Ghost Story

It’s been a bit of a wait, but the newest volume of the Dresden Files has arrived.  It took me a while to get it because of some extenuating circumstances, but now that I’ve read it, let me share my thoughts.

Also, before going on, I should point out that I’m going to reveal many core plot details in this review since I don’t know how to discuss Ghost Story in a spoiler free manner.  If you’re planning on reading the book, then wait until you’ve finished before you Let me start with the cover, if only because it’s the first thing we see.  Unlike most of the Chris McGrath Dresden covers, this one actually depicts a location in the book.  One of Harry’s enemies prepared a grave and headstone in a previous book (one of the five I haven’t read), and it gets use here as a refuge for Harry during the day.  Why?  Because Harry is a ghost and sunlight vaporizes ghosts.

The one thing that makes Ghost Story an interesting read is that Harry Dresden, confident wizard, is totally out of his element.  He’s lost, he’s not a powerhouse, what magic he eventually puts together only works on ghosts and spirits, nothing physical.  He thinks a few hours have gone by, only its been six months since the end of Changes, the only Dresden book that ends on a cliffhanger.

One of the things I really enjoy about the Dresden Files is that Jim Butcher skillfully assembles a story that progresses an overall plot, works with recurring themes and characters.  Butcher keeps the individual volumes paced in such a way that you can read any book in the series and know what’s going on.  This is true about Ghost Story, maybe to a fault.

As a story about Harry Dresden solving his own murder as a ghost, you would expect a few things to happen.  You would think Dresden would go see his loved ones.  You would think he would search for clues and evidence.  You might even expect him to question someone about his death.  It doesn’t quite work out that way.  Dresden goes to see his would-have-been girlfriend and closest ally, Karrin Murphy.  He eventually tracks down his apprentice, Molly Carpenter.  Dresden does not visit his brother, Thomas, at least not until the last ten pages of the book.  Dresden also does not visit his best friend, Michael Carpenter, Molly’s father.

And that part about investigating his murder?  He gets to ask his fairy godmother three questions, the third of which is, “Say, who killed me?”  This one question accounts for close to 100% of Dresden investigating his own death.  So, with a longer than usual Dresden Files book, what’s Butcher doing with all those extra pages?

First, Butcher does some fantastic world building.  On page 4, when Dresden decides to explore the afterlife a ghost tells him, “Don’t bother, kid.  Out there’re all the buildings that coulda been, as well as the ones that are.  You’ll give yourself a headache if you keep thinking at it.”  It’s a great piece of dialogue that makes me want to know exactly what that version of Chicago looks like.  It pulls me into the story on a direct imaginative level.

The second thing Butcher does is go into the consequences of Changes.  Most of the character elements, especially with the supporting cast, are built solidly on the consequences of Harry’s absence.  Everything from the building set up on the ruins of Harry’s apartment to the physical appearances of Molly and Karrin, this is where the lasting changes to the Dresden Files are introduced.  These changes are so severe, even compared to “Aftermath,” the post-Changes story about Murphy’s new path, there are three eras for the series: pre-Changes, where the Red Court vampires war with White Council wizards; “Aftermath,” where things are like before, only without Red Court and with some Fomori invasions; post-“Aftermath”/post-Ghost Story where the Fomori are rampant, there’s no balance between any factions and the weather is just chaos.

Most of the plot actually centers around the machinations of the spirit Corpsetaker, a gang manipulated by a low-power sorcerer looking to gain power, and some human minions of the Fomori (aquatic Fae-like creatures, the villains of “Aftermath”), who are the new mystical power in the world.  While these plots do allow us to see a greater depth from many of the characters–Daniel Carpenter, Molly’s oldest brother is a real standout–most of these elements don’t come together well, at least not in terms of plot.  Usually, Butcher is a master of plot, but I can’t tell if he’s trying for a more realistic dissonance between plot elements or not.

In fact, and here’s the big spoiler, Dresden does not solve his murder.  He is essentially told who arranged for his death by an angel named Deus Ex Machina Uriel, who causes everything that involves Dresden directly in the last two and a half chapters.  I didn’t care for the involvement of this angel because it interrupted the most incredible psychic battle I’ve read.  Essentially, this climax, a soulgaze between Molly and Corpsetaker, turns out to be a pop culture laced version of Inception on a caffeine/adrenaline rush.  It’s a great sequence, one I would really like to have seen play out.

Instead, just a few pages before the end of the book, Butcher has to introduce Thomas and his girlfriend Justine, then massively redefine their relationship.  This is the rush job of the book, on par with the mid-credits scene of Green Lantern where Sinestro randomly puts on a yellow ring.  I think Butcher would have been better served leaving the Thomas scene out of Ghost Story or having Thomas appear throughout the story.  Either way, altering the status quo of recurring characters just to show them, makes little sense.  Fans will feel like the couple are being rushed over and those reading just this book will feel Thomas and Justine are out of place.

I suggested leaving the scene out of Ghost Story because there are some fantastic flashbacks in this book.  Most of the flashbacks deal with Dresden’s formative years, under the tutelage of the dark wizard DuMorne.  These flashbacks are interesting and come about through great means (Harry’s godmother spying on his memories while he waits for night to come).  Butcher has found good ways to use flashbacks, enough where he’s confident enough with them to use one as the core resolution in Ghost Story.

Honestly, while the logic of Harry arranging his own murder makes a lot of sense.  I don’t care for that resolution to be wholly dependent on retconning the previous book.  It’s like “surprise! something else happened in the last book!”  Dresden mentions Kincaid as a possible triggerman and how much the idea hurts Murphy.  Why couldn’t Butcher have explored that idea more?  The last thirty pages feel like a real rush job to me, taking a good book and turning it into a fair book.  Butcher spent more time setting up the mechanics of how Dresden would learn he arranged his death that he forgot to actually leave clues about it.  Because of that, we don’t really know what Kincaid can do or how much he was involved.  We are deprived of Harry doing what the dust jacket suggests, “bringing his murderer to justice.”

The big plots with Corpsetaker and Harry’s murder are “solved” off page or by Harry remembering something.  No detective work involved, no clues provided.

Karrin realizing Dresden is actually dead is a heartbreaking moment, one shied away from through Dresden’s lack of involvement or observation.  Dresden’s new role as Winter Knight is treated as a bad thing, but we don’t get any real evidence for how bad it is.  The Maggie scene is perfect and her being placed with the Carpenters makes a great deal of sense, but it’s a poor reason why Dresden doesn’t check up on Michael at all.

I find that, even though Jim Butcher asked for an extra four months to work on Ghost Story, I think he needed another four months to make it all work.  I suppose we’re all slaves to the idea of writers not writing fast enough, which is sad because I’m not sure if I’m interested in reading Cold Snap when it arrives.  We’ll see what happens, though I hope it’s good.  Butcher is a talented writer and his skill at character growth has been his biggest expansion.  With Inception-like climaxes and a growing sense of pacing, I think Butcher has many wonderful things to still offer us.

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