Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review - Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Short review: Queen Mab forces Harry Dresden into working with some of his worst enemies to steal the Holy Grail from Hades. Butters becomes a Knight of the Cross.

When Mab makes a deal
Harry becomes the marker
Payoff: Steal the Grail!

Full review: In the fifteenth installment of the Dresden Files series, Butcher gives the reader a caper story about a heist masterminded by evil genius Nicodemus Archleone who has assembled a collection of mostly willing ne'er-do-wells who are all looking for a big payoff, but otherwise don't really like each other much. The "twist" to the story is that Harry Dresden, wizard extraordinaire and Winter Knight beholden to Queen Mab of the unseelie court, is required to work alongside one of his most despised enemies because Mab owes Nicodemus a debt. The story winds along, hitting most of the predictable beats of a heist story involving an eclectic mismatched crew of supernatural beings, with one reversal that is only accomplished because Butcher pretty much lied to the reader, and then moves on to a somewhat desultory final fight before the book ends leaving numerous plot threads up in the air.

The story itself is simultaneously fairly straightforward and needlessly convoluted. In a previous volume, Dresden agreed to become the Winter Knight for Mab, the queen of the Winter Court. In order to deal with what he believes to be a dangerous psychic parasite of some sort locked inside his own head, Dresden also retreated to an island in Lake Michigan that serves as a supernatural prison so he can hide out and practice parkour. Then Mab shows up to tell Dresden she needs him to undertake a task on her behalf, and in return she will remove the dangerous entity inside his head. To keep the entity at bay, Mab gives Dresden an earring to wear, and in a display of juvenile homophobia, he makes her put it on his left ear. It turns out that Mab has a debt to pay, and she's using Dresden's services to do so, forcing him to work with all-around villain and member of the Order of the Blackened Denarius Nicodemus Archleone, although Dresden does manage to force Nicodemus to accept Dresden bringing a companion as insurance - Harry's policewoman friend Karrin Murphy.

Having secured Dresden's services, Archleone assembles the rest of his team, at least some of whom seem to have been selected specifically to irk Dresden: Hannah Ascher, a warlock on the run from the White Council, Binder, a specialist in summoning demons who Dresden had previously specifically warned to stay out of Chicago, Goodman Gray, a shapeshifter who seems to take an immediate dislike to the wizard, and Deidre, Nicademus' own demonic daughter. Eventually it is revealed that Nicodemus has also recruited a massive, mostly invisible bigfoot-like being known as a Genoskwa to his raiding party as well, and it seems almost inevitable that the creature takes an immediate dislike to Dresden.

Because heading off to accomplish the object of the heist (or even revealing the target of the heist) would make the story too short, Butcher has to introduce a couple of complications. First, everyone has to go and get the final member of their group: The thief Anna Valmont, last seen stealing the Shroud of Turin. Picking her up at a hotel would be too simple, so Dresden and Ascher run into some fomor servants who try to kill them while they are there, but not before Butcher spends some time having Dresden drool over how attractive Ascher is. The fomor serve absolutely no purpose in the story other than providing some random obstacles to pad out the length of the book, and the fight scene they supply isn't even really all that interesting, as the outcome is pretty much assured. On the other hand, it also provides an opportunity for Dresden to get injured, which seems to happen quite a bit in the story, although he never seems to be particularly discomfited by his wounds once he has been patched up by handy not-doctor Butters.

The story moves on, with the group needing to secure the identity of a banker so that Goodman Grey can impersonate him as part of the still undefined heist. This time the complication is Nicodemus' ex-wife Tessa, who seems to want to foil her ex-husband and daughter for unknown reasons and is accompanied by ghouls. Dresden fights to keep the innocent banker alive to no avail, and is injured again, this time by stupidly trying to block something in a way that anyone who has ever studied martial arts will tell you is the exact wrong way to do it. Grey gets what he needs, and the story moves on. Next, Harry's suspicious friend Butters tries to spy on Nicodemus and Dresden has to pretend to chase his friend and sometime emergency medic while surreptitiously fighting off Binder's demons and the rest of Nicodemus' crew. Everything leads to a showdown in which Murphy breaks something valuable before being horribly injured, and Michael Carpenter, armed with the sword of the cross Amoracchius and the grace of an archangel, ends up taking her place as Dresden's backup while Murphy is bundled off to the hospital.

Nicodemus finally reveals that the objective of his heist is a vault owned by Hades where the Holy Grail is stored. After this groan-inducing turn of events, he also reveals that to get there they have to break into an earthly vault owned by notable supernatural mob-boss John Marcone. The heist goes off mostly smoothly (although there is a brief side-track when Tessa shows up again to try to kill Dresden), with everyone playing their assigned role: Valmont gets past Marcone's security door, Ascher gets through the Gate of Fire, Dresden gets through the Gate of Ice, and Nicodemus kills his own daughter to get past the Gate of Blood. Once in Hades' vault, Dresden figures out that Nicodemus isn't really after the Holy Grail, but at the same moment Hades decides to stop time so he can have a little chat with the wizard, revealing everything to have been a carefully planned set-up before dropping Dresden back into regular time in the vault.

