I am a recent convert to the Dresden Files, so I had the wonderful opportunity of losing myself in all 14 preceding books in rapid fire fashion. These books were light enough to get your teeth into them one right after the other and deep enough to linger in your thoughts long after you’ve put them down. When I was done with book 14, Cold Days, a chill of angst crawled up my spine; after two months of hearing Harry Dresden’s voice in my head, the inevitable reality of being without this wizard for hire dawned stark and dreary. I was doomed with the knowledge that this unhappy state would persist for as long as it took for Butcher’s publishers to run out of booze money (Judging by Butcher’s impressive release schedule, I was in no doubt that it was the publishers who stuck a staff in the gears).
My torment was short lived. I found out that Skin Game was on the release schedule. I prayed that Amazon would mess up the pre-order and send it to me right away. They didn’t; good for them (bastards). I got the book when everybody else got it. I had nagging meta-story questions that have been left open since Changes, beloved characters I haven’t seen since Ghost Story, antagonists that still needed to pay for getting away in the past, especially the new Sword of Damocles in the hands of a certain Unseelie fey. All that didn’t matter, I had Skin Game in my hands, and was willing to go wherever Butcher, and Harry, would point me.
The back cover revealed that Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness was cashing her checks, as we knew she would. The blurb from Amazon revealed: “…a smash and grab job into the vaults of the greatest treasure hoard in the supernatural world – which belongs to the one and only Hades, Lord of the freaking Underworld and generally unpleasant character…”. Worse, Harry is sent on this job to work for Nicodemus Archleone, the only annoyingly awesome recurring villain that Harry cannot seem to set on fire. Ooooh! My excitement mounted well before I received couriered copy. More about the book I will not say.
It took mere moments for me to get back into Harry’s world, and into his head. Butcher’s writing voice fit like a comfortable leather duster. I was home.
I tend to approach my reviews in a structured manner, and although I’m not as gauche as to give a score, I do have a binary system. Either it works for me or it doesn’t.
Skin Game feels like a natural progression in the series. There was always the threat of certain choices made taken biting Harry in the ass, and Harry made the decisions with that possibility in mind. It’s really nice to see Butcher pulling the trigger on the crux choices of Changes and going big with it. I can almost imagine Butcher’s decision making process:
Now that Mab’s got Harry dancing to her puppet strings, what will she decide to do with her foremost living weapon? What if she uses him to pay off one of her, presumably many, debts? What if that debt is payable to Harry’s greatest foe? Oooh! Indeed. This concept, at this stage of the epic Dresden Files saga, writes itself.
Harry by himself is an effective character, but it’s his relationships, as explored in Changes and Ghost Story, that really sets him apart. Butcher is a master at making you feel for his characters, he populates cast of lovable woobies, who also happen to be bad-asses. What’s not to like?
Heroes need antagonists, real villainous bastards who will challenge the protag to the level where the true hero inside needs to rise tot he occasion or perish. At this stage of Harry’s development, he’s pretty much handled every unstoppable bad-ass that dared to set up shop in Chicago. (There’s a point in Ghost Story made to this effect, which can be dubbed the This is Our Town, Scrub, so Beat It effect, where Molly mentioned that Harry’s reputation, the mere fact of his existence in an area, kept the worst bastards away from his hometown, which, of course evaporated as soon as he left for whatever reason.) What this means is in order to seriously threaten Harry 15 books in, hero inflation can be a serious problem. The guy’s got Odin on speed dial for pike sake.
In the hands of any other writer, we may have had a repeat of Rand al’Thor or Goku and Gohan, but Butcher managed to keep a distance between his human characters and his mythological ones intact, and more impressively, managed to keep his human characters relevant and useful, even in the presence of characters like Hades and 3000 year old fallen angels.
There is a slight downside to this methodology, as expected, which I believe is the lesser of two evils. I like the idea of an enemy that is aware of the risks and who is able to lose if things only slightly go against him, and who then hedges his bets by stacking the deck in his favor. The goal should be worth the risk of playing with fire. If a hero is also aware of this, or is aware of the difference in relative power levels, might also want to stack the deck, leading to the inevitable gambit pileup, which I find immensely entertaining. It’s the eternal struggle of ruthlessness versus indomitability, speed chess style. Now that’s what I would pay an entrance fee for!
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, if I pay in diamonds. No seriously, I was not expecting high thematic literature here, but there are recurring themes running through The Dresden Files. I like what Butcher explores when he tackles issues of faith through Michael Carpenter, loyalty and sacrifice through Harry and Karrin Murphy, the importance of family through the Carpenters and the value of the individual to make a difference through Waldo Butters. The books are well enough textured for each reader to extrapolate their own themes from the novels, and expect more of that in Skin Game.
Pacing and execution
Butcher is a master at pacing his novels. There is never the sense of breathless action going on unending, and the plot seldom seems bogged down to explore some character aspect or growth. There is plenty of action, and plenty of character development, both nicely spaced so that one does not detract from the other. On a side note, the character developments in Skin Game are Doozies with the capital letter warranted. There was more than once where I was all misty eyed over what was developing between characters.
Butcher is just getting better at executing great books; his slow burning meta-plot lines intermingled with rapid-fire action with a full-bodied cast makes for satisfying reading. I heartely recommend the entire series, and definitely Skin Game. Now for me it’s just a long wait to the next book. I hope his publishers run out of booze money soon.