Yup, there’s one more book in the Dresden Files series: Skin Game. It’s the 15th book in the series so far, and there are going to be a whole lot more.
There’s a bit of a shake-up to the usual Dresden Files formula, so let’s dive on in.
As ever, here there be spoilers.
It’s A Heist Movie!
Complete with mixed-up motives and bunches of backstabbing. Mab, Dresden’s current boss, owes a debt to the villainous Nicodemus, which she’s going to pay by having Harry Dresden, Wizard, Winter Knight, Snark Master, help Nicodemus rob a vault belonging to Hades.
Yeah, that Hades. And Nicodemus wants to steal the Holy Grail. Wow.
The great part is that, given Nicodemus, we know there’s going to be backstabbing. And, given that Nicodemus screwed with Mab’s Accords, she wants Dresden to backstab just as soon as he’s fulfilled his obligations.
The characters pulled in for the heist — Nicodemus’s daughter, the shapeshifting Goodman Grey, a warlock specializing in fire magic, a guy who can summon minions at will, a Bigfoot gone bad, a normal human thief — are a delightful mix, and we get all the great scenes where they pull the group together. It’s great fun.
Magic A Isn’t Magic A?
There’s a slightly puzzling inconsistency that appears in this novel. Way back in Changes, Harry Dresden becomes the Winter Knight. This comes along with the Winter Mantle, which basically gives him super strength and increased endurance, in addition to fixing that pesky spinal cord injury. When he says “screw Winter Law” in the next book, all that gets revoked, until he takes it back.
In this book, there’s a large chunk of the plot where Butters and Dresden consider the possibility that much of the Winter Mantle’s mojo is actually just an off-switch on Dresden’s normal human limitations, allowing him access to bone-breaking strength and reducing his ability to feel exhaustion and pain.
Um. I don’t think you can “magic feather” away a spinal cord injury like that.
Sure, perhaps this was an issue all along, and Harry has both superhuman strength and superhuman self-injury risk… but, I don’t really think it was phrased that consistently.
And if that’s the case, that the Knights tend to wear themselves down by ignoring their bodily needs, what am I to make of Ronald Reuel, the senior Summer Knight from many books ago who managed to last long enough to get gray hairs?
Who Was That Masked Man?
Goodman Grey, who are you?
Grey is a consummate shape-shifter, and also plays the role of mole on behalf of Dresden within the heist-plotting crew, apparently because he owed Dresden’s highly-mysterious mother a favor.
He is also, apparently, at least part skinwalker.
Holy crap. It sounds like his father raped his mother (or something), since skinwalkers can (probably literally) scare the living daylights out of you. We hadn’t previously seen anything about skinwalkers reproducing; we only know that they’re super evil critters that Merlin thought needed to be confined for eternity. So… why would a skinwalker have a kid?
Grey doesn’t show the same “I scare the crap out of you” stuff to Dresden, except for a glimpse of his real eyes at the end to show what he is. But, half-skinwalker? Really? I want to know more. Arg.
Dude, Um, Not Funny
There’s a mixup where, rather than telling her father that she is now the Winter Lady, Molly lets her father think that she and Harry Dresden are an item.
The age gap is bad enough, but, as Dresden says, he’s known her since she was a child. He admits she’s attractive, but from the beginning, despite Molly’s interest, he has put a lot of effort into treating her as a human being and avoiding abusing his position of authority over her.
And this breaks that, just a little bit. I’m not sure which is worse — Molly letting her dad think that, or Dresden deciding to let Molly tell him the truth. It’s just awful, and I’m surprised that Dresden isn’t more upset about it. Perhaps he sympathizes, due to not having told the truth to his friends on many prior occasions… but, still.
Nicodemus is Scary
Well, now some things make a bit more sense.
Nicodemus knows so much because he has powers similar to those of the Archive. He can hear anything said within earshot of the shadow of a living thing, unless precautions are taken to prevent it, and by fairly powerful people.
No wonder he wanted to kidnap the Archive so badly in one of the earlier books — between the two of them, they’d know basically everything. World manipulation, to the max.
