Monday, April 26, 2010

On Changes

This entry discusses the recent novel Changes by Jim Butcher, the twelfth in the "Dresden Files" urban fantasy series about Chicago's only advertising professional wizard.

If you are new to the "urban fantasy" genre, allow me to give a little background by way of comparison. The 1981 work of Vernor VingeTrue Names (the link leads to an apparently collectible original version; for less money, one can find the story in an anthology also containing essays about its influence: True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier) – appears to contain fantasy elements but turns out not to be fantasy at all. The fantasy elements appear only as an interface – a metaphor – in a technological thriller. The sci-fi short story True Names is arguably the first Cyberpunk, and without uncertainty foresaw the virtual worlds that later be described in terms like "cyberspace". Say what you want about William Gibson or Bruce Sterling (for example, I say "read them!") and their work popularizing Cyberpunk, Vernor Vinge seemed to see it all first. That he did it in a slender novella (it's a bit long to call a short story) makes it much easier for the new reader to access. True Names is a miracle of fiction, introducing a genre and making it accessible to the masses in one swoop. To read True Names is to see the leaden weight of the man-against-the-system burden that would come to characterize the Cyberpunk protagonist, and to see the treacherous path between the unmitigated disasters that plague the cyberpunk characters' world, and the solution to the problem of surviving in that world. (And if you like it, you can read scads of it by Gibson and Sterling, and then explore steampunk: cyberpunk-style conflict set in the age of steam engines.)

Urban Fantasy is a close relative of sci-fi in that it is speculative (at the time it is written), but unlike hard sci-fi, Urban Fantasy offers no pretense that its characters' tools and objectives are grounded in the physics of a world you know. Unlike Star Wars or The Hobbit, however, Urban Fantasy does not reassure the reader that the world described therein is in some safely distant galaxy or that it existed in a faraway place at a time the rules were different. To appreciate Urban Fantasy, one might as well look at the first novel of Emma Bull, whose War for the Oaks leads the reader from a conflict between out-of-synch band members and the bar owner who booked them into a conflict still rooted in love and loyalty and outraged justice but nothing like the conflict we expect in the Minneapolis we expect to reach by car. By the time you are done, you know more about the conflicts between faerie creatures and their manipulation of the mortal world than you had any idea was available to learn in a local park, and you are ready to see a live musical act.

Jim Butcher does what few if any urban fantasy writers can claim: he has kept well-crafted storytelling alive for more than a mere six or eight books, and shows every sign of having a plan to keep delivering real stories – full meals, not mere teasers for later books as some tired authors have been reduced to producing – for a long time. Jim Butcher's next work, Ghost Story, is surely more of the same high-quality fare. Stop reading now and go read the series.

This is a tame, tame spoiler; you get the same reading the first free paragraphs online. Still, you've been warned.

The premise of Changes (the first one-word title in the Dresden series) is compelling. A man learns for the first time that he has a young daughter – in the same message (the same sentence!) that warns him she's been kidnapped by his mortal enemies. Of course he has to act.

The book is expressly about Dresden's relationships – family relationships, business relationships, relationships with friends/allies, relationships between his allies and their competitors. It's a story about responsibility and consequences. It's a rich ground for believable personal suffering. A great place to set a story. It's a conflict in which we can empathize much more than while Dresden is designing a new spell. I mean, how often have you got to do that? But we all manage our relationships.

Of course, Dresden's relationships produce lots of problems: he's furious his lover never told him they had a child; her ally has no love for him and is against the two being together; his strongest allies are unwilling to help, and he doesn't dare out the girl publicly as his daughter, lest she be used his whole life as a pawn to control him; his confidantes are few and their powers limited. And he learns – from an unexpected new apparent ally – that his enemies, whom he must confront in the seat of their power, possess godlike abilities he has no hope to confront with the power he can muster.

This is laid out with consistency of character, ample action, and plenty of mood lighting. And the fun really begins.

Here, I even discuss stuff seemingly foreshadowed for future Dresden books.
Also: discussion of the book-ending disaster!
Don't read this if you haven't read the books; it's much worse than the spoilers I sometimes discuss because it gets worse and worse as foreshadowing that has materialized is discussed, and the apparent future meaning of new foreshadowing is considered.
You have been warned!

