Wednesday, August 17

Ghost Story (The Dresden Files #13, 2011)

By Jim Butcher

Stars and stones, I love this series! It may well be my favorite ongoing series of novels at this time. Luckily, as I understand it, there's a lot more on the way for me to enjoy in coming years, because the author has the story of Harry Dresden, the only consulting wizard to appear in the Chicago Yellow Pages, planned out for a total of about 24 novels and at least one more collection of short stories (there's been one already). Which is no mean trick considering the just previous novel, the twelfth in the series, entitled Changes, ended with the shocking twist of Harry shot dead and sinking into the cold, dark, November waters of Lake Michigan.

Of course, when there is no body – the tombstone pictured on the cover, proclaiming “HERE LIES HARRY DRESDEN. HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING,” is as described inside, actually a relic of a previous battle, thoughtfully provided for him by an enemy who did not succeed in putting him into what remains an empty grave – one has to wonder. Don't. He really is. In this book Harry appears as an insubstantial ghost, unable to touch or be touched, unable to communicate except through certain spiritually sensitive mediums and other supernatural means not of his own doing, because he is also – at least for a large part of the story – bereft of his magic. And yet he has been sent back to Chicago because, he is told, three of those he loves are in danger and their safety depends on him solving his own murder.

It is of course, not that simple (even the being dead part), and this book does a very good job of completing the major shift in this series that began in Changes. Going forward, I'm not sure what the overarching story is going to be, but it promises to be even grander than the escalating story of conflict between the various supernatural races and realms that most people don't even suspect are out there that constituted the first half of the series. I can't wait to read the next book – already announced as Cold Days – but with the typical year (this time it was a little more – like fifteen months) between volumes it's going to be excruciating.
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To say a few more words about this series as a whole, the best way to think of it is as the cover blurb from Entertainment Weekly puts it, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Philip Marlowe.” I find it an even more compelling story overall than the stories of that other wizard named Harry – which I like as well, don't get me wrong. Unlike some other series I've read which seem to fall into a rut after a few volumes – and here I'm holding modern series to a higher standard than the pulps I'm currently revelling in, where the formula is in fact part of the charm – sometimes becoming downright unreadable at a certain point (*cough* Cornwell's Scarpetta novels), Jim Butcher just seems to get better and better as a writer. His characters, Harry included, have developed into fully fleshed out people whom seem as real as any I've ever seen in fiction (heck, more real than some students I see in my classes) – even some of the denizens of faerie such as Harry's (literally) fairy godmother the Leanansidhe (I think it's pronounced “LANNin-shee,” but Harry calls her “Lea” for short). The systems of magic, the political and cultural geography of the supernatural (drawing from traditions and folklore around the world), and in this book the “reality” of being a ghost are wonderfully thought out and portrayed with internal consistency in which there are rules. That Butcher plays fair with. Sometimes creatively, but fair.

As to the supernatural/mystical world that Butcher has crafted, one thing that impresses me – as a Christian – is that unlike the Harry Potter series which can be read with all kinds of religious meaning and allegory but which in itself sidesteps any direct mention of Christianity or any other religion, Butcher includes major characters whose Christianity is fundamental to who they are. Harry's best friend, and father of his apprentice, is Michael Carpenter, a modern-day Knight until recently entrusted with one of three Swords bearing the Holy Nails from the Crucifixion. (Here's a very good short commentary on Michael.) A recurring character is Michael's priest, Fr. Forthill of St. Mary's of the Angels in Chicago (it's a real church!), a gentle soul yet powerful spiritual warrior in his own right (although I have to wonder why a Catholic priest  keeps a “well-worn” King James Version Bible beside his bed..., p. 238). The faith of Fr. Forthill and the Carpenter family is treated with great respect, both by Harry himself and by Butcher. (Here's an interesting blog post on the subject. I once read a really good article on-line about it, but can't seem to find it now. I printed it out. If I can find it, maybe it has the URL. [Sure enough, it was stuck between a couple of the books on my shelf, but the URL domain seems to be to something totally different now.  Pity.  I'm tempted to retype and -post it, making clear that it's not my own work, just because it's such a good treatment that it deserves to be out there.]) And some of the supernatural beings are straight out of Christian tradition. A guide and sort-of mentor in some of the later books (Ghost Story included) is the Archangel Uriel (don't just call him “Uri” - p. 453). Some of the Big Bads are explicitly Fallen Angels.  Harry himself is not a Christian, but I'm curious to see how his spiritual growth is going to progress going forward.

I really could go on and on about these books, but I won't. I do recommend them highly. If your only exposure to Harry Dresden is through the short-lived Dresden Files series that ran on the Sci-Fi channel a few years ago, do yourself a favor and pick these books up. Do start from the beginning, with Storm Front. Even though threads of what develops into a building story arc really start being weaved together in the third and fourth books, plenty of background and introduction of crucial characters comes virtually from the beginning. And it's all written in a very engaging, first-person narrative reminiscent of the best of noir detective novels, with plenty of humor and pop culture references thrown in – for geeks like me comic book and sci-fi references abound. The first book that I ever actually read by Butcher was a Spider-Man prose novel, and Spider-Man and X-Men seem to pop up as Dresden's standards for just about anything cool (such as the various “powers” that he now has as a ghost – walking through walls like Kitty Pryde, teleporting like Nightcrawler) if Star Wars hasn't come to mind first. He apparently is not a Star Trek guy – which is itself a plot point. He has the famous Hildebrand movie poster for Star Wars on the wall of his apartment (until … well, that's a spoiler). He does make an odd statement in this book, though: After his friend-in-a-skull (read the series to find out) Bob points out that “Spider-Man teamed up with the Sandman before. Luke and Vader [vs.] the Emperor,” Harry retorts, “Spider-Man is pretend and doesn't count.” –?! (p. 308) The point is, there are laugh-out-loud moments all over the place – and yet the sense of suspense and menace just build and build. It's a driving narrative that always keeps your interest right to the end, and keeps you wanting more.

I think you get the picture. I love The Dresden Files.


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