And, for once, we now have a good explanation for Dresden not telling his friends everything. Since Dresden can’t counteract that power himself, anything he says around people’s shadows could get back to Nicodemus’s ears.
Items of Power
I swear, someone needed to say, “You have chosen… poorly” to Nicodemus by the end.
He ended up with the Grail, but Dresden made off with four other, um, mystical artifacts: a crown of thorns (um), a piece of wood with a faded label (um, um), a faded bit of cloth (probably a real Shroud of Turin), and a knife.
The knife doesn’t fit the theme. Where’d that come from? And Dresden hints that maybe that item was the one Nicodemus could have done the most damage with…
Also, we now know where spirits of intellect come from: they spring from the minds of mortals who have in some manner, been associated in an act of love with a spirit, and are born with all the knowledge of both parents. Dresden was rather closely associated with the shadow of the demon Lasciel for a while, who sacrificed herself to save his life, so…
Dresden now has two daughters. Yay! I look forward to learning more about the brand new one.
But, now I’ve got to know: where did Bob, Dresden’s old spirit of intellect, come from? Did he kill off his mortal parent during birth? Does the manner of his coming into being have something to do with why Mab doesn’t like him? Hm.
And, given the resemblance to the old myth, does Athena exist? And is she some sort of ascended spirit of intellect?
Butters is Batman
Since this shows up, and is awesome, I’ll just mention it briefly. Butters makes the final set of his transition in this story, from the frightened coroner to hero in his own right. Despite his complete lack of natural talent, he does a pretty good job as an artificer, and takes advantage of Bob to power his magics as needed, from super-speed skateboard to cloak-parachute. At the end, he picks up a Sword, Fidelaccius. The blade was broken off earlier in the story, but when he picks up the hilt, it does a real, honest-to-goodness white Jedi lightsaber thing. Duuuuuuude.
It’s also fairly clear that the Christian God in this setting is pretty ecumenical. The Knights of the Cross that we’ve seen so far include a Catholic, a Baptist, an agnostic, and now a Jew.
Yup, it’s time for another book from the Dresden Files. Dresden has just finished being dead, so it’s time for him to avert yet another impending disaster. As ever — spoilers!
Nobody Tells Me Anything
As they say, poor communication kills. As I’ve noted in previous reviews, Dresden gradually gets better at avoiding this — the annoying, soap-opera like drama that occurs when somebody refuses to explain something important, or leaves out a critical detail. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anybody else is doing any better at it.
Mab, Queen of Winter, wants Dresden to kill Maeve, the Winter Lady. Which is… odd. And she never explains explicitly; she makes Dresden figure it out for himself. Most of the book could have been avoided (or simplified) if she had just explained herself… but she really doesn’t work that way, apparently.
On the plus side, Demonreach, the spooky island of great spookiness, is actually quite forthcoming. Movie included, curtesy of Bob the spirit-in-a-skull.
Oh, dear. As I expected, once you introduce Seven Laws of Magic that should never, ever be broken… they’re all going to get push, shoved, and shattered at one point or another.
This episode’s example is the law against meddling with time.
There are two parts to this. First, Merlin (yes, that Merlin) made a massive prison for epic supernatural evils of ultimate evil (think Cthulhu), and used time magic to construct it at five different times. This kind of makes me wonder if Merlin, who established those Laws of Magic, partially just wanted to avoid having somebody undo his work. Does using time magic have the same seductive appeal as other forms of dark magic (murder, meddling the people’s heads, etc.)? Or is it just that much more dangerous?
Said prison is the spooky island, Demonreach. And, at some level, it makes sense to have time magic be a part of the working. That’s part of Merlin’s traditional repertoire, and there are probably some big nasties whose time magic can be countered to prevent them from escaping.
But I’ve got to know: why was there an “echo” from the destruction of the island backward in time, warning everyone that it was about to be destroyed… when the island wasn’t actually destroyed? Or, if the echo was just from being attacked, why couldn’t our heroes tell the difference?
I want to know where the fey came from.
