Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Butcher's Dresden Novel 'Changes' Looking Good

NOTE: This wasn't written with careful thought to spoiler issues. Because it was written before the novel Changes was actually available, it hasn't got anything in it that could be considered a spoiler for Changes, but it does discuss prior books by way of background, and could thus contain spoilers for earlier books.

Jim Butcher's new Harry Dresden novel Changes is all set up to change Harry Dresden's future: to commit him to a path that will determine where he stands, and who stands with him, when the series approaches its apocalyptic climax.

Harry Dresden has been through personal crises and tests of his loyalty, but in Changes Butcher sets his protagonist up for a doozy: his estranged girlfriend surprises him in the first line of the book that they have a daughter together she had concealed from him, but the bad guys have seized her and she'll be there soon to tell him how to start sorting it out. Love betrayed, innocent victims in jeopardy, man-against-the-world, deadly enemies with unknown capabilities ... it's all set to be an exciting ride.

Oh, and the girlfriend's dangerous longtime sidekick doesn't like Harry, and begins sewing doubt he can be trusted. All his expected allies have betrayed him. Nice, eh?

What we don't see in the posted-online first four chapters are things like (a) how Harry's apprentice is getting along, (b) whether Harry's half-brother and his family will be part of the solution or part of the problem, or (c) whether Harry's contacts with the criminal underworld or to law enforcement will turn out to have application to a problem that seems largely to have occurred on another continent. (After all, Harry's commitments to other characters has been a tool by which he's been manipulated and by which he's been injured in the past; it only makes sense that they could be leveraged into an asset or a liability here.)

Details, Details
Overhanging all this we have things like Harry's true love and whether he'll lose it or regain it; the timing by which the powerful artifact heisted a few books back by a Valkyrie will turn up and whether the Valkyrie's employer will end up on the right side or the wrong side of the conflict (surely, on the wrong side!); whether Harry's handgun, lost a few books ago in Small Favor, is in the possession of bad guys who can use it to track or injure Harry; whether Harry's cop ally's career is really destroyed from Proven Guilty or whether it can be resuscitated; whether Butcher is done with the assistant medical examiner Butters as a character after Dead Beat or whether he'll turn up useful again one day; and the real motives and allegiance of Harry's godmother, the seemingly-evil faerie last seen trapped in an ice sculpture at the heart of the winter palace of Mab.

Ahh, so much to keep track of. It'll allow Butcher to send in plausible cavalry, like Han Solo saving Luke from Vader at the end of his flight to the Death Star's ventilation shaft, surprising and exciting readers who follow the series and understand what everyone is supposed to be doing. Without the careful arrangement of domino tiles, it would just not be so satisfying when Butcher shows you how he knocks them down for your amusement.

And this is part of the joy of Butcher's books: historically, he's been very good at making sure that small hints matured into important events, and making sure that all the details added up. I praised Butcher for his details when he was first mentioned on the Jaded Consumer, and I did it again when I reviewed his last book. Well, maybe it's not a review so much as a criticism, but it's hard to call such fawning criticism so I'm not sure what to make of it other than an advertisement. So, here's the subliminal message: Go buy Butcher.

[A little aside: I previously groused a bit about the apparent inconsistency of Harry's lost-but-then-unexpectedly-available handgun. However, Changes seems to explain this away with a line at the end of Chapter 4 about losing a "spare revolver" in a separate incident, suggesting that Harry's lost handgun in Small Favor was just one of several and perhaps not a big deal after all to have lost, while also explaining how he'd end up holding the revolver again in Turn Coat. To the extent the pistol's unexpected re-appearance in Turn Coat was a continuity error, it's been explained away; to the extent that we've been wondering whether Butcher will ever do anything about the weapon's potential to lead enemies or their spells to him, we've learned that the weapon may just not be that important to Butcher and thus not that useful as a magical conduit to Harry. Whether Butcher caught the issue himself, or someone asked him about it, or he's deliberately misleading us so that there's an opportunity to surprise us with the revolver later, there's now at least reason to feel like there's an explanation for Harry's observations and for his conduct in not tracking down the revolver himself. The revolver is either a big deal and will surprise him (and us), or it's not. There's no longer an overhanging continuity problem.]