The family-driven issues previously discussed in the Turn Coat review are back with a vengeance. Dresden's deprivation of family is taken to a new level. His deprivation of allies takes a new turn, as does his accumulation of enemies. By book-end, he owns a duffel full of magical curios and the pentagram given him by his mother, and nothing else: his enchanted coat is history, his house has been immolated, his dog has been sent to protect his daughter, he's sent his cat to live with his apprentice while he gets tangled in Winter Court conflicts. The Blue Beetle, which at the open of Storm Front was still blue ...

... is crushed in Changes and with it Dresden's staff. His blasting rod has been blasted. All Dresden has left, really, are his relationships. It's clear at book-end he's about lost even his life. Tearing Dresden down only to build him up again is a definite "yes but" end to the story question whether Dresden will overcome his conflicts. And the questions keep piling up:

The long-standing mystery of Dresden's apparent friend Mac (the proprietor of McAnally's Pub, the un-advertised supernatural hangout-and-accorded-neutral-territory; we can conclude Dresden is an ally because Mac asks Dresden to solve beer-related problems in the short stories Heorot and Day Off) gets advanced sharply toward the front row. The character was long depicted as silent, offering grunts for replies, and giving one-word answers, but in Changes, Mac slips out of character. For the first time the reader has ever seen (Dresden points this out as a Big Event), Mac uses whole sentences and exhibits real grammar as he warns Dresden he's going to have to work hard to keep his head on his shoulders while pursuing the mystery of his apparently missing daughter. It's a clue: the Silent Mac is an act. The Silent Mac is hiding who he really is, what his background is. We've known he was something special at least since Luccio saluted him when Dresden saw her first visit the pub, but it's clear now the background isn't just untold story. We're warned, in case we didn't previously pick up on it, that Mac has a big back story, and given clues Mac has been hiding a while for some purpose net yet disclosed.

The question of "what happened to the original Merlin" is dropped like an Easter Egg later on. The response (along the lines of "gee, nobody seems to know, and we don't think he'd have gone quietly") plainly pleads for the author's eventual answer. And in that regard Butcher has said not only that he knows where Dresden is going, but that his series concludes in an apocalyptic trilogy. Count me as a fan of the theory that as things all go to hell in a handbasket, Mac – the seemingly-fifty master of microbrewery – will reveal himself as Merlin. But technically ... we don't know.

New mysteries aren't the only thing we get. We see the results of off-stage drama, and speculate on more relationships. Dresden's godmother Lea, who appeared previously (in the comi/tragic Proven Guilty ... in which the anti-technological wizard Dresden is put up for auction on eBay while everyone's lives are being ruined in the aftermath of a horror-flick convention that is attacked by vampires and faeries) when she was seen entombed in the ice fountain atop the fortress of the Queen of Winter, where she ranted madly as if possessed or two minds, has been freed to do the bidding of her mistress Mab! We don't know exactly why she was locked up (was it related to the dagger she was given by Bianca so many books ago in Grave Peril?), but we surmise that it was pretty bad from the length of the entombment and the fact that the other character imprisoned atop the tower was executed during a major development in Changes. The question is whether the Lea who is free is the one who in Proven Guilty was trying to advise Dresden to protect himself, or the one who was trying to advise Dresden to free her to commit mischief. And what, exactly, was she charged by Dresden's mother with doing? And what was her price? And what was it Lea was trying to do to Mab when she was incarcerated in the fountain of Winter? So, we get mysteries even as we get answers. It's delicious: every answer a gate to two new questions (more, actually). Fans will love it.

As discussed previously, Changes is largely about family. Dresden's objective is to protect his family (his kidnapped girl), even as he feels it is being shattered (the betrayal felt at his lover's concealment that he had a child). The attack against Dresden is based on his family relationships, even those he doesn't realize have impacted his life from before the opening pages of Storm Front. Dresden's counterattack, in turn, wipes out his enemies' entire family. Dresden learns something about his family's limits: his half-brother is forced to work with Dresden to stop an attack on them all, but the half-brother's own family isn't inclined to lift a finger. Well, at least until the dust is settling. The book's conclusion is of the "yes-but" variety: he may have saved the girl from one fate, but she has no hope of a normal family life if Dresden will have any part of it; and if he doesn't, then he's failed to protect her from the orphan's existence he himself suffered and swore to keep her from. Ahh, the life of the modern wizard. (Maybe Dresden's half-brother, fighting for his life with no help but that arranged by Dresden, will re-commit himself to pulling himself free of the Dark Side. Maybe his attraction to/ hunger for Dresden's apprentice will help him with his perspective on the "people are food" problem. Being the uncle of a girl also promises to give him new questions about his appetites and his need to control them.)

