narfna’s #CBR5 Review #99: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

I don’t know what it is about this book, exactly, but I think it might be my favorite in the series so far. I’m giving it five stars because I really like the direction Butcher is taking this series in, and because it had all of my favorite Dresden stuff in it in a more fun way than the last two books, which were five star reads in a more intense way.

The book opens with Harry being in rehab for, well, for being dead for six months. You can imagine the recovery time for that. Mab has got Harry in Winter and is nursing him back to health by trying to kill once or twice a day. Classic Mab. When he’s recovered enough to take up his duties as the Winter Knight, that’s when the fun really starts. On top of most of the sidhe being out to get him, and his friends and family being pissed he didn’t tell them he was alive sooner, Harry has 24 hours to figure out who and what are going to blow up Demonreach, the island that Harry became the magical warden of several books back. If he doesn’t stop it, the explosion is going to take most of Illinois with it and release hundreds of thousands of demonic beings into the mortal world. And he has to do it all while trying to figure out who’s good, who’s bad, and which people in either group want him dead (the answer being lots on both sides).

There were so many things I liked about this book, it’s hard to list them out. I loved the whole tone of the thing, Harry having to face the challenge of coming back from the grave (so to speak — he wasn’t really technically “dead” after all), dealing with Molly and his brother (Thomas and Harry <3) and Murphy. I loved how different in structure and intent this one felt to all the others, especially the first eleven books (the last two broke the mold in their own special ways). I loved the lurk of Mab, and the uncertainty of her intentions. I loved the new fairy, who better end up being Toot’s girlfriend. I loved how the plot actually managed to surprise me, not once, but several times (a rare thing, simply because I read so much). I loved how each of Harry’s interactions with recurring characters show how far he and this series have come. I loved Demonreach, and Harry being inexplicably naked for the entire last part of the book. And I super loved the glimpse of The Big Stakes that we and Harry get, because it sets the whole series in a new context, and hints at the future to come.

The direction of the series from here on out is a complete mystery. Other than the vague hints we get (Harry and Molly working for Winter, for instance, and that giant wall of fighting fairies), Butcher’s previous rulebook just doesn’t seem to apply. There’s a lot of stuff in play right now, and it’s very exciting. Can’t wait for Skin Game to come out on 2014, and it’s been a blast catching up on this series this year.

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narfna’s #CBR5 Review #53: Changes by Jim Butcher

changesEverybody give Jim Butcher a slow clap. He’s finally written a book that impressed me so much that I’m willing to give it five stars. (It only took him twelve tries to get there!) I’ve been waiting for something awe-inspiring in order to bust out the five star rating, and I’m pretty sure this book qualifies.

Changes is a rather literal title. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find something within its pages that doesn’t represent a change in Harry Dresden’s life (or that of his friends and family), whether its something as minor as dealing with a broken wizard’s staff, or as major as learning you have an eight year old daughter that you never knew about. A daughter who has been kidnapped by a vengeance-seeking noble of the Red Court vampires. Harry deals with both in this book, and the whole range of the spectrum in between.

Actually, let’s list out all the changes that happen in this book, so I can better illustrate for you just how monumental this book is in terms of the whole arc of the series (this should be obvious, but DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED):

1. In the very first sentence of the book, we (and Harry) learn that he has an eight year old daughter, Maggie. She is the product of his one night reunion with Susan back in Death Masks. Susan never told him about her, and sent the little girl off to live with a foster family so she would be safe. Harry understandably becomes very, er, UPSET, about most of this information and remains that way for the rest of the novel.

2.
 Harry’s office, which has been with us since the very first paragraph of the first book, was blown up by Red Court vampires. (They get away with this, we learn, because they actually own the building. In a neat bit of continuity, Butcher mentioned that Harry’s rent went up a couple of books ago in passing, and it turns out that the Red Court buying the building was the reason why.)

3. The White Council is sidelined by a mysterious illness, and new Senior Council member Christos makes his power play. After books of inaction and thumb twiddling on the part of the Council, this is pretty significant.

4. Harry receives an inheritance from his mother: her knowledge of the ‘Ways’ of Faerie, an extensive collection of passages to and from the Never Never, which enables Harry to travel quickly from one place in the world to another.

