Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Defense of Butcher's Ghost Story

I've been re-reading recent Jim Butcher titles not only in preparation for the author's soon-to-be-released novel Cold Days, but because I'm studying them as examples of their craft.  While hunting for information on Jim Butcher (and about Jim Butcher's work) I was led by a search engine to The Mad Hatter's blog post The Dresden Files Has Jumped The Shark.  And what a post!

Since Jim Butcher has demonstrated a certain sensitivity to harsh criticism of his work – and why shouldn't he? – I thought it worth noting that The Dresden Files hasn't 'jumped the shark' and that Jim Butcher is executing perfectly the craft for which he's been made by throngs of readers into an international bestseller.

To Jump The Shark
So, what does this mean, exactly?  It means that a show that's lost ratings is trying to save itself by gathering attention through a stupid stunt having no purpose but to attract eyeballs.  The phrase comes from the then-waning but long-running Happy Days, which tried to bolster viewership by having The Fonz water-ski up a ramp to jump over a shark-infested enclosure in his trademark leather jacket:

You know.  In the hope people would watch it.  Not because it really did anything for the characters or the show.  For love of money, Happy Days jumped the shark.

Harry Dresden in Ghost Story
According to The Mad Hatter, "Ghost Story amounts to what is a pointless time waste that will have nearly no bearing on the series."

Nothing happened?  Toward the end of my short post on Ghost Story I drop a paragraph full of questions raised by the book.  The new slew of questions show just how much has changed because of Dresden's behavior in Ghost Story.  I'll not re-hash that here.  But think on it a bit.  If Ghost Story changes characters' positions, creates conflicts, and sets up new problems, it has changed the Dresdenverse.

Despite reciting theme of Ghost Story in his post, the over-arching theme of the book seems lost on The Mad Hatter.  So, some perspective.  Previously when Harry had a near-death experience, he was being murdered in his dreams by the shade of a sorcerer he'd sent to prison (and who killed himself).  Harry's plan in that book was to have a co-captive ally give him CPR while Harry – with backup from the Ghost of Harry – sucker-punched the dead sorcerer in the spirit world as he was murdered.  CPR brought Harry back from the dream-induced death – erasing, in the process, a short-lived haunting ghost of Harry Dresden.  In the near-death experience of Ghost Story, things are quite different.  Harry isn't fighting to survive and going into battle with a plan:  he's arranged his own killing in order to save himself from having to make good on a promise to serve Mab.  To make sure the suicide sticks, Harry had his own memory wiped of his plot so he can't take steps to second-guess himself or derail the killing he's set in motion.  In the process, Harry screws up his own Happy Ending with his love interest and longtime ally Karin Murphy.

But why not die after the date?  Harry's screwed up everything.

This is the main point:  Harry must accept (read: suffer) the consequences of his own decisions.  (Including the suffering he inflicts, en passant, upon innocent others.)  Life without Karin Murphy as a love interest is but the first awful consequence of his scheme to escape his just desserts.  Harry's sudden absence leaves Chicago open to monsters who are no longer afraid of the now-seemingly-undefended turf, and they waste no time imperiling people and places Harry calls his.  Harry's selfish solution to his predicament – that is, his decision to cheat on his deal with Mab – has particularly injured his apprentice Molly, who can neither seek support from Harry's allies (who if successful in catching Harry's killer would learn her role in his suicide/murder) nor really survive on her own in a Chicago gone mad with magic monsters.  He's broken Molly's heart, and learns just how badly he's betrayed her only once he's no longer alive to make amends.  As a sort of long-term whammy, Harry learns that his effort several books ago to make Bob "never" allow his evil side in control again turns out to have consequences, too:  Bob interprets Harry's instruction to separate "Evil Bob" from himself, exiling Evil Bob the skull (so Bob can't put him in charge, even under the control of another), so Evil Bob is beyond Harry's reach to limit with whatever governors are offered by the skull that houses Bob.  Harry's decisions have destroyed his love life, injured his allies, freed and/or created new enemies . . . all critical developments in Harry's life that change the position of the characters.

