Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

Reviewed by John Popham

Skin Game, the fifteenth entry in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, will be a pleasing read for most of Mr. Butcher's dedicated fan base.   Indeed, a week having passed since Skin Game's release, most of said fan base have already bought the book, read the book and pronounced the book a triumph.  Mind, some were pronouncing Skin Game a triumph before it arrived on their doorstep or in their e-reader.  All of which is as it should be; the reason why we call them dedicated fans and true believers.   

This review is not for them.

I encountered Harry Dresden for the first time in New York City's Penn Station, where I picked up a copy of Summer Knight (book number four) for the train ride back to DC.  Summer Knight is a clean, well balanced story about how a down-on-his luck gumshoe/wizard, punching well out of his metaphysical weight class, solves a  murder mystery and thereby saves Chicago from a supernatural war and himself from execution by his superiors on the White Council of wizards. Having reread the series last year, I still regard Summer Knight as the best written book in the Dresden Files series. 

As the series has moved onward through its next eleven iterations, Mr Butcher has managed to maintain the essence of the Dresden Files zeitgeist with a larger series story arc informed by events unfolding in each stand-alone episode. In each book Butcher has upped the ante, with Harry Dresden accruing power and allies but, in keeping with his role as underdog, always finding himself confronted by enemies more formidable than himself and battling against long odds.  Along the way Butcher has developed a compelling cast of supporting characters, many of whom are as popular with his fan base as Harry Dresden himself.

However, with Skin Game, this pattern is beginning to become unwieldy.

Skin Game is, in essence, a heist story in which Harry Dresden is required to collaborate with Nicodemus Archeleone; arch villain, host to a fallen angel and arguably the most formidable of Harry Dresden's enemies. Nicodemus made his first appearance in Death Masks, the book that followed Summer Knight, and immediately proved his Evil Overlord bone-fides.  He is a fan favorite in the Dresden pantheon of bad-guys, and the prospect of Harry having to assist Nicodemus in planning and executing an Oceans' Eleven style robbery of a Greek god's metaphysical valuables vault has had Dresden's followers all a-buzz.

Harry is compelled to assist Nicodemus by Mab, faerie queen of air and darkness.  This is due to Harry having taken the job as Winter Knight, chief enforcer for Mab.  That and the fact that there is something in Harry's head that will burst out in a few day, killing him and very likely those he cares about, if he doesn't complete the job in time. Nicodemus, of course, intends to kill Harry before the festivities conclude. Harry knows this.  Nicodemus knows Harry knows this.  Harry knows Nicodemus knows Harry knows this, and so on.  So, all the elements are in play for a merry romp.  And it is a well executed romp for the most part.

Typically a Dresden Files book includes multiple threats and plot threads that Harry has to deal with, each creating complications for the others. For example, in Death Masks, Harry has to deal with Nicodemus' plot to set a plague loose in Chicago, arrange and fight a duel with a vampire nobleman, and find the recently stolen Shroud of Turin.  The result in Butcher's hands is usually a story that unfolds at breakneck pace, with many plot-element balls in the air and plates spinning perilously a-wobble, until the reader is finally allowed to draw breath as the story comes to its close.  Of late, however, Mr. Butcher has had to limit the number of competing plot lines.  In Skin Game, he is reduced pretty much to one. The series has lost its early lightness of foot over time and, though Butcher takes care to keep Harry's snark and banter undimmed, the current book lacks much of the series' trademark velocity and agility.  Skin Game takes flight whenever we are dealing with the heist, but it frequently gets bogged down in explication and fan service.

Harry Dresden, Wizard of the White Council, Warden of Demonreach and Winter Knight is struggling against the weight of his own back-story.

The Dresden Files appears to be suffering from a case of Series Bloat. That it has taken fifteen books for this to become evident speaks well to the care Butcher has taken in writing The Dresden Files to date. In Changes, the eleventh book in the series, Butcher pruned back some of the growing underbrush of characters, setting and subplots in order to create room for Harry's development as Mab's Winter Knight. However, Mr. Butcher is something of a character hoarder and in the three books following Changes the back-story underbrush has grown as thick and tangled as before. Skin Game alone introduces at least four new characters from whom I expect return appearances, and several return appearances from characters I'd hoped not to see again.

Then there's the Superman conundrum.  As Harry becomes more and more powerful, so must his enemies.  As both Harry and his enemies become more powerful, his friends and allies as written in the early books are correspondingly weaker by comparison. For example, the rough and tough pack of werewolves who are invaluable to Harry in book four are, by book fourteen, relatively useless as allies, being more or less as vulnerable to the forces at play as the hapless humans Harry must protect.  To offset this, Butcher has resorted to 'power-ups' to keep fan-favorite characters relevant to the action and in play.  Two such power-ups occur is Skin Game, and to me both came off as rather shameless dies ex machina plot devices disguised as fan service.

Further, as Harry becomes more powerful, it's becoming harder and harder for Butcher to credibly impede his hero when the plot requires it.  Despite all Harry's accrued power, Butcher persists in allowing Harry to be stymied by foes who should no longer be a credible threat to him. Despite the accompanying explication, Butcher is unconvincing more often than not in such cases.  Indeed, Butcher devotes a good part of Skin Game to dialing back Harry's Winter Knight powers somewhat in order to make the character more manageable.  Suddenly they are revealed to be much more limited than the readers were once led to believe; the Winter Knight's potency or lack thereof subject to the immediate needs of the narrative.  The result is a Harry Dresden only marginally more powerful than he was before he compromised his basic principles in order to take up the mantle of Winter Knight.

Such writing, while convenient for the author, detracts from Skin Game.

Still for all of that, Dresden Files fans will (and do) find a lot to like here.  While the book doesn't move as deftly as it ought to and the plot device machinery tends to clank and clunk, the essence of Harry Dresden and company still comes through.  For those new to The Dresden Files, Skin Game is not the book with which to begin and I would recommend starting early in the series, when Chicago was a simpler place.

The lives of Harry Dresden and the inhabitants of his Chicago have become, as Harry would say, complicated.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who has read the whole series, I found Skin Game wanting.

    Oh, I'm sure it pressed all the pleasure centres for the rabid fans. But Hell's Teeth, when was the last time a Dresden book ended on a 100% happy note ? This was a book written to advance a few plot details, clean up a few badly loose ends, and make "shippers" happy.

    I miss Harry as a gumshoe who was also a wizard. Actually this premise hasn't been in play since the earliest of books. Harry hasn't had a gumshoe job since well before Changes.

    Myself, I hope the series end the Winter Knight phase, and Dresden returns to a "normal" life in Chicago chewing gum and taking names. The concept of Dresden becoming more powerful and Butcher having to amp up the costs can be dialed back by making raw horsepower less of a benefit. Craft, and honed skill become more important than heft and natural gift.

    I absolutely hated the Oceans-11 style of Oh, hang on a minute, let me explain about how clever I was 12 chapters ago when I didn't explain what I did to be in a position now to win. To be honest, if the inserted chapter was placed in the natural narrative sequence, it would not have harmed the book at all. In fact, it would have made the character a far more reliable narrator. By using this literal tool, Butcher harmed the character.

    One of the series' strengths had been the need for sacrifice to fuel the greater good. Everything comes with a cost. In this book, this did not exist [for Harry at least]. Perhaps this was to emphasize the cost paid for greater evil, but I don't think so.

    As a note, Small Favor is a favorite, along with Summer Knight.

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