5. Harry learns (finally, the dolt) that his apprentice Molly is in love with him.

6. Harry’s infamous car, The Blue Beetle, is finally and utterly destroyed, after eleven books of it being wrecked and fixed, over and over again. (Inside the car is also his wizard staff, which is also destroyed.)

7. Harry’s apartment is burned to the ground by minions of the Red Court, along with all of his worldly possessions (excepting a few illicit magical items he had hidden from the FBI, like Bob the Skull and The Swords). Again, this is a place well established in these books. It is kind of mind boggling that all of these things  Butcher has set up for as givens in his storyworld are just completely disappearing.

8. Harry gives in to Queen Mab and becomes the Winter Knight in exchange for the extra power he needs to save his daughter. (He also needs her to heal him, as he breaks his back falling off of a ladder while trying to rescue his neighbors from their burning building and seems to be paralyzed from the weist down.) This is actually probably the biggest change in the book as it has so much potential not only to change the way Harry views himself, but how he lives, and how the books from here on out are structured. He essentially gives up his freedom and independence in order to save his daughter, something inherent in the Dresden worldview as built up over twelve books, and as such, is not an act we can take lightly or that can easily (if ever) be undone in the world Butcher has created.

9. Susan becomes a full vampire of the Red Court and Harry kills her in order to destroy the entire Red Court (the machinations of this are too complicated to explain, just read the book). This is also a huge moment for him, as he murders someone he loves, knowing full well it doesn’t have to be done. He also takes responsibility for her murder of Martin, which caused her to become a vampire in the first place, as he essentially goaded her into it, knowing what the outcome would be (the destruction of the Red Court, the end of the war with the Council).

10. The entire Red Court is wiped out, thus ending the war that has been going on since book three, Grave Peril, when Harry rescued Susan from the Red Court vamp, Bianca. It’s fitting that he should be the one to end it, as he was the one that started it. This potentially has implications for the entire world as Butcher has created it, as Harry mentions that there were a lot of Red Court vamps hiding out in plain sight in powerful positions worldwide, and now they’ve just simply vanished.

11. Harry learns that his mentor, Ebenezer McCoy, is also his maternal grandfather.

12. Murphy loses her job as a cop thanks to the events of the book, and will presumably take up the holy sword Fiddelachius, and become a Knight of the Cross. This still leaves Amoracchius to be taken up by some unknown person in a later book.

13. In the aftermath of saving Maggie (Maggie having been bundled away to safety by Father Forthill) and before he takes up the mantle of Winter Knight, Harry finally makes a move on Murphy. She doesn’t reject him.

14. Oh yeah, and Harry dies. The book ends with him being shot by an unknown assailant while on the deck of Thomas’s boat, The Water Beetle, while waiting for Murphy to show up for their date. From what I’ve heard of book thirteen, Ghost Story, this is not a condition he will get out of in a hurry.

If I hadn’t already read a couple of interviews with Butcher where he pretty much stated it outright, this book would have clued me in that Butcher is playing the long game with this series, and this book was clearly designed as the pivot point. The series was often unpredictable before Changes, but it followed a general formula, where certain things were always a given. Now, though. That’s pretty much all shot to hell, and the next eight books in the series will be very different than what’s come before.* Because it was designed as a pivot point, a lot of previous storylines paid off here, and it was incredibly satisfying for that to happen after having spent twelve books with these characters. One of the advantages of television, which is why I always compare this series to TV, is that spending long periods of time with characters creates a different type of relationship between them and the reader.

*Supposedly, there will be twenty books in the The Dresden Files proper, to be followed immediately by a trilogy to be called The Big Apocalyptic Trilogy (tentatively to be titled, cutely, Hell’s Bells, Stars and Stones, and Empty Night, after the magical profanity Harry is prone to using).

Anyway, all of this is to say that I’m REALLY glad I stuck with this series after almost giving up on it after book three, and thanks to my buddy Dan in particular for giving me the recommendation in the first place. (One of my favorite things on the internet is this sentence he wrote in his review of Turn Coat: “It’s next to impossible for me to write anything about this series without it devolving into incoherent fanboy sputtering followed by a loss of consciousness.”) I figured if someone could possibly love something that much, it must be worth sticking around for. It took a while, but I turned out to be right. So thanks, Dan!

