Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Butcher's Cold Days Rocks the Faeries' Casbah

I've previously commented on Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series on this blog. "Commented" may be a bit mild: the first post on Jim Butcher's work, Praise for Jim Butcher, has been read numerous times and continues to turn up week after week among the posts people still find in search engines and read. But since I have begun a different blog that relates to fiction, I have become somewhat torn whether to move Butcher blog entries to the new site, which deals much more closely with fiction.

This blog is dedicated to consumers. People who buy fiction are consumers. I think it's fair to evaluate Jim Butcher's latest work (and his whole series) as a consumer product – right here. Those of you who like are free to pretend they didn't see the title of this post, and pretend this is a hard-hitting critical evaluation of Jim Butcher's work. It is, of course. I simply conclude that the work is worth every penny, which is why I gave the latest book to my sister when the weather turned cold last year then harassed her as she continued to fail to install it on her Kindle and read it.

So, the review is here, under a pseudonym. Later when I want to suck up to Butcher in connection with my own work, this may be trouble. But here it is.

Past Is Prologue
Before writing Cold Days, Jim Butcher wrote quite a bit of other fiction in the same universe. While it's not strictly necessary to enjoy Cold Days – he explains enough along the way that it's completely edible as a stand-alone dish – these works do so much to build the universe in which Cold Days is set that one should really consider them. Since some of them are free, this is also an opportunity to test-drive the author. Works in the Harry Dresden Files include:
There are some more short stories, but I haven't seen them all yet. They include one from the perspective of his apprentice Molly, and several about work done for his client Bigfoot. Expect good things. But not for long: Butcher reported stopping short stories to focus on his novels.
Jim Butcher's secret – well, it's not a secret, but it's the sauce that makes the meal – is that the author knows where he's going. Unlike authors whose middle books sag, or who get lost in the weeds with characters (or, as in Dallas, turn prior work into dream sequences to fix mistakes), Jim Butcher's books and their characters all row in synch, moving the boat steadily and inexorably toward his goal. (That doesn't mean they're not in conflict within the books, but it means this activity is all consistent with the big picture, and advances the series as it advances each work.) Just as each book as a beginning, middle, and end – each of which feel like purpose-built performance parts fueled with nitro – so too does the series. Changes/Ghost Story served as the turning point of the series, and I expect the rest of it to feel very much like Cold Days: a wild toboggan ride, buffeted by the chill blast of Butcher's coldly-calculated and masterfully measured plot. The final three books, 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
Based on comments elsewhere, these shouldn't appear until after about twenty of the novels are out. This doesn't mean you can't read now, though. They are quite unlike Connie Willis' delightful and deservedly-award-winning work in her "books" Blackout and All Clear. In describing these, I put the word books in quotes purely out of disdain for the plural: they constitute really but a single story, but it was brutally cut into two physical volumes. You can't pick up Blackout without All Clear at hand, or you will finish dissatisfied and furious. (I had both ready, and so was delighted by them. Don't risk a different path with these two volumes.) By contrast, each volume of Butcher's series really has a self-standing story worth reading in its own right. A person could read them out of order and enjoy them, though I suggest avoiding spoilers by getting them in order.
About Cold Days Itself
When the narrator wakes a few months after the curtain of Ghost Story, he discovers he really can't escape the choices he made in the last few books. And it isn't long until he's given instructions that make him absolutely certain he needs to get it right the first time when he decides whether he's going go obey them or not. Cold Days shows Harry Dresden trying to do his thing without depending on the people whose support he used to have before he joined the Winter Queen as her indentured-servant contract-killer.*

Naturally, this doesn't work. At all.  On my read, Harry lasts maybe ten minutes. Less, even. Butch as Butcher's protagonist is, he's still outclassed in the unending supernatural deathmatch tournament that is Chicago in the Dresdenverse.

Harry Dresden just can't go it alone against the kinds of forces against which he's pitted himself. Not with any chance at all of survival. This has been true since before the cataclysmic events of Changes, though Harry tries awfully hard not to imperil his allies as he did Michael by the end of that book. Dresden arguably got close in Turn Coat, but he ultimately involved his apprentice Molly and his faithful companion Mouse, and even hired a P.I. to take pictures of his hiding opponent. In Small Favor Harry inadvertently imperiled Ivy with her involvement, enabling awful consequences for Ivy and threatening every living thing on the planet with the risk of serious bad guys acquiring unthinkable power. In White Night Dresden risked his brother and all his mortal allies in an all-out assault on his opponents, while taking a chance on elevating the supernatural stature of Chicago's coldest and most calculating crime boss. In fact, Dresden's decisions have led him to depend on his allies (to their detriment) going back through all the books. The consequences echo even in the current work: the career path of his love interest Karrin, which Dresden inadvertently derailed when she came to his aid in Proven Guilty, is completely over. And his apprentice is on a hit-list. And to aid Harry's plans, his brother's love keeps a dangerous job in the midst of mind-bending immortals (at least, they don't seem ever to age).

So we find in Cold Days that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  This doesn't mean there's no excitement: it means that Dresden's efforts to go it alone are such abysmal failures that he's dragged back to his old practices. Though sadder but wiser, he's still scrapping with bad guys and getting delayed and dazed while looking for answers to immediate dangers while time ticks quickly on catastrophe. His new powers are cool (so very cool – but of course they would be; he's joined the Winter Court) but they're far too new to be under anything like Harry's full control, and they're woefully inadequate to address problems that require skill and will one can't get as a gift from faeries.

And as usual, Harry has a lot more will than skill. It's his problem in this book to come to grips with the forces trying to make him into something he loathes, all while he's unable to avoid the people he loves and whom he hoped to avoid injuring by leaving out of his future fights.

In my last review of Ghost Story, I wrote:
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.
In keeping with my own command, I am posting a link to Cold Days. (Note: I also explain in that review that without Ghost Story, the full stakes of Changes aren't really available to the reader; the two are too intimately connected, and so much better together.) Without descending into spoilers, Cold Days manages to raise the stakes on Dresden and his loved ones and the world while advancing the series plot along a critical plot arc first disclosed to readers in Storm Front over a dozen years ago. A character arc opened in Summer Knight is closed. Along the way we learn more about lots of characters who have long colored the landscape of the Dresdenverse, which is a sure pleasure for longtime fans. For those who aren't longtime fans, the book is a rocking ride full of betrayal, uncertainty, and a race – on several levels – against the world's death-clock.

And what an ending. So many people's lives turned upside down, so many people's relationships upended – so much to sort out in the next book. And – some hope for Dresden's deceased love life. Lots to build on for the next major mishap.

Like I wrote before, my main complaint with Jim Butcher is that he produces only one of these in a year or more. I acknowledge it's an unfair complaint – I haven't completed a single novel of this caliber, and I don't know anyone who has fourteen works so satisfying in a single series, or maybe even to their names – but honestly it's about the only complaint I can level straight-faced against this body of work.

If you like Urban Fantasy, you have to read it. Or fantasy. Or whodunit stories. In fact, if you like any stories at all, I'd be hard-pressed to do anything but suggest giving it a try. The uncertain can test out the free chapters or the full length (and free) Restoration of Faith, which Ghost Story entertainingly references.


*: Or something like that. At the curtain open, Dresden is still working out what his new job is and what it requires of him, but he knows what the last Winter Knight did and is sure it's an awful job more suited to monsters than to men. Which is why he worked so awfully hard to avoid taking it – the full extent of which we learn in greater detail in Ghost Story.


For a look at how the last Summer Knight died and how Harry was previously introduced to his current job, you can enjoy Summer Knight. It's a delight.

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