In this book about relationships, Dresden's personal life takes a turn for the complicated: in assuming the mantle of Winter Knight, Dresden risks losing his relationships with ("fragile") mortals, including his daughter and his apparent new lover. As Winter Knight, Dresden's old pal Fix – who at the end of Summer Knight became the Summer Knight – will be gunning for him out of sheer paranoia: having previously shoved a shotgun in his face (if I recall, only a few books previously in Small Favor) over the fear Dresden had become Winter Knight, and after nervously reciting a statistic on the cause of death of the Summer Knights preceding Fix (with an emphasis on the starring role of the Winter Knight), it's sure that Dresden's one-time ally (from way back in Summer Knight, and again in Proven Guilty) will be gunning for Dresden (literally).

Well, if he hasn't already gunned him down. The suspect list is pretty short for the disaster at book-end. But then, human assassins had also been hired to take him out by the Red Court; supernatural enemies like his half-brother's family surely knew (after so many hours without the protection of wards) where he could be found; his armor was gone; and he was distracted by the promise of new love. Maybe Fix hasn't arrived yet, and will arrive just in time to shoot him the minute he gets out of his current predicament.

The nature of that predicament is the likely background for Butcher's next Dresden book – its title, Ghost Story, which one can see at Jim Butcher's site, seems to suggest the nature of Dresden's conflicts. Dresden's been a ghost before, but he hadn't been shot through the heart and had someone on-hand to revive him with CPR. Things are different, now. No matter who shot him, he's in a bad fix.

And how will Dresden get out of the "I'm just about dead" jam? Well, two things work in Harry's favor. First, he's been dead (briefly) and got over it. Remember the twist in Grave Peril? Of course, at that time he expected to be killed in advance, didn't have fatal trauma to the chest, and had an ally pre-prepared standing by to give him CPR. This solution isn't at hand – at least, not by Dresden's design. The second thing to remember is how Dresden got out of his scuffle with Gravine in Dead Beat: he had help there, too. The same help that turned up in White Night. The local copy of the coin-trapped demon Lasciel, bent on seducing him to the Dark Side (as it were), wanted to keep Dresden alive in order to make its investment in his recruitment pay off. After the brain damage sustained in White Night (as the local copy apparently takes a bullet for Dresden so he can escape The Deeps), Dresden suffered a couple of books with chronic headaches. In Changes, those headaches weren't present at all. Their only reference was the mention of Tylenol with codeine Dresden didn't want the FBI to find in his place as he fled into the realm of Faerie as they broke down his door. So, what about those headaches?

After Harry burned his left hand in his fight with Mavra, he couldn't use it for a while and eventually he started using it without thinking about it – gripping his staff in fury, and the like – then, he started using his hand on purpose in physical therapy, eventually using it to play guitar. Remember that guitar-playing he did with the help of Lash, while nobody was looking? And how Lash's influence led him to anger quickly, overreact, and blow things up a bit more than was his wont? And how, after White Night, Dresden couldn't talk to Lash, and nothing seemed to be left than her influence over his guitar-playing? And in the book immediately after, Dresden for reasons he couldn't discover had terrible headaches?

I'm thinking Dresden's head finally healed up, and with it, whatever is left of Lash. (You notice Dresden was awfully quick to anger and had nearly-out-of-control fury for much of the book, requiring intervention to prevent fury-driven assaults while Dresden unconsciously caused runes to glow and fires to grow; this is all quite reminiscent of his behavior under Lash's influence. At the end of the book when he has no bed to sleep on, he doesn't head to the protection of the church, which was a place that made Lash feel sad, but to an unprotected and unwarded boat floating out on a lake known to ground magical powers, where he's been previously ambushed by shooters (e.g., in Proven Guilty.) This speculation is, of course, based on nothing more than my (not always accurate) conclusions about what Butcher has been telegraphing us with his carefully-added but not immediately useful details in the prior books.

Still, little is thrown in without intent. Whose is the woman's voice on that last page, hushing Dresden's memory of Gravine's curse?