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #40: Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

3475161I’m going to keep this (relatively) short because I’m about 7 gajillion reviews behind, but this series just keeps getting better and better. There aren’t many series that I’ve read that up the ante like this as they go along. In fact, most start out really promising and then totally biff it along the way. The Dresden Files just keeps getting more interesting and exciting and emotionally complex. I think a lot of that might have something do with Butcher having started this series as a formulaic urban fantasy noir, but he’s taken it to another place in the decade plus since. It’s definitely not ‘epic fantasy’ but one might choose to use the phrase EPIC when describing it, if only because starting a new Dresden book lately makes me want to get on the floor and roll around and maybe squeal for a little bit.

Turn Coat is the culmination of the series-long feud between Harry and the Warden known as Donald Morgan, a hundred year old wizard who is also the de facto executioner for the White Council, and who’s had it out for Harry ever since he was sixteen years old. But this time, Morgan’s in trouble. He’s being framed for the murder of a member of the senior council, a murder which would also implicate him as a traitor, and he wants Harry’s help to find the real murderer. Why Harry? Because Morgan knows Harry has experience in being unjustly vilified, and also he would literally rather die than see an innocent man condemned. And yes, the irony in this situation is delicious, for Harry and for us as readers. On top of that whole situation, Harry is being chased by a scary-ass monster called a Skinwalker, and his involvement in the case threatens not only his own safety, but that of his friends and family.

I didn’t like this one as much as I liked Small Favor or as much as I’m liking Changes, but it’s pretty damn good. Morgan has always been a frustrating character for me, and he remained so for most of this book, but his arc wraps up nicely by the end. The flavor and intensity of the plot movement in this book hints that big stuff is coming, and Harry takes some pretty significant losses. The fact that these losses seem to largely be foreshadowing is a frightening thought. (And if some of them don’t get, um, fixed, I’m going to throw a shit fit.)

On to book twelve.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #35: Small Favor by Jim Butcher

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I’m not sure when exactly I turned the corner from ‘like’ to ‘love’ on this series, but I realized somewhere in the middle of this book that I had, and it’s totally going to affect the way I read the rest of the series. I am famous (FAMOUS I TELL YOU!) for my inability to be objective when it comes to books that I love. (Seriously, try me. Say anything bad about Harry Potter at all and I will rage-punch your stupid face in about two seconds.)

The other thing about this review is that I’m quickly coming to realize there’s a certain amount of challenge in reviewing books in a series this big (23 books, eventually, 14 of which have been published so far). Unless something goes wrong, or changes significantly, it’s hard to keep finding things to say other than I LOVE THIS OH MY GOD. (Or, alternatively, THIS IS SO ANNOYING OH MY GOD.) Maybe I should start taking notes.

So: Small Favor. Queen Mab of the Winter Court of the Sidhe has called in the second of three favors Chicago’s only Wizard P.I. (and now Warden of the White Council), Harry Dresden, owes her. She wants Harry to rescue everyone’s favorite mobster and sometime associate of monsters, fairies, and wizards, Gentleman Johnny Marcone. This isn’t something Harry is much interested in doing, but Mab, er, insists. Almost immediately, other crazy stuff starts happening, so Harry knows it can’t be a coincidence. The freaking billy goats gruff (called Gruffs, in a significantly larger and more scary rendition of the classic folk tale) have been set on him, probably by Summer. And last but certainly not least: The Denariians are back in town, and they start causing trouble pretty much immediately. It doesn’t take Harry long to tell that all of these events are somehow related, and he blunders through the investigation in his usual way, with his smart ass quips and uncanny instincts, putting himself in constant danger and getting the shit beat out of him every five minutes. All of this of course leads to Harry solving the mystery and then concocting a plan of epically stupid proportions guaranteed to put everyone’s life in danger even if it works.