Once back, Dresden claims the other, mostly not identified items, that are lying with the Grail before Nicodemus shows up to claim his prize. Predictably, Nicodemus betrays Dresden as soon as he is able to do so without breaking his agreement with Mab, which is more or less okay as Dresden was pretty much going to do the same. With Michael at his side, Dresden faces Nicodemus who has Ascher and the Genoskwa to reinforce him. Things seem to be really bad for the good guys when it turns out that both Ascher and the Genoskwa are carrying black coins, making them also members of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. And at this point, the novel simply falls apart with a plot twist so poorly done that it completely destroys the entire story. The plot twist itself is not a terrible plot twist - the problem is that it is executed in such a hamfisted way, in a manner that is not supported by any of the previous story. In the famous adage about stories, if a gun shows up in the first act, it needs to be used in the third. But the converse is true: If there is no gun in the first act, having a character produce one in the third is playing dirty pool with the audience. Not only that, the "twist" is directly contradicted by some of Dresden's own internal monologue from earlier in the book. Plus, the twist is literally handed to Dresden by Santa Claus, which is an eye-rolling bit of silliness in and of itself.

After the twist, the battle is mostly resolved in short order, including a fairly silly sequence in which the demon-assisted Genoskwa who had previously been described as being almost indescribably supernaturally fast and strong is unable to keep up with Dresden as he parkours the creature to death. Despite having obtained the Holy Grail, Nicodemus seeks revenge against Dresden leading to an anticlimactic final fight that mostly involves ordinary goons and flash-bang grenades and seems to exist mostly so that Butcher can write the first Jewish Knight of the Cross into the story and give him a light saber. Yes, that actually happens, and it is really that groan-inducing. With the fighting over, the story wraps up a couple of the other plot threads in an almost offensively perfunctory manner as Dresden's supernatural brain parasite is removed entirely off-camera, Dresden decides to try to start up a relationship with Murphy, act like a father to his daughter, and no one seems to bat an eye at the idea of a Jewish man still being Jewish in a world in which actual angels walk among men and there are magical swords made from pieces of the True Cross.

Despite the silliness of the story, it is still a mostly fun romp, so long as one doesn't actually think too much about the various plot holes, the fact that the characters are pretty weakly developed, and the world-building seems to consist of simply throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the mix. Sure, this is the fifteenth book in the series, so one would expect that some of the characterization would have been done in the earlier books, but even so the various characters presented here come off as little more than broad sterotypes: The tough-babe who needs rescuing, the dangerous temptress, the solid man of faith, the surly hood, and the juvenile wise-ass, to name but a few. One might even be able to overlook the fact that Dresden himself is such a childish character who is so insecure about his manliness that he has to engage in alpha wolf style confrontations with pretty much every other male character he meets, except that with some very notable exceptions, most of the other male characters in the story seem to share those same traits. One has to wonder how any of these supposedly professional criminals are able to actually function in a criminal underworld without getting shot in the back of the head.

The biggest criticism of the book is that it is the fifteenth book in the series, and that means that a lot of the elements of this book are built upon relationships and events drawn from previous works, while several things get brought up in this volume that are simply left unresolved, presumably to serve as fodder for future installments in the series. To a certain extent, reading Skin Game is like watching a mid-season episode of a television show one is not familiar with: The direct story of the episode mostly hangs together, but the characters all reference things they did in previous episodes, and start conversations that won't bear fruit until later ones. This novel seems especially prone to this, as the entire plot of the book seems to be little more than a set-up for a future, as yet unwritten story. The Grail is stolen, as are a collection of other powerful artifacts, but nothing comes of it in this volume. A character steals a drop of Dresden's blood, an event that one would think would be of some importance, but the issue is simply dropped with no further comment. And so on. On the other hand, we are told that Dresden has has prior dealings with Valmont, last seen in Death Masks, and also with Binder, last seen in Turn Coat, but the reader is expected to get those references based merely upon the names being used, as nothing in this volume serves to explain anything more than the barest outlines of these previous relationships. Similarly, Ascher makes references to events that took place in previous books that affected her, but once again, if the reader is unfamiliar with the details the text of this book leaves them in the dark.

My biggest criticism of the Dresden Files series as a whole is the world-building, which is just a massive, sloppy hodge-podge of ideas that appear to have been thrown in almost at random. It seems that basically every element of myth or folklore exists in the Dresden universe: The Greek myths are real, the Norse myths are real, Japanese myths are real, vampires are real, werewolves are real, angels are real, Jesus was real, demons are real, Celtic myths are real, Santa Claus is real, and so on and so forth. There are knights using swords that incorporate metal from the nails from the True Cross, evil villains carrying around the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid off with, the Holy Grail, and pretty much every other magical artifact one can think of floating about. I'm sure the Tooth Fairy, the Easter, Bunny, and Brer Bear are real as well. After a certain point, it doesn't seem so much like world-building, as it is simple laziness. Literally everything is up for grabs, and none of it really makes any sense at all. To a certain extent, it seems that this is intentional. After all, the Dresden Files books are supposed to be fun romps, so why not throw literally every mythical being and idea into the mixture for added zing. On the other hand, using this sort of melange of every fantasy concept ever conceived by humans as a fictional world serves to prevent the books from being much more than a collection of adventurous romps, which is, at times, somewhat disappointing.

In the end, Skin Game is what it is: An enjoyable but mostly disposable adventure story full of two-dimensional characters alternatively grudgingly working alongside one another with tense banter and then gleefully bashing one another over the head with magic and supernaturally enhanced weapons. While this isn't a great book, it is a reasonably enjoyable one, with a decently plotted caper at its core (so long as one doesn't mind the occasional eyeroll-inducing development), a collection of fairly standard-issue movie-style characters populating its pages, and a magical world in which literally every kind of magical being one can think of is lurking around the corner. It is, in short, a big dumb, mostly mindless, but ultimately fun collection of shenanigans revolving around a big, dumb, mostly immature but ultimately engaging character. There's nothing particularly special to be found here, but if one is looking for reasonably good mindless escapism, this would fit the bill quite nicely.

Previous book in the series: Cold Days

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