(1) Karrin Murphy. Surely the reader wants Karrin Murphy to be with Dresden; it's been long set up, and they were, after all, just about to go on a date. And she's a great rescuer. But this is surely wrong: Dresden has been shot in the chest precisely to prevent his hooking up with Karrin. Continued vulnerability to White Court attacks will become more important with the removal of the Red Court, of course, so succeeding in his evening plans would undermine the effort to keep Dresden in fear of every possible enemy. And you ask: how can you be so cynical as to predict who Dresden's rescuer is by its likelihood to make his problems worse? Fine. Maybe he is allowed to win sometimes. But you can get to the same place by applying logic to the story facts and not just to the story structure: Murphy wasn't expected to be back at the dock yet so she's an unlikely firsthand witness; she can't speak underwater so Dresden would not have heard her whisper; she would not hear Gravines' curse in Dresden's head and could not hush him; and she has no apparent capacity to be able to figure out how to retrieve Dresden from the depths of Lake Michigan without an emergency crew and dive equipment (but perhaps emergency sirens and pen-lights for his eyes are the apparent oncoming train; hope springs eternal). And there's more: a short story (apparently, one that is turning into a novella, despite being part of a short story compilation) from the perspective of Karrin Murphy is in the works, set forty-five minutes after the curtain falls (as it were) in Changes. Presumably, she sees the aftermath (hence the title Aftermath) and isn't on the scene when the curtain falls. (Presumably, the aftermath provides another "yes, but" resolution that places her in a position in which she is unwilling to consider dating Dresden soon, or unable to contact him, or simply ruins her life so she's not available as an ally. Maybe the aftermath is so apparently bad that she takes possession of the magic artifacts and illegal contraband Dresden stashed in the boat to prevent their being found in a subsequent investigation, which also interferes with Harry's access to it.) The voice isn't Murphy.

(2) Mab, Queen of Winter. The "familiar" female voice isn't the description we'd expect of Mab. When Dresden was running up an Aztec pyramid during battle and heard her incomprehensible whisper, he even then recognized his queen. If merely hearing incomprehensible whispers is enough for instant recognition of the Queen of Winter by her Knight, then there's no question the merely familiar voice urging Dresden's memory of Gravine to "hush" is likely not Mab. The cold dark of Lake Michigan in winter is a plausible place of power for the Winter Court, but Mab is not the whispering voice.

(3) Margaret "Le Fay" McCoy. Dresden's mother's voice is certainly familiar after hearing it when soulgazing Thomas and, more recently, while listening to her memories. However, the dead relative who's reached out to Dresden before was his father. And we suspect his mother was destroyed in an attack by Outsiders, which might impact her freedom to reach him. Actually being dead might make him easier for a dead person to reach him, admittedly. Still, how would she know what Dresden heard in his imagination? Why would she be whispering? I'm not betting on Dresden's mother Maggie as the whispering voice . The aid she can give him is likely being carefully restricted by the author, and with it her ability to contact him and spell out the nature of her counterattack against the White King and his relationship with the Outsiders and her mechanism of circumventing Lord Raith's immunity to magical attack. If Dresden could reach her, the secret of the impending apocalypse would be spoiled! Of course she won't be the voice!

(4) Susan. While we're talking about the dead, one wonders whether Susan's violent death will leave her in a position to haunt someone, or protect someone, or the like. We've gotten a little primer on "how one becomes a haunting ghost" in Grave Peril, and one might make an argument that the factors apply. However, we have some of the same problems for Susan as for Margaret: would she know what Gravine said in his head? Or maybe Gravine is haunting Dresden, and is visible to haunting ghosts. Still, I don't think it's Susan: "familiar" doesn't seem to be the description one would expect for her voice; she is too intimate and too recently spoken-to to just be "familiar". I think the "familiar" voice is one he knew well once but hasn't heard in a while. Susan's voice wouldn't be merely "familiar" and it might have the effect of making him at peace with being shot: he loves her, after all. Being at peace isn't Dresden's immediate fate. The voice isn't Susan's ghost.

