Laws of Magic at will with the consent of the Council, has warmed ... but one wonders as the two conspire to do good despite the activity of the Council whether Dresden will simply be pulled into some scheme that advances an opponent's schemes. Whom Dresden can trust has become terribly complicated: he loves his brother, but he's a mind-bending murderer; he respects his mentor, but he knows there are high-level traitors in his mentor's organization; he can't trust the faerie queens to look after his interests and he dare not ask them for favors, despite that he is beholden to the Queen of Winter and bound to do her further service. (Dresden's faerie godmother, interestingly, has been stripped as a potential ally by her confinement by Mab in the well of Winter at the top of her fortress. She seems to be fighting mental compulsions to manipulate Dresden rather than advance some purpose possibly in line with his own interests, leaving one to wonder how Dresden will tell whether he can trust her or will fear her as an enemy when he sees her again. Her defeat left his debt to his godmother to be collected by her liege -- Mab, Winter Queen of Faerie, an apparently much more dangerous customer and frightening adversary.)

Dresden's only apparently unimpeachable and uncomplicated allies seem to be a faerie he calls Toot, and whom he's granted a pompous title as leader of Dresden's personal guard. Toot is becoming more powerful, too: he is larger, has followers of his own, and has improved his equipment. Other allies seem worth mentioning: his first love, Elaine, who has been hiding out in California and staying under the radar of the White Council, thereby courting summary execution as a warlock; the warden Ramirez, in whose territory Elaine lives; and Dresden's apprentice Molly, a convicted warlock living under a suspended death sentence. All these last allies have some weaknesses: Ramirez is sometimes unavailable for whole books, and is possibly mentally impaired as a result of mind-magic exposed in Turn Coat; Elaine refuses to be drawn into the big conflicts erupting between the major forces at work trying to take over the world; and Molly is partially untrained, bad at combat magic, living under a death sentence, and has slipped while on parole by trying to probe others' minds and otherwise jeopardizing her life and Dresden's. Interestingly, Toot seems to be shaping up as a major player for future books.

Interesting stuff for the future. Since Butcher actually knows where he's going, it's a future worth waiting to hear about.

Butcher Quality
It's not hard to tell why Butcher's work avoids directionlessness: he has a plan. Contrast this with some excellent series whose authors didn't start out with a plan.  In a Q&A, The Washington Post elicited this from Charlane Harris, author of the Southern Vampire series that's been lauded as an example of a wonderful urban fantasy: 
Q: If you could go back and change anything in your Sookie-verse, would you? 
Charlane Harris: Hmm. Yes, I wouldn't kill Claudine, and I would have left out the Sino-Aids thread, because that never really went anywhere.
"Behind True Blood", The Washington Post
Similarly, the Anita Blake vampire series that helped inspire Butcher into Urban Fantasy was begun without an end in sight:
All About Romance: Do you already have an end in mind for either or both series or do you think they can continue indefinitely? Can you envision the killing off a very major character in the future, and if so, how do you do this without upsetting your readership?
Laura K. Hamilton: Anita is an open ended series. There is no ending, just like most mystery series. Merry on the other hand is planned with an end in sight. My original plan for Merry was eight books. It may go longer. But I definitely want her to have a happy ending. Once you have a happy ending that's it, everyone goes home. There is nothing else of interest going on.
from All About Romance
So, where is Butcher going? A tall blonde chick appears as a "security consultant" for Chicago's principal crime boss, and turns out to have a knack for telling who is about to die. Can you say valkyrie? After a few books, Butcher allows the reader to confirm that "Ms. Gard" does have a connection to Asgard. Her employer's name – when Dresden asks her about working for gangsters and she repeatedly points out she works not for the gangster client but for Monoc Securities [this felt weird to read: securities are financial instruments, whereas the firm seems to be offering security services; but even mighty Homer nods, on which more later] – suggests she's working for the one-eyed ("Monoc") Norse god Odin, a fact she seems to confirm in Butcher's short story Herot (found in the My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon collection), when she tells Dresden the virgin-daughters-of-Odin thing isn't to be believed. ("Though, to be honest: sometimes he does like us to call him Daddy.") Butcher has explained that the series is to be capped by a final apocalyptic trilogy (can you say regnorak?), which gives us an interesting view where we could be going in the series. The Norse gods may want to save the world from the Outsiders, they may want to reclaim it from whomever ousted the Norse gods in the first place ... it could be a lot of fun figuring out even who the good guys are supposed to be.

Oh, and this employed-by-an-underworld-boss valkyrie apparently absconded at the end of Small Favor with an evil artifact housing a powerful supernatural intelligence capable of making its bearer very hard to kill and turning its bearer into a hell-on-wheels sorcerer. Not sure as yet whether she intends using it, or was on orders to interdict it to take it out of circulation. Or whether Odin has something he wants to do with it. Stay tuned to future Butcher books.

Jim Butcher's readers can rest assured that Butcher has already figured out where these overhanging details will mature into exploding ordinance, and how you will be excited and thrilled to watch the ensuing chaos. Butcher hasn't turned in a dud yet – after some twenty-odd novels, this is a feat of which readers should take note – and shows no sign of letting up on his rip-roaring urban fantasy tour de force.

