Friday, July 29, 2011

Ghost Story

It's been a while since I've done a good old-fashioned book review. I mean, there's been a good reason I quit doing them, but on occasion, I'll still read something that I really want to review. The latest Jim Butcher Dresden Files book (the 13th, not counting Side Jobs which is a novel-sized anthology of short stories and novellas) just came out earlier this week, though, and last night I just finished it.

Curiously, the book was supposed to have come out in April, but Butcher held back to polish it off. To, in his words, give us the book that we deserve, not the one we would have gotten if he'd kept to the original schedule. I can still see artifacts of this. This is a good book, but it's not really one of the strongest in the series (and coming after Changes, well, that makes it even more obvious, sadly.) It's a book that's big on high concept, and a bit weak on the other things that a novel needs. Y'know how sometimes in a long-running TV show where they'll "punt" and only film about half an episode, and then fill in the rest of the episode with flashbacks and footage from earlier in the show? It felt in some ways a little bit like that.

The high concept gets pride of place in this book. At the end of the last book, Dresden was shot by a sniper and fell off his boat into the waters of Lake Michigan, apparently dead. And the title of this book should be a big clue as to the high concept; Dresden is now a ghost, come back to Chicago after six months of being dead to wrap up some loose ends. It doesn't take too long before it appears something is hinky with his condition, and I'm sure it's no real spoiler of consequence to say that, in the words of Miracle Max, Dresden is only mostly dead. Curiously, Butcher didn't make that particular pop culture reference (although he otherwise did refer to The Princess Bride at least once. Maybe he's waiting for the next book. Or maybe he thought that this was too obvious even for him.)

This high concept naturally leads to a very different kind of book than the others. As a ghost, Harry can't use magic (at least not until he figures out how to do a few things.) He can't interact with people normally. He gets to see what six months of him being dead have done to people, and to the city and the supernatural world overall. And he's introduced to a whole bunch of all new ghostly type threats that he didn't know anything about as a living wizard, and had no real reason to anyway. A major villain from a past novel makes a substantial appearance here. A minor and mysterious yet significant character from the past makes a bit larger of an appearance here too.

I suppose the biggest problem I had with the book was the plot seemed to be disjointed and cobbled together out of disonant elements that Butcher had come up with but wasn't quite sure how to string together. Dresden was supposed to come back to solve his own murder, but in reality, that mostly got lost as the novel unrolled itself, to be finally touched on near the end in an almost deus ex machina fashion. The novel also spends some time in introspection. For the most part this isn't a bad thing, and some character development is always welcome, but in some cases, I felt like it was Butcher either stalling, or trying to prop up or bulk up a novel that just didn't quite have enough going on in it. We get treated to detailed flashbacks of things that happened prior to the novels opening. This is all well and good... except that it doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. Yeah, it's kind nice to "see" in more detail some of the Justin DuMorne business and the He Who Walks Behind business, but if it's not really going to add anything other than a special effects scene, it starts to feel a bit like padding rather than something that served any other narrative purpose.

And then Butcher, who always loves a good nerd-pop cultural reference or two, really went overboard this time. I like a few of them as much as anyone, but this time, it felt like not knowing what else to do on occasion, Butcher just threw in scenes or at least lines from every nerd movie, TV show, comic book or fantasy novel that he could. It really wasn't quite overboard until a major scene literally took place as a recreation of Star Trek.

And also curiously, the book ends rather abruptly without as much dénouement as I would have expected. Perhaps that's because it's meant to be set-up and teaser for the next book, in which we'll see more about what the new status quo is going to be like.

So, in all... it's not the worst book in the series (and even the worst book in the series is a far cry from a bad book) but it's not the best either. And coming off of a string of several particularly good ones--White Nights, Small Favor, Turn Coat and especially the mind-blowing Changes, the contrast of those with a merely "good but not great" entry into the series is a bit jarring, though.

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