It’s not a trivial question, since the Queens of Faeries are clearly ancient; but how long have they been operating? We now know that Mab herself was once mortal. Was she the first Queen of Air and Darkness, however long ago that was? Were the Courts of Faerie explicitly established to protect the mortal world from Outsiders?
Did Merlin have anything to do with this?
I wonder how much is going to be answered in future books. It’s entirely reasonable to leave some questions unanswered — after all, that’s life — but there should be some reasonable explanation, even if we, the readers, are left to ponder the puzzle on our own.
It’s time for another round of the Dresden Files, and this one is a doozy.
If you haven’t read this far in the series yet, don’t read this review. The spoilers get increasingly large with time.
You Are Already Dead
In case you hadn’t guessed (or read the previous book), the story starts post-mortem. Dresden has to learn his way around as a ghost.
The whole business is a mix of entertaining and deadly serious. The reason why ghosts always look like they’re howling when they go through something? It’s actually painful to move through objects. Why are all the ghosts people actually notice, poltergeists? Because only insane ghosts are capable of manifesting, being seen, and moving physical objects. The previously seen rules about spirits being unable to cross thresholds and damaged by sunlight still hold. Ghost dust appears again, and so forth.
However, we also learn that ghosts are, essentially, living memories — so Dresden has to relearn how to use his magics as a ghost. There’s a lovely “oh crap” moment when he first realizes he can’t fling his usual Fuego.
That, and there’s the fact that he’s been sent back by an angel to solve his own murder.
Waldo Butters Rides Again
He’s back, and he’s still awesome. Waldo Butters is our clever everydude. In fact, while entirely lacking magical talent himself, he manages to end up with a couple of nice comments from Bob about his cleverness. He helps Bob design devices that let Dresden be seen and heard by normal mortals, despite being, well, dead.
For bonus points, he and a friend pretend to be Wardens in order to stall a bad guy long enough to deal with him. And does a pretty good job of pulling it off, at that.
Even though we don’t see the impacts on the mundane world, we get plenty of references to how the destruction of the Red Court of vampires has left behind a massive power vacuum. The White Council is busy putting out a thousand brushfires, the Fomor and others are making various power-grabs, along with assorted other individuals trying to take advantage of the chaos. I appreciate the inclusion of consequences that both make sense… and which have our protagonist kicking himself for not thinking of them. Speaking of which…
The Ghost and the Unreliable Narrator
This is, in my opinion, one of the best aspects of the novel.
We’ve seen the use of the unreliable narrator before in the Dresden Files series. (The most clear example being when the Queen of Winter had messed with Dresden’s mind, to prevent him from using his fire magic.) However, this particular variant takes the cake.
The whole deal is explained near the end of the novel. The answer to “who killed Dresden?” is… Dresden himself. He hired Kincaid to shoot him, and then made Molly wipe his mind of what he had just done. Why? Because he thought that, as the Winter Knight, he would inevitably become a cold, unstoppable monster.
But, one of the Fallen had meddled, pushing him into do it, by saying seven words and making Dresden think they were his own thoughts. So, an angel got to settle the score by saying seven more words. (Of course, that angel was sneaky, and got Dresden to volunteer for the ghost deal.)
Regardless, Dresden has a big old “What the hell, hero?” moment. He made a deal with the devil and took suicidal actions that damaged the sanity of his apprentice. He’s not sure what else he would have done, but he realizes that what he forced Molly to do crossed a line. And, in helping rescue her at the end, he helps to make that right. A little bit. Dresden’s help consists mostly of telling her to call the cavalry…
You Shouldn’t Have Left The Ectomancer With A Basement Full Of Wraiths
This is one of the other aspects I like about the series — the characters are not static, and characters other than just Dresden get some pretty good character development.
Mortimer Lindquist is one of those characters. He started out as a has-been medium whose powers had seriously faded. Now, after a few separate appearances, he’s back to full strength as a world-class ectomancer. He’s a small, bald and unimposing man. He’s also really, really good at handling ghosts.
So, it makes sense that our villain would, in her hurry to try to take over Molly’s mind, forget about him. Morty is pretty forgettable.