Picking Nits
There are a few nits to pick in Butcher's Dresden novels, but they're not a big deal.

But I'm picky. And I noticed a few things.

Butcher repeatedly referred to a recurring character who works as an assistant medical examiner (i.e., he autopsies suspicious deaths in his county, but is not the head of the office) as a "mortician" and not a physician. The fact that medical examiners are required by law to have a current medical license everywhere I'm aware works against the description. Morticians try to make corpses look good for burial, and medical examiners are a subset of pathologists who try to figure out why the bodies before them are not still alive and complaining about the Y-shaped incisions used to remove their organs for inspection. Does this impact the characters or keep you from enjoying the books? No. It does push my head out of the story occasionally while I try to puzzle out what I might have missed, but it doesn't matter. One day Butcher will notice and stop, and it will be fixed, then even this nit will be gone. [Update: Butcher noticed and addressed this in a subsequent book. Done.]

The biggest consistency problem I spotted in Butcher's work so far is when he draws his .44 in a fight in his newest book Turn Coat.

To understand this as a problem – at least in comparison to Butcher's previously scrupulous use of foreshadowing and suggestion – one needs to know a little about the stories. Dresden's advertisement says, among other things, "lost items found". Dresden specializes in finding things, hence (presumably) his attraction to P.I. work. Dresden's finding tactic usually depends on the use of objects closely associated with his targets. Dresden has made scrupulously clear across many books that objects closely associated with a person can be used in spells to target the person, and he's had close scrapes with people who captured hairs from his head who nearly completed attack spells. Now consider that Dresden has been carrying around the same unlicensed .44 for years and using it in nearly every book. While standing behind his home, which is presumably chock-full of items closely associated with the protagonist, Dresden himself selects the .44 as an object closely associated with himself as part of a scheme to summon and trap the Erlking in Dead Beat. From these facts, you would expect to apply the close-association logic to find that Dresden is at real risk over the possibility someone might capture his .44 and later use it to locate, attack, or control him. So here's the problem: Dresden's .44 was captured in a magical duel at an aquarium in Small Favor, and he only avoided being killed with it by shattering the tank windows so the shooter (and himself) would be swept away by crashing water so as to spoil the possibility of an accurate shot. In the characters' ensuing confrontation on an eerie uncharted island in Lake Michigan, Dresden does not achieve any special success in recovering the .44. The reader has only one logical conclusion: the demonic nasties that he escaped in Small Favor have his .44 and are in a position to cause him trouble with it.

Yet Butcher has Dresden, without comment, drawing his .44 and shooting up nasties on the same island in Turn Coat. Where did it come from? Why hasn't it been a problem? Did someone spot where he collected it from the Denarian sorceress who'd lifted it off him, but which I missed?

This kind of thing would not hit me the same way if Butcher had not established a clear practice of careful attention to this kind of detail. The fact I could plausibly read so much into the disappearance of Dresden's .44 revolver says quite a bit about the confidence his details usually support. In a lesser author, I wouldn't conclude much from otherwise potentially interesting details; some details are just the result of sloppy authorship.

Jim Butcher is just not a sloppy author.

[Update: Butcher noticed and addressed this, too. In Turn Coat's sequel Changes, Dresden makes a brief reference as early as the fourth free sample chapter to "my spare revolver", suggesting that there may be numerous .44 revolvers, and that the lost one may be no big deal and offer its finder no special hold over Dresden. I appreciate that Dresden went through a couple different smaller-caliber revolvers in the earlier books, and by Grave Peril was discussing his newest not-yet-the-.44 revolver as possibly suggesting some kind of adequacy issue on his mind. However, there was a long stretch in which Dresden wielded a long-barreled .44, which by Dresden Files #9 Dead Beat had become sufficiently closely associated with him to use in a ritual requiring closely-associated items. He never thereafter discussed replacing it or having duplicates, and when it's missing he lacks an apparent backup. Although the disappearing-reappearing .44 surely was an accident, Butcher has clearly addressed it so the reader need not be concerned it hangs over his head as a risk. Now, we don't need to worry when the Denarians will turn Dresden up in a summoning circle and torture him into submission while he's dreaming. Butcher has clearly signaled that the .44 isn't an overhanging risk.]

If you like fast-paced investigative action/adventure tales, pick up Storm Front and get going on the Dresden Files. If you have begun The Dresden Files, take note that Turn Coat is now available, and offers numerous new complications to its protagonist's troubled life.

Trouble is good: it keeps the characters' lives interesting, and worth reading about.


Butcher's carefully-constructed tales satisfy, time and again.  There is a structural advantage to Butcher's methodology from the reader's point of view: since he knows where he's going, he can avoid getting lost.  His careful work to set up forthcoming conflict builds glorious anticipation and tension that feels great to see resolved after plot arcs that last over multiple books.  In the case of Turn Coat, a plot arc is closed that began in the first volume – Storm Front. How many series do you know that organize an eleven-book plot arc? And have a plan to deliver more such arcs?

And that's important when you plan to be along for the ride.  Turn Coat is a ride not to miss.

No comments: