Harry Dresden started out life as a Chicago Wizard, listed in the phone book. Over a significant number of books, Harry has grown in power, both in terms of the enemies and allies he gathers around himself and also in terms of his own access to powerful abilities. While at first, Harry’s actions were centred around his clients and his friends, over time they have become world threatening, and involved the mightiest of beings in the universe, in many cases, literally. That is starting to present Jim Butcher with a problem, and it’s starting to show.
There’s no great mystery to a basic urban fantasy novel. Give your protagonist something they have to fix, the risk of success and failure being emotionally significant. Then, over a number of acts, make their attempts backfire or make things worse. Finally, have them pull it out of the bag but make sure there’s always a price. For urban fantasy writers who want a long running series, you need to throw in a few long running arcs, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, and then you need to start tying the stories together; linking them back to that arc.
The skill in delivering a good read isn’t just knowing that basic template, the skill is wrapping a story around it filled with people you can empathise with, root for and cry for. It’s in delivering a compelling narrative, hiding the clues in plain sight, giving us sparkling dialogue, and the hundred other things that good craftsmen and women demonstrate in their writing.
Jim Butcher is undeniably excellent at his craft. He may have off-days (I found Ghost Story lacking), but Skin Game is an emotional blockbuster. Harry Dresden is on form, and I’m not ashamed to say there are plenty of scenes in the book that made me weep and cry, sometimes for joy, sometimes in relief, and sometimes in pure sadness. The pacing is great, the dialogue is just magical, and the other characters are as excellent as always.
However, the bones are still showing inside the emotional flesh of the story. There’s an element of ‘we can’t kill Harry so we’re always going to have to kill his friends’ that Butcher just can’t get around. He’s built Harry up to be invincible for physical and political reasons, and the net result is that no matter how much he gets brutally injured (and he does, often), you know the ultimate step is going to be an attack on his friends and family.
It’s inevitable, and it happens a couple of times in the book (not mentioning when). Jim’s skill of course, ensures that the scenes in which it happens are emotional, gripping and thrilling, and that compensates, and ensures the book is still going to get great ratings, but some part of me is sitting outside of that, rationally reminding myself that Jim has a problem.
Skin Game is a heist story, of supernatural proportions. The gang is put together, the heist is planned, and then the game is afoot. It is engaging, funny, thrilling, sad, joyous and emotional in all the right places. Some of the scenes are truly sublime, and it’s got many of the long standing characters from the series. In fact, like Cold Days it really starts to tie many of those characters and events together into a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world of Dresden.
But there’s one scene I can’t get of my head. It’s not a big spoiler. Dresden goes to see Michael. Dresden stands on the doorstep and tells Michael that he thinks he might need help, and that he thinks he’s lost. Given how I felt about Ghost Story, and Cold Days when I first tried to read it, I can’t but wonder if that was Jim asking the same question.
How does he fit a story around Harry now that Harry is the character he is. What’s next, and how can he possible contain it?
It’s a rather rambling review, for which I apologise. After being disappointed with Ghost Story, I tried Cold Days but didn’t quite finished it. Trying again, I re-read Cold Days recently, enjoying it more than the first time and immediately picked up Skin Game. Skin Game is an excellent urban fantasy novel, it’s emotional and entertaining, and it really does drive the story of Dresden forward, but is it sustainable? Is Dresden’s power sustainable, and are the stories sustainable in the face of it?