All in the Family
In surprising Dresden with fatherhood, and making him feel the anguish of his miserable childhood all over again as he imagines his daughter growing up as an orphan. Dresden's own miserable experience as an orphan, then having a father-figure who turned out to be a sorcerer bent on controlling his mind for typical evil-sorcerer purposes, makes this prospect doubly awful. Exacerbating this is that Harry's utterly dependable ally Thomas, revealed in Blood Rites as Harry's half-brother, recently devolved in Turn Coat into a conscienceless monster who readily kills humans to feed the demonic hunger with which he is cursed as a White Court vampire. More alone than previously, Harry must rescue his own daughter with the aid of a women who, though at least once his true love, deliberately betrayed Harry by choosing not to tell him he was a father.

The stakes are high, and they are personal.

The Series
For those of you interested in Butcher's offerings in the Harry Dresden series, I give you this chronological listing, complete with links (where available) to free snippets:

The works, in chronological order of occurrence in Butcher's world, are:
and the final three, which are not expected to follow immediately but after some undetermined number of intermediate volumes, have unannounced release dates:
  • Hell's Bells
  • Stars and Stones
  • Empty Night

There's a DVD series of the Sci-Fi Channel's adaptation.
There's a graphic novel series Welcome To The Jungle.

With respect to the short stories, novellas, etc.: I wonder whether they may be conceived as advertisements. I learned that Jim Butcher's agent doesn't represent short story authors (by reading an email she sent to a prospective short story author declining to consider any short story), so I figure she tolerates the short stories solely because they allow the agent to place Butcher's work in front of fans of other authors in the urban fantasy genre, and thus potentially sell novels.

The Shorter Works
The novella Backup was such a quick read that it was hard to justify the sticker price on the basis of perceived value. Its illustrations might amount to something in the hearts of dedicated fans of Mike Mignola, but I didn't think they added a thing to the novella. Was the novella good? Absolutely. Was it worth $20 for an unsigned cloth hardcover? Well, most of us but paperbacks and expect to get a whole novel for $10. Backup was high-quality work, it should be read by fans of the series, and I can believe the limited edition with leather and a signature should go for a pretty penny ... but I really don't see a pamphlet like Backup being a full-retail purchase. On the other hand, maybe I've accidentally made an investment.

Perhaps Backup was designed to move Butcher into the rare book category, and thereby gain buzz for the rest of his work. It certainly laid out clear foreshadowing of the conflict within Thomas and the problems it was going to cause down the road. Had Thomas not been introduced initially as a "good guy" in Grave Peril, and confirmed in that role in White Night, the devolution of Thomas into an apparently out-of-control, slavering, conscienceless, vampiric murderer in Turn Coat would hardly have had the same impact. Transition from a trusted ally into a friendly but admittedly-reconfirmed murderer and tool of the enemy is something that requires long setup to make readers really feel. Backup isn't essential to the series, but it's valuable to understanding the pieces from which Butcher is building his world. It's a complex thing, with many parts, and the things you see from Harry's point of view are but a thin section of a much larger fruit.

Other than Backup, need readers pick up the short stories?

Maybe. The short stories are hit-and-miss. The free Restoration of Faith was a good read. I enjoyed Herot, mostly because it offered a window into Ms. Gard, a character who'd been previously mysterious. I thought The Warrior didn't work as a short story, though some of its elements could easily have supported a novel's subplot; Butcher actually explained to a reader at a book signing that The Warrior was Butcher's effort to depict Michael Carpenter's being shot in Small Favor as Michael Carpenter's Happy Ending. This is excellent subplot material, definitely an aid to readers' enjoyment of the characters, but as presented it just didn't seem to make a good short story. (By comparison, consider the work of T. A. Pratt, who really seems to get making a short story. I say Pratt because it might be unfair to mention Bradbury or Zelazny, but all is fair in love, and I love to read.) Given Butcher's careful construction of his stories and attention to details across multiple novels – a situation Dresden leveraged from the very opening line of Changes – readers can benefit from everything in the series, even the short stories. The Harry Dresden fan will want to catch all the details from all the non-novel projects in order to get the whole "history" of Harry Dresden, and thus should make an effort to buy/beg/borrow them all. Those who can't afford $50 for a novella can find it in the library. Little tidbits about dissent and conflict among Harry's allies, the weaknesses of characters with which Dresden interacts ... all these will help color the reader's appreciation of the Dresden universe while calming nerves that get jittery while waiting an entirely unacceptable whole year for another Dresden fix.

So pick up a copy. Everyone's doing it ....

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