By Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher and his character Harry Dresden wowed me again. Ghost Story, (Roc, 2011, pp 481) the 13th installment in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, (not counting a collection of shorter works), opens sixth months after Changes with Harry Dresden at the crossroads and he is asked (again) to risk it all, this time his very soul, to solve a crime and help his friends.
The Dresden universe resembles contemporary Chicago complete with gangs and gangsters and the addition of magic and monsters; however, most people in Butcher’s Chicago don’t know that magic exists. Harry is the only wizard in the phone book and many of the books read like the hard-boiled PI novels they really are. The more-recent books are about Harry and his friends’ battles in a supernatural war.
A staple of this series has been Harry risking it all for his friends or innocents caught in the crossfire of various magical turfwars, as well as all out wars. The first installment Storm Front was published in 2000. It’s a solid start but the writing really takes off around books three and four. Butcher’s Dresden Files just gets and better.
While high stakes drive the plots forward in most of the Dresden Files books (and Ghost Story is no exception,) what sets this series apart from other urban fantasies is Butcher’s unique twists on the problems that complicate his characters’ lives and the extremely interesting solutions. For example: How many wizards do you know who would re-animate a T-Rex as a battle steed? Just saying.
This time around Harry is handicapped by circumstances that occurred at the end of Changes have made it almost impossible for him to tap into his powers. (I am purposely being vague because I don’t want to use the four-letter verb that will spoil Changes for those who have not read the Dresden Files.) Let’s just say, Harry must risk his soul or at least three of his friends will die. At least that’s what he’s told by someone he has cause to trust. Though maybe he should have asked more questions and looked at the fine print, but I love those flaws in Harry.
At the opening of Ghost Story, the defeat of the Red Court vampires (in Changes) created a power vacuum. Now, a new Big Bad (to borrow Buffy the Vampire Slayer jargon) and moderately-sized bads are trying to take over the world, Chicago, or just their little corner, er, sewer, of the Windy City.
These threats have caused Karrin Murphy, (Harry’s sidekick who is a former police detective and holder of two Swords of the Cross,) and their friends and allies to form an uneasy alliance with Chicago’s top crime lord Gentleman John Marcone and the White Court vampires, who could teach Machiavellian methods to old Niccolò.
To make matters worse, Harry’s friends are starting to distrust his apprentice Molly Carpenter, who was severely wounded both physically and emotionally during the final battle against the Red Court. It also doesn’t help matters that her new magical tutor is Harry’s godmother, Leanansidhe, who is pretty crazy on her good days and missed out on such progressive modern education techniques like not throwing the kid wizards in the deep end of the pool. All in all, Molly got some great excuses for PTSD.
Aside from Harry’s condition that stems from that spoiler verb that I’m not using, what sets Ghost Story apart from the other Dresden Files books is: Harry got introspection.
Harry’s always been the sort of guy to shoot fire and bullets and ask questions later. But in Ghost Story, his powers are severely reduced and his soul is on the line so he’s actually got to think things through. Like in Changes, he must face the consequences of his actions. Because of limitations on his powers, he has to take time outs and this forces him to take time and think, not something Harry has spent much of the past 13 books and several short stories doing.
Some things I missed in Ghost Story were Toot-toot and the other pixies (perhaps, no one was buying them pizza), Thomas, Dresden’s halfbrother and a White Court vampire, and Ebenezar McCoy, another wizard and Harry’s former mentor. However, I was pleased to see that Butters, the medical examiner who serves as Team Dresden’s battle medic, and Bob, a romance-novel-loving spirit trapped in a skull, returned and have grown as characters, especially Butters.
In spite of the introspection, Butcher delivers plenty of action and his own quirky brand of humor. Star Trek vs. Wars jokes abound as does fast pacing and high stakes. Yum! Molly’s mindset during a magical battle is a replica of the bridge of the Enterprise (Star Trek original series.) It’s a total riot. Though Butcher never explains how electronically challenged wizards managed to not accidentally destroy televisions and watch so much old school SF.
I’m looking forward to the 14th book, reportedly called Cold Days.