He still doesn’t like fights, but if you leave him with a whole bunch of wraiths… well. If you’re a ghost, he can take you out.
The failure of the Corpsetaker is also believable. Given the arrogance of the character and her great desire to possess someone as powerful as Molly, she overreached. And she… overlooked a little detail. It’s kind of annoying when a villain fails due to doing something dumb, but here, I can buy it. Since it’s just one… small… mistake…
It’s Not Quitting Time Yet
So, thanks to Mab and Demonreach… and some mysterious magical parasite… he’s not dead. And looks to recover. And, with a hint from an angel, he knows that Mab can’t change who he is. On to the heroics in the next novel!
That parasite, by the way? I suspect it’s what’s been giving Dresden nasty headaches that have gotten a mention in a few of the previous books. But we learn more about that in the next book — Cold Days.
This is the “wham episode” for the Dresden Files. It’s the only book that breaks the title two-word potentially-punning naming scheme. It also changes everything. The long running plot takes a sudden, sharp turn. And, also, stuff blows up.
If you thought the earlier books were a wild ride… hoo boy.
Oh, The Drama
Is this a soap opera now?
If you thought the brother that Harry Dresden didn’t know about was bad, it just gets worse in this book.
In fact, at least twice as bad.
The first big twist is that, actually, Harry has a daughter with his old flame, Susan Rodriguez.
Who didn’t tell him about it. Their little girl is around seven or so. Also, she’s been kidnapped by the Red Court of vampires.
Dresden is rather understandably furious. He’s mad at Susan for lying to him (by omission, at best), and even more mad at the Red Court. It’s Papa Wolf time. He goes a bit overboard, in fact. Still, I wonder if there wasn’t a less… overtly dangerous approach he could have taken. More on that later.
It gets better, though. It turns out that Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, is actually his maternal grandfather. An item kept (mostly) secret for everybody’s safety. At least in this case, the secret has been floating around long enough that some people had figured it out before the story opens, notably including a group of Red Court vampires. Again, oops. At least this makes all the secret-keeping feel a little more realistic, since the information did actually leak.
If both secrets had been out, and openly discussed? Then, surely, McCoy and Dresden together could have found a safe place for Maggie (Dresden and Susan’s daughter) to grow up away from all the things that go bump in the night – as Dresden eventually does. Instead of Susan just relying on her contacts in the anti-vampire underground, some of whom were ultimately untrustworthy.
Meanwhile, I’m just frustrated at all the secrets being kept. Seriously, people, those don’t help anybody. It just makes everything messier. And it also makes me wonder who Dresden’s maternal grandmother was.
A Deal With The Devil You Know
Dresden makes a dangerous deal to save his daughter.
Oh, yes he does.
He was in a bit of a rough spot after some adventuring resulted in a spinal injury which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Which makes it kind of hard to lead an assault through the parallel world of the Nevernever and from there to southern Mexico. So, he accepted the offer of Queen Mab to become her vassal. This required that he kill Lloyd Slate, the previous Winter Knight, in order to take up the position himself.
Spinal injury repaired. Magical mojo increased. But now he serves at the whim of Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, one very scary fairy indeed. It’s a particularly interesting twist, given that he’s been resisting her attempts to recruit him for many of the previous books. But, it’s plausible, since he knows several other ways of picking up the power he wants quickly — this is just the least horrific one. And he’s apparently willing to sacrifice pretty much anything to rescue his daughter.
As part of the bargain, has leave from Mab to rescue his daughter. But he fears that he will become a monster afterwards. Speaking of which…
The Well-Intentioned Extremist
Admittedly… the stakes are high. Especially once Dresden realizes that the Red Court vamps are going to kill Maggie in order to power a bloodline curse. One which will kill Dresden, Susan, his brother Thomas, and (he later realizes) Ebenezar McCoy. Which would be bad.
Dresden, having spent much of his life as an orphan, has some extra angst and bonus anger when anybody threatens his family.
This is adequate motivation for him to push his limits. We’ve seen that before — when he started a war with the Red Court over their attack on Susan Rodriguez, and also burned down a building. We’ve also seen it in his efforts to help Thomas. So it’s not out of character.