The plot itself is mostly really spot on (it got a little too action heavy in the middle for my tastes), and there’s some really satisfying mytholgy/arc stuff that is revealed in this one. Harry finally gets some satisfaction, if you know what I mean. He finally tells someone about Lasciel’s shadow (first Murphy, then Michael), and the whole thing comes to a head with Michael and all of them doubting him. Butcher slips in a cool little mindfuck that I won’t spoil. I also got the distinct feeling that Butcher is moving us steadily away from rooting for Murphy/Harry as a romantic pair, and that’s good (I could also be very wrong about that, but with his life-span and emotional issues, I’m not seeing it ever working out between them). Small Favor was also full of plot points from previous books coming back to bite Harry in the ass. Murphy looks like she might be the one to take possession of the sword that Shiro gave him back in Death Masks. Harry now has two of them, incidentally.This one also sees the return of Kincaid and Ivy, and also brings Luccio into his inner circle (sort of) when she totally wants to bang him.

Like I said, a bit action heavy in the middle, but the end is the perfect combo of both action and emotional resolution. Plus it will never not be funny that in the middle of battle with the eldest Gruff brother, in what reads as a completely absurd moment, Harry finally cashes in the boon Summer gave him back in Summer Knight by asking for a donut with sprinkles on top, and it’s the only thing that saves his life. Plus, the way James Marsters reads that line when he asks for the donut, it’s even more fucking hilarious.

Some set up for future books: Harry’s Wizard Sight is coming in, the island where the battle takes is obviously important in future events, Harry’s new ability to weild soulfire (and the introduction of the Watchman, Uriel), the Black Council’s been poaching for both sides, apparently, and Buthcer strongly hints that Lucifer is somehow involved. Yeah, that Lucifer. Anyway, I will probably zoom through the rest of this series pretty quickly. I’d been planning to read one book a month, but I’d guess I’ll be done by July at this rate, and then I’ll have to wait for new Dresden books like the rest of you schlubs.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #9: White Night by Jim Butcher

So: White Night. A typical installment of The Dresden Files. Or not. Maybe that’s something I would have said back when I was reading books one through three, but I’m actually really impressed with the way that Butcher has fleshed out the world that wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden lives in over the course of the nine books in the series I’ve read so far.

In fact, the further I go in the series, the more I think that the way it’s progressing is much more akin to that of a hybrid procedural/serialized TV series than a series of novels. Each book could easily be compared to an episode, especially considering that each of them cover only a period of days. Like in an episode of Warehouse 13, just to pick one example, there’s a self-contained mystery that usually sprawls out to cover a variety of storylines, and then there’s the over-arching serialized stuff that gradually develops book after book. Fringe worked this way, too, for a while. Probably what’s really grabbed me about this series at this point is that Butcher is clearly not afraid of shattering the status quo and letting the story develop and change. Stories like that are my kryptonite.

This one takes place nearly a year after the last one, with Molly Carpenter firmly ensconced as Harry’s wizarding apprentice. Harry is having trouble impressing upon her the danger of her new job — she still thinks it’s a game, sneaking out to investigations when Harry has told her to stay behind, stuff like that. And Harry is also having trouble with his temper — good old fallen angel Lasciel is beginning to affect his personality, and it’s starting to scare people. Then somebody starts murdering women magic practitioners in the area, and Harry’s half-brother, Thomas, is the main suspect. Things escalate from there.

With the exception of one overly long and sort of pointless flashback (the first of its kind in the series, I believe), the pace on this thing just chugs along. The mystery got a bit convoluted at a couple of points, but overall, it was interesting and fun, and contributed to the story the whole series is trying to tell. His relationships with his friends and family are strengthened and he finally gets rid of his Lasciel problem for good. And as has been the case with the last couple of books, most of the players are people we’ve met before, which is something I really like as it adds depth to Dresden’s world.

I still have some issues with Butcher’s prose (his INCREDIBLE overuse of the world ‘quietly,’ for example), but honestly at this point I probably have no right to complain, because I keep reading the things, don’t I? If I want the story, I’m going to have to do deal with it (seriously, though, I searched on a Nook and the last book had 200+ instances of that word — it has lost all effect at this point and is now just incredibly annoying).

On to book ten soon*, probably in April.

*With the exception of book 13, which James Marsters wasn’t available to narrate, I will be listening to all of these on audiobook, because James Marsters is the voice of this series for me now. I love that man.