Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ghost Story: Jim Butcher

Book Review: “Ghost Story”, Jim Butcher



When we last left the mighty wizard detective Harry Dresden, he wasn’t doing well. In fact, he had been murdered by an unknown assassin.

But being dead doesn’t stop him when his friends are in danger. Except now he has no body, and no magic to help him. And there are also several dark spirits roaming the Chicago shadows who owe Harry some payback of their own.

To save his friends — and his own soul — Harry will have to pull off the ultimate trick without any magic…

So. The first and most important question when considering “Ghost Story”: how does Butcher resolve the cliff-hanger from “Changes”? Without wishing to spoil too much, he does it rather satisfactorily. Without question, the resolution is unexpected, a genuinely jaw dropping moment. I really can’t say anymore without spoiling it, but it does work perfectly.

Of course, there is far more to the book than the resolution of who killed Harry, and why. “Changes” was billed, in some quarters, as the book that would change Dresden’s status quo for the rest of the series; in “Ghost Story”, we find out why. The Dresden-verse is a far darker place than it has been, with a whole host of different factions and squabbles breaking out to fill the power vacuum left in the wake of the Red Court’s annihilation. As ever with Dresden, we don’t see much of this first hand, a limitation and advantage of the first person narrative. Instead, we see it in the transformation of the other cast members. Naturally, each character has slid a little further down the anti-hero scale in response to the increased threat (well, maybe not Leanansidhe. But then, she was crazy anyway). The trick with making your characters grimmer, darker, is to keep them sympathetic. For the most part, at least with the established cast, Butcher accomplishes this with ease. In particular, scenes with Molly are borderline heart-breaking – although it might be fairer to say that she is pitiable, rather than sympathetic. Not to mention disturbing. Butcher deserves a great deal of credit for shaking up his cast in such a dramatic fashion, but still keeping them recognisable. Every change makes sense.

These changes – not to mention Harry’s reduced circumstances, in every possible respect – allow the usual frenetic pace and action to take a back seat in favour of a more introspective and considered (dare I say melancholy?) approach. Over the course of the series, Harry has garnered himself an incredible series of power ups – and he was hardly a weakling to begin with. True, a significant proportion of his victories have come through a nice mix of luck, cunning and pragmatism, but he’s more than capable of unleashing all kinds of Hell on his enemies. Almost literally, for a few books. What he hasn’t always had are the brains to use those power ups appropriately; even his most recent one, a promotion to the job of Winter Knight, was utilized only as another method of marching through the front door and causing chaos. In “Ghost Story”, Harry gets his most prominent lesson in consequences yet. He is used to his actions affecting him negatively, and often his friends and allies in some cases. Here though, he has affected the entire world, even if we only see the consequences for Chicago directly. He has perhaps been here before, with the Vampiric war which has dominated much of the plot arc thus far, but that only affected wizards for the most part. Winning that war has changed the world, supernatural and mundane alike – politically, economically, socially. I doubt Butcher will deviate too far from his winning formula in future instalments, but I do think we will have a more thoughtful protagonist, which can only be a good thing.

This is not to say that the action, when it occurs, isn’t damn good fun. Again, to say too much would be to spoil, but the fact that much of the action is ghostly, and therefore taking place in the spiritual realm and/or the centre of someone’s head…well, if you’ve read the Dresden Files so far, you know that they are almost defined by the incredibly OTT action. Take that trend, and put it in a supernatural realm that doesn’t even have to pay lip service to physics or reality? Suffice it to say that the action is wonderful, and wonderfully imaginative.

Complaints? As ever, Jim Butcher is a solidly good writer rather than a great one – although there are some excellent turns of phrase here. If you’ve got this far in the series though, that’s unlikely to bother you all that much. In addition, and more importantly, the plot doesn’t seem to move forward all that much. In fact, we’re more or less at the same stage we were at the end of “Changes”. We have moved on character wise, and important lessons have been reaffirmed, but we have no more idea of what is going on than we did two books ago. I feel strange citing this as a criticism; I adore Patrick Rothfuss’s books, which can fairly be described as leisurely doorstoppers, and I tore through Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings” in a matter of days, despite it largely consisting of character and world building. “The Dresden Files” are different beasts though. For better or worse, I have come to expect a certain amount of progression, and all we get are a few hints at motivation for events long past before the series actually began – these will doubtless be important, Butcher having an apparent addiction to Chekov’s Guns, but more development would have been welcome.

Overall though, this is a fine entry in the series. Not the best, but it comes close at times. Highly recommended, with the obvious caveat: read the others first!

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