(5) Lash. Dresden's local copy of the trapped-in-a-coin demon Lasciel is an ideal candidate for Dresden's rescuer because she has (well, had) millennia of experience surviving as a purely-spiritual being. The original Lasciel surely possesses an enormous trove of expertise on survival as a spirit, working magic as a spirit, and taking control of a body; Dresden's local copy, though having changed over the time it's been separated from the original (a reason Butcher can give for decreasing Lash's power: it's lost a lot while Dresden recovered from the injury that knocked Lash offline as White Night reached its climax, and won't necessarily provide a deus ex machina for every conflict), could possess enormously useful and applicable resources. Moreover, not dying is a trick with which Lash can help: as in Dead Beat (the fight with Gravine) and White Night (getting over the Outsider-enhanced psychic attack in order to effect escape from the bomb-rigged caves of the Raith estate), Lash might help slow time (as Dresden perceives it) long enough for Dresden to leverage Winter Court powers or Lash's expertise or the protection of Mab to prevent his death. Even if the expertise on slowing time to fix one's problems is insufficient to save Dresden before his corpse is eaten by something in Lake Michigan, Lash could have techniques useful for fixing things (e.g., Dresden's shot-up body) from the position of a spirit, then taking control of it again. All this is plausible Lash knowledge, and after White Night, it's clear Lash has been converted to Dresden's side. Lash might lack the strength to do more than whisper: if Lash is appearing at all she is, after all, just getting back from the equivalent of a several-year coma. As for fitness with the information we see at the end of Changes: Lash would know what Dresden heard in his imagination, could have responded to it with a command to "hush," and would be an ideal character for saving Dresden's bacon by leveraging Dresden's huge winter-court powers in those last fractional seconds. Lash is my favorite for this job. Lash also offers Butcher a vehicle through which to offer Dresden any tutorial he needs in metaphysical things, while being limited whenever Butcher wants by the excuse that some of her knowledge was blown away or rendered hard to access by the injury sustained in White Night. Besides, we all wanted to see Lash again, right?

Of course, in the next book we could learn Dresden was screaming without realizing it, the "hush" was directed at him by someone unaware of his private fears about Gravine's curse, and we could learn the voice proves Dresden has fallen into the clutches of a returned enemy like the youngest Queen of Winter, who would likely have a lot of power in the cold waters of Lake Michigan in winter. Her price for help could be steep ....

One question is whether, if Dresden dies briefly, he'll lose the mantle of the Winter Knight and thereby invoke the wrath of Mab for escaping servitude, but thereafter be free. Hmm. Too easy? Yeah. Dresden has to spend time squaring Mab's orders to kill (presumably with magic) with his commitment to the Laws of Magic. And so long as Dresden retains the mantle of Winter Knight, he presumably has committed enemies like the eldest Gruff and other highly-powerful beings capable of causing Dresden trouble. And, of course, the White Council won't be happy to worry he's become a tool of outsiders – his access to allies will only shrink while he is allied with the Winter Court. (The flip side is that although everyone knows he's the Winter Knight because Mab made it a public event for all of faerie, nobody would know he lost it and everyone would target him all the same. Ohh, this could be the best of both worlds: losing power, making enemies of Summer, and making a serious personal enemy of Mab. Perfect!)

The title Ghost Story suggests we may spend quite a while in the next book learning how Dresden gets out of his current scrape, and I for one can't wait to start.

I don't want to poison anything you might be thinking of writing but not yet committed to --
So stop!

Speculation or foreshadowing?
Discussing his godmother's duties with the freed Lea, Harry considers what legacy he would leave, and realizes the only thing that can't easily be replaced is knowledge. Harry's possession of his mother's memory of the Ways may turn out to contain more knowledge than just the Ways: it may be able to answer questions about where she went last, and offer clues to how she circumvented Raith and the Outsiders with her death curse. It also suggests the legacy Harry may try leaving to Maggie, and the legacy Dresden's ancestors may be seeking to leave him. Why is it Odin takes such a curiosity in the young wizard? Why did Odin first train Merlin? How big is Dresden's family? What was Odin's real reason for thwarting a curse on Dresden's entire family? The family relationships and the web of clues could be getting interesting, indeed. Harry's vulnerability to the White Court will mirror that of his dead mother's now that he's lost protection against their attacks and they know it, and he will surely find himself looking (as his mother did) for solutions. The lesson on vampire vulnerability he learned from Lea will surely become important in Harry's effort to stay ahead of the vampires. Harry's brother is an interesting problem; will he end up in a coup d'├ętat? Cured of vampirism? Martyred for love? Enslaved to his addictions and hunted as a murderer and enemy? What of Molly's attraction to him? So many questions invited by Butcher's Changes.

Definitely proof Butcher is till atop his game, and still looking down the road to the ending he's got in mind. Here's to another twelve years of Dresden books!

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