This is a delicate line to walk in the writing, however. It’s hard to sympathize with a protagonist who goes over the moral event horizon. Dresden probably manages to avoid going in too deep, at least so far — which is helped along by the fact that the bad guys are utterly evil. On the other hand, to keep him in a place where the reader can root for him, Dresden is going to have some serious regrets after all is said and done. In fact, it’s even worse than we realize in this book… but I’ll talk about that when we hit the sequel.
Meanwhile, in less psychological terms…
You Blew Up What??
Dresden causes a… small earthquake at Chitchen Itza, the big, famous Mayan pyramid in Mexico. With the associated considerable damage.
Also, because he redirected the bloodline curse onto Susan as she turned into a vampire, he ended up killing all of the Red Court vampires. All of them. Which means there are lots of bodies with their hearts exploded out of their chests, in addition to all the numerous other mortal and vampire bodies that are lying around the site.
And, still… the Masquerade prevails. If that kind of event occurred in reality… there’d be some hell to pay. Starting from that little earthquake. Earthquakes are closely monitored, and can be observed far from the area where high-tech seismic sensors would be damaged by the magic being flung around. The close monitoring is for two reasons. First, to learn about and understand earthquakes, learn how to manage living in earthquake-prone areas, and provide some amount of warning when a large earthquake occurs. Second, to watch out for nuclear bomb tests. (The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the related monitoring systems are the relevant information, if you’re interested. And here’s the Wikipedia article.)
This kind of monitoring is actually one of the ways we know so much about the North Korean nuclear tests. Since those are largely surface events, they’re relatively straightforward to tell apart from natural earthquakes.
Dresden’s actions? Not a natural earthquake. There would be people flying in there in very short order to try to figure out what the heck just happened. And then call for backup after realizing something funny was going on on the ground.
You could argue that the Red Court has (had…) enough influence in the area to avoid being disturbed, but that would be difficult. Ignoring a potential nuclear strike is not exactly in the national interest. Besides, the Red Court has been largely identified with the drug cartels, and I don’t think that’s quite enough influence to get the military to overlook threats to national security.
So, here is where I say that Dresden is definitely not our reality. Even with a lot of handwaving, I can’t quite make it fit. Nonetheless… I’m looking forward to the point where, as the story progresses, the Masquerade inevitably comes down. Perhaps during the Apocalyptic Trilogy that Butcher has planned.
As the Dresden Files books (and plots) get thicker, I’ll be covering fewer of them in each post. For this one, it’s Small Favor and Turncoat.
As always, spoilers follow…
Spooky Island Time
This is another case of a minor reference becoming a more significant plot point as time goes on, revealed in Small Favor. The island is eventually named Demonreach by Dresden. Just how appropriate the name is isn’t fully revealed until later in the series, but we do learn early on that it’s a genius loci, a kind of sentient location. Dresden makes friends with it, and uses its help to put the hurt on a group of serious nasties. One interesting capability this gives him is an automatic sense of everything that’s on the island, so long as he is also on the island. This is impressively useful (for things like spotting various bad guys chasing after him or setting up an ambush), but has reasonable limitations. For instance, it’s not always straightforward for him to identify a human he doesn’t know, since Demonreach also doesn’t know who they are.
Of course, this is another case where the Masquerade that hides the supernatural from prying eyes is a bit strained. We have a whole island out in Lake Michigan which is essentially unplottable in the Harry Potter sense, where it’s impossible to put it on a map… or find it with a satellite. Plus, all records of the island have been destroyed in order to prevent people from repeating the bad idea of trying to live there. And, for bonus points, most normal mortals just steer around the place without even realizing it’s there, because it’s spooky. Or something. Which is good, because otherwise they’d get shipwrecked on the rocks and shallows near the island.
This is… kind of impressive. And I’m still not sure how you’d actually fool the satellites that Google Maps uses. It takes a lot for there to be a lost island in this day and age – especially in a body of water as well-traveled and instrumented as Lake Michigan.
A Donut With Sprinkles
I love these.
