Sunday, November 15, 2020

Dresden Files: King-Size Deus Ex Machina special review

Looking back here on my blog, I see that I discovered Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series back in 2010. At that point, it felt like modern/urban fantasy comfort food. A private detective who was a wizard, solving supernatural mysteries and fighting monsters. With a literal talking head, a skeleton named Bob, in Harry's basement, which Butcher created out of frustration in his creative writing class. I devoured the first ten novels the way a vampire might attack a blood bank. They had weaknesses for sure, namely that nearly every woman character central to the plot is described as hot as a Maxim model, and magical Deus Ex Machinas that arise to help Harry Dresden win big battles. But it was still fun, dumb fun to be sure, the equivalent of a comic book series, and I like comics!

But the latest Dresden novel, Battle Ground, may be the last one I read, because the cracks in the mystical armor are just too wide for me to ignore.

Fair Warning: There will be spoilers from here on out!

2020 was a long awaited year for Dresden fans. The last full length novel, Skin Game, was published in 2014; up to that point the fans were spoiled by having a new novel nearly every year. This year we had two new novels, the long awaited Peace Talks, followed by Battle Ground. After I had finished Peace Talks, I had the suspicion that both of these were conceived as one big novel, and split into two books, probably at the suggestion of Butcher's editor.

I enjoyed Peace Talks, perhaps more for seeing an old friend like Harry, after a six year absence. I had to look up things I forgot on the Dresden Files Wiki, like what was the name of that hitman who protected the Archive? (Answer: Kincaid)

There is one startling thing that happens early in Peace Talks: Harry finally has sex with Karrin Murphy, an ex-cop, who became his love interest over the last half dozen novels. My Spidey-Sense was activated when this happened. You may remember the ending of Changes, when it looked like Harry and Murphy would finally have a date (hey, forget about Susan, the mother of my child who just perished!) before Harry was shot. Now it finally happened, although poor Murphy was so injured after the events of Skin Game.

The main problem with Peace Talks is the heist sub-plot in the middle of the story, which is reminiscent of the previous novel, Skin Game. Instead of stealing an artifact, Harry smuggles his white vampire half-brother, Thomas (in prison for attempting to assassinate the Svartalf leader), out of Marcone's castle, with the goal of reaching sanctuary on his island in Lake Michigan, Demon Reach. It ends with a terrific battle between Harry and his grandfather, Ebenezar McCoy, except it isn't a real battle at all, but a fake-out straight from Rian Johnson's Last Jedi movie. It ends on a cliffhanger: Ethniu, the Last Titan, who made a startling appearance at Marcone's castle during the Peace Talks, is coming to lay waste to the city of Chicago.

Battle Ground takes place literally right afterward, as Harry makes his way back to Chicago from his island. The majority of the novel's events take place in the next 12 hours, one battle after another. There is an alliance of mystical forces, from Harry's own Winter Queen Mab, his arch enemy Marcone, the White Court of Vampires, the Council of Wizards, etc. On the enemy's side, it's the Fomor (aquatic beings), Ethniu the Last Titan (equipped with a nuke called the Eye of Balor), Black Court Vampires, Asgardian giants, etc - an overwhelming force, naturally. They are all fighting each other on the streets of Chicago. This becomes a bit tedious as it seems to be a loop of big battles, with this makeup:

  • Harry is tired, injured, still able to fight because the Winter Mantle dulls his pain.
  • A new enemy appears with powers far beyond Harry's level.
  • Harry gets tossed around like an old dishrag.
  • Some other character attacks and gives Harry a reprieve.
  • Harry makes a wisecrack.
  • Harry summons a Deus Ex Machina to vanquish the foe.
Rinse and Repeat for a dozen or so enemies. There are some variations, but that is the majority of the novel. Battle Ground is like a Marvel Comics King-Size annual where big things happen with guest stars galore. Many characters from previous novels show up here. It's appropriate to compare the Dresden Files to a comic book series, because Butcher often references Marvel Comics characters in the novel. Some people have compared it to Avengers: Endgame, but this book doesn't conclude anything like that film did.

The one superlative thing I'm going to say about Battle Ground is the audiobook version, narrated by James Marsters. He delivers an award winning performance here, with many different accents for the various characters. He elevates the pulp material with a layer of gravitas from his performance. If I continue on with Dresden it will be to hear Marsters again.

Somewhere in the middle of Battle Ground, Karrin Murphy dies. It's very upsetting; the emotion in Marsters' voice during these chapters is quite affecting. She dies after saving Harry, naturally, but killed not by the giant she slayed with a rocket launcher, but by a frightened police officer. It's a random, dumb death out of nowhere, a shocking moment, which is what Butcher probably wanted to achieve. Harry grieves for Murphy for a while, but a few chapters later, Harry is back to wisecracking again, which cheapens the trauma of Murphy's death.

What is more problematic is that you can see the writer's machinations behind Murphy's death and patterns emerging. Harry had a previous girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez, who perished (in a more epic way) in the novel Changes. Harry had been intimate with her as well and they have a child together, Maggie. The problem with a long running series is keeping things interesting and not having the main character romantically tied down. Most writers don't know how to make an ongoing relationship interesting in a story. The easy plot device is making characters attracted to each other, keeping them apart, getting them together and making the split apart, to pursue another love interest. We've seen this time and again on TV shows like Cheers or Moonlighting. Only on those shows, they don't kill someone off just to remove them as a romantic partner.

Butcher has lined up women for Harry already. One of them is Lara, head of the White Court Vampires (not blood suckers but emotion suckers), who practically gives Harry a dry hump in Peace Talks. In another scene Lara helps rescue Thomas (her half-brother as well) by stripping off her clothes; Harry is nearly overcome by lust, but he's not sure if it's because Lara is a vampire or because she has a smokin hot body. The other one is Molly Carpenter, Harry's former apprentice and now the Winter Lady. Harry has known Molly since she was a teenager, but there is an attraction between them which seems, well, just yucky.

As I read towards the end of Battle Ground, it seemed like Butcher removed Murphy to clear the playing field for Lara and Molly; that is exactly what happened in the end. Queen Mab, the Winter Queen, orders Harry to marry Lara, in order to cement the alliance between Winter and the White Court. Whether Harry complies or not remains to be seen, he has one year to decide. We see a touch of the Molly/Harry spark before the novel ends. We also get the foreshadowing that Murphy will return one day as a Valkyrie, which is kind of a consolation prize.

By the end of Battle Ground, I didn't feel like I had a true fictionally satisfying experience. Instead it felt like I watched someone play an RPG and move figures around on a board.

I think this series jumped the shark after Changes, which sets events in motion for Harry to become the Winter Knight. As the novels progressed, Butcher probably didn't want to write Harry as a private detective-wizard, or he was creating enemies for Harry that a normal wizard couldn't cope with. Butcher had to amp up the power level and the threat level as well. I preferred the earlier Dresden Files novels, because while the stories were fantastic, they felt more grounded in reality.

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