Mostly for the worse.

The lesson that one must suffer the consequences of one's own actions – made explicit near the end, as Harry is delivered back to Mab by the angel Uriel – is not the only thing at work in the book.  Death itself changes Harry – or, rather, the experience of being dead forces him to grow.  Nice, eh?

So ... no bearing on the series?

Unable to effect change through direct action, the dead Harry is forced to learn more about his enemies before acting.  The fact that Harry had no power to immediately obliterate the gunmen at Murphy's house meant that he had to follow them ... learning as he did that they had problems of their own that needed solving.  Harry's biggest change may be this:  he learned that he could get a lot more done by thinking and talking than he could by laying waste to enemies at the first sign of conflict.

The result?  Harry has a new ally, Fitz (and maybe Fitz' gang).  He has a new and very powerful enemy in Evil Bob.  Harry has hacked off his longtime ally Karrin Murphy, whom he kept in the dark while he aided those who shot up her house (and guests, and neighbors).  Perhaps worst, he's destroyed the life of his apprentice, Molly Carpenter.  Harry has some serious problems to fix – overhanging issues that will have direct bearing on his relationship with all the characters in Ghost Story, and his own driving motivations for the entire future of the series.  Jim Butcher's Ghost Story doesn't just mature the character, and add new characters, it adds whole new problems to fix.

And they are doozies.

IO9 has it right:  Butcher's stories – including Ghost Story – are "bone deep" satisfying.  Does the climax of Ghost Story hit you the same way as the climax of Changes?  Ha!  How could it?  In Changes, Harry was selling his soul (he thought) for the power to commit a genocide (as it turned out).  And was murdered just before his first date with the leading lady his readers had been dying for him to date (ba-da-bump!).  Just awful!  How can you write a worse fate than that?  So no, Ghost Story doesn't raise the stakes or excitement from Changes, but if you find a book that does you are commanded to post its title in the comments because I need to read it.  I'm betting it's a rough hunt for books with such bang.

But wait:  without Ghost Story, would you understand just what the stakes were in Changes?  Ghost Story is not just the denouement of Changes:  it is its other half, revealing what Harry hid from himself, and what he hadn't taken the time to see.  Without Ghost Story, Changes was an exciting adventure in which, having lost his earlier love to the vampire war, he was robbed of new girl in the last act.  In Ghost Story, Changes is re-cast as a tragedy in the classic sense:  Harry's noble virtue is also his fatal flaw, the instrument of his destruction.  (And this isn't fixed at the end:  his relationship with Karrin Murphy can't just be dusted off and picked up from here.  Harry's screwed it royally.)  Without the reveals in Ghost Story, readers would never appreciate the bite of Changes.  TheMad Hatter says this could be coughed up as back-story in another book, but I disagree.  Imagine Changes being re-cast in the light depicted above not by Harry, learning it the hard way, but by some laughing villain in a book about another problem:  nowhere near as satisfying as seeing Harry put it together while trying to save his apprentice from a miserable death only possible because he'd abandoned her through suicide to the tender mercies of the Wardens, the Winter faeries, and the new crop of monsters in Chicago.

Ghost Story is a worthy successor to The Dresden Files' legacy of solid novels enjoyable not just at first pass but on re-read.  Ghost Story isn't a cheap stunt.  It's not a shark-jump.  Ghost Story offers something that is hard to imagine offering otherwise:  experience to give a hot-headed Harry the perspective to speak carefully and act with deliberation as required to survive and succeed in his new role as the knight of the Queen of Air and Darkness when the curtain opens on Cold Days.

(And it could add whole other new problems, and motivate whole new classes of solutions I'll not speculate on lest Jim Butcher stumble here.  Hi, Jim!)

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