Both the donuts and the characters that instigate them. Throughout Small Favor, Dresden is hounded by a group of fairies called Gruffs. That’s right, like the billy goats gruff. Dresden fights off one (or a few), and then they send in their older and tougher siblings.
The Eldest Gruff? Is dangerous in the wizened little old man sense. Dresden knows that he’s not going to be able to take this guy, and that this gruff has probably found him via a pin given to him by the Summer Queen. The pin grants him the ability to claim a favor from the Summer Court, but it also lets them track him down.
Once the Eldest Gruff shows up, he very politely states his intentions and his regret at having to kill Dresden. In turn, Dresden politely requests that the Eldest Gruff fetch him a cake donut, with icing and sprinkles. The Gruff protests slightly at the difficulty of this request, and how it will delay his current task, but eventually gives in.
And thus, Dresden avoids a fight. This is nicely done — an excellent example of Chekhov’s gun, where a relatively minor detail ends up being important later, and in this case, used to very good effect. This is excellent. That, and I love a clever character. (And the scene where Thomas is trying to figure out where the donut came from… priceless.)
Oh, the character development. Turncoat has a lot of it. Morgan is one of the most notable ones.
This guy is… well, a jerk. Dresden uses stronger language. Morgan is the Javert-like character who appears in the very first book, hounding Dresden. Dresden was recently convicted of using black magic but out on parole. Morgan was (and is) convinced that Dresden will eventually slip up and use black, forbidden magic. And hopes to then end Dresden’s parole by chopping off his head.
Morgan is a classic Well-Intentioned Extremist. He follows the laws of magic, strictly enforces them, and expects others to do the same. He has no patience or mercy for those who violate them, or who threaten the White Council. And he hates Dresden for “getting away with it.”
In Turncoat, he gets some poetic comeuppance — he is falsely accused of murdering another member of the White Council. He flees, after protesting his innocence… to the one man he knows will be sympathetic to his plight.
It’s a terrible pity that Morgan ends up dead after all is said and done. I would have liked to have seen what happened to him, after he realized the dangers of his extremely rigid values system and unwavering loyalty, and that Dresden wasn’t as much of a danger to the White Council as he thought. The character of Morgan actually makes an important point — people are complicated. Good and bad are mixed together. Reality itself is generally not black and white. Even people who seem to be complete monsters may love their pets or help little old ladies cross the street. Even people who seem entirely virtuous may fudge their taxes, kick a dog, or yell at their kids. Few people think of themselves as the “bad guy” in their own stories, and this is often overlooked in stories about epic battles — the bad guys are often pure evil. Morgan? Morgan thought he was the heroic good guy. Even when what he did to Dresden was abusive at best. His character is good, but I think we see the best of him in this book.
Mind Magic Comes Back For Another Round
Oh, man. I don’t usually sympathize with Morgan’s extremism, but this is one place where I come close.
Mind magic is fricking scary. Morgan’s reaction to Molly’s slight poking around people’s brains is extreme, but poking around people’s brains without their consent is a violation of the laws of magic.
Why was she doing it? Because she suspected somebody else had already been mucking with other people’s brains. She finds Dresden seems to be okay, but… otherwise, she was right. Notably, Captain Luccio, the head of the Wardens and Dresden’s current love interest, has been mind-whammied. Plus a bunch of the other younger Wardens, and some subtle manipulating of the Senior Council… yes, it’s that bad. And this was done primarily by a single wizard, taking advantage of all the mind magic he can use to lay low a very large number of wizards with a single code phrase. Smart bad guys make the plot interesting.
It also gets worse, since Luccio was only interested in Dresden due to the mental manipulation. (The bad guy wanted to keep an eye on Dresden, since he didn’t often get within mind-magic-manipulation range of the bad wizard in question.) That gets… understandably awkward. She’s essentially suffered physical date rape by proxy, or something to that effect. She doesn’t blame Dresden for it, since he thought she was willing; and he doesn’t blame her, since it wasn’t her fault, either, but they’re both significantly traumatized.
That exploration of mind magic I was considering? Well, this is a taste of how ugly it can get.