Foxglove Summer

 I don’t read that much these days, because it’s difficult to find stuff that really grabs my attention.  There are, however, a few exceptions, and the DC Peter Grant books (The Rivers of London series to some) are in that group.  I’ve been looking forward to the paperback release of the 5th book (Foxglove Summer) since it was announced (on account of me being too cheap to buy the hardback), and have been reading it in my lunch break at work since it arrived.

Ben’s style is very easy going, and that makes reading the books very easy as well.  The tone is informal and inviting and I often think, regardless of the content, I could spend hours just reading his prose and enjoy it in the same way you might enjoy a warm bath.

As is common in the kind of urban fantasy I read, Foxglove Summer has a crime to solve, and in the background there’s a long running arc, some impending doom or event that is being foreshadowed.  Painted over those two features are the lives of the characters that inhabit the story.  Unusually, Ben pretty much pushes all of the key characters into the sidelines in this outing, with DC Peter Grant being sent off out of London.  Other than Beverly Brook, the other regulars (Nightingale, Molly, Leslie, et. al) are all pretty much handled at arms length.  Peter is on his own, and while that presents some challenges, it also left me feeling a little bit bereft.

Two girls have gone missing, and what starts out being a routine check on practitioners for Peter, turns into a full-on Falcon event (the Police terminology in the book for ‘weird shit’).

The pace was okay, although as with some of the previous books, I felt again that the ending was quite damp.  This may be because I had to stop only a chapter from the end and then pick it up again, but it all feels quite gentle.  Maybe this is intentional, police work doesn’t finish with the final chase, but rather with all the paperwork afterwards, but it still leaves me feeling deflated.  In combination with the lack of supporting characters, this means I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the fourth in the series which I feel was much stronger.

However, it’s not all bad.  The police procedural elements are as fascinating as ever, the new characters were great, the setting was interesting and the magical elements were worth the effort.  Foxglove Summer is another quite low key story in the magic department after Broken Homes’ must stronger magical element, but as usual it’s blended with the other elements perfectly.

The humour is great, most of it being delivered through DC Grant’s PoV, which is as engaging and witty as ever.  I really could spend hours just reading about DC Grant going about regular police work.

The plot has twists, and the long running story arc is interesting (but you need to have read the others to get it).

Foxglove Summer is an interesting, entertaining read, albeit diminished by the reduced cast.  What the book lacks in tension, it makes up for with humour, wit and intelligence.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (5)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Gollancz
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

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?

 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?

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Jim Butcher
  • Series: Dresden Files (15)
  • Format: Hardback
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Cold Days

 Harry Dresden is back, and mostly kicking!  Being reunited with the body he is pretty fond of comes with a price; he now wears the mantle of the Winter Knight, the burden he tried so hard to avoid. Something is badly wrong in the Winter Court of Faerie and it’s now his job to solve it.  The pay freeze sucks though.

After the emotional overload of Ghost Story it was good to get back to a more ‘normal’ Harry (read those quotes as huge honking flashing ones!).  Apart from the first few chapters, the majority of the book takes place in a very short space of time, so the pace of the story as you can imagine is pretty much full on, breathtaking, balls to the wall action.

To say Harry is on a huge learning curve would be an understatement but he still manages with gusto, witty comments and his own imitable style. He gets reunited with most of the people I have grown to love and I consider them to be an integral part of Harry’s world.  Things changed however during the course of the previous book so it’s not just Mr Dresden who is learning a new way.

There are so many things I want to mention about this book but they would be complete spoilers so I will just say this – The things… that happened!  OMG NO WAY! and finally, Awesome!!  I think that about covers it 😉

I loved Cold Days so much, Jim Butcher’s writing style is so distinctive yet eminently readable and the flow just drags you in deeper, while the charm wraps itself around you and before you know it, you are caught.  Add in the laugh out loud moments, the pop-culture jokes, the shocks that smack you upside the head but then make complete sense and you have a book that stands head and shoulders above anything else in the genre.

I think Jim Butcher is holding out on us, I think he is a wizard and enthralls his readers, with his books as spells.  Or you know, he is just an awesomely good writer 😉  Either way, you need to read Cold Days!  If you haven’t experienced Harry Dresden yet, track down a copy of the first book Storm Front and get started, you won’t regret it!  I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Book Information
  • Author: Jim Butcher
  • Series: Dresden Files (14)
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)