Monday, June 28, 2010


by Jim Butcher

This review is reproduced with some modifications from an earlier location. In result it’s longer than average, has more intensive spoilers, presumes a prior reading of the book and has some stylistic differences.
In assessing the latest Dresden Files book Changes in short form it's above average for the series but is still a deeply flawed narrative. Fun but lacks substance, and has problems that were irritating throughout. As well, the form the 'changes' took reconfirm that Jim Butcher is decisively a third rate fantasy author, and that he's unlikely to ever move beyond that.

Long form: Well, let's start with the plot, arguably the most effective yet least satisfying element of the book. It's a page turner in the literal sense, and Butcher has that intangible ability to make for a very engaging pace to his work. However, the plot is also highly padded and overly episodic. The wider thing is engaging but in large parts lacking in much substance, and desperately in need of a good editor. The usual pattern for the Dresden books is an engaging opening, soon getting bogged down, some interest, a very dull and over-drawn out sequence and then the last hundred pages that are the most engaging of the novel. That's the case to an extent here--the ending combat is clearly the highlight and a lot of the middle parts are tedious--but the pacing and overall keeping momentum is significantly better, and the story doesn't lag as much as past ones have. It helps that the central threat to Maggie is defined early on and a timetable appears pretty early, giving greater focus.

On the other hand, there are ways Changes is weaker than the average book in the series. First, there's the whole premise. Susan became pregnant nine years ago, had a child and chose never to tell Harry about it. Why? To ensure that the series could bring out a child here to motivate Harry's actions, of course. Doing this makes Susan a rather absurd character, one who apparently believes that the only way the child will be safe is if Harry has no knowledge of it. Her argument that she'd be in danger living with Harry is valid but to take that to the extent of denying all knowledge of the offspring is absurd. It's a silly action, and its a silliness we have to believe continued for eight years. It's particularly inconsistent with the argument presented here that she still does love Harry, and its only her vampiric nature that precludes them being together. I thought early on in the book that for the story to be more than a long contrivance it would need to be based in some solider reasoning than the justification Susan gave initially. The novel never went beyond that, just took this premise and built from it. Bad writing 101: having your whole story rest on insubstantial in-character basis for the sake of surprising the protagonist and the reader.

Maggie as well never approaches seeming a real character. Off course she's offscreen throughout, but there's no real effort to make her seem like more than a plot coupon for Dresden to move towards. She's eight years old, at that point there should be distinctively Maggie-ish things she does, a bit of a personality. Susan utterly fails to convey any impression of that to Harry, and as a result she works as a pretty hollow concept. She's the archetype of the daughter, not anything more distinctive than that. As a result, Harry's frantic quest to save her, which should be the most emotionally engaging part of the book, is instead the most hollow.

I have mixed feelings on the eventual revelation to what's going on. On the one hand, it's interesting to see more of the Red Court fleshed out, and their gathering and confrontation are quite effective. However, this group is shown as far too similar to the White Court, indicating a certain limits in creativity: we've got the amoral and especially decadent king, conflict with his daughter, fierce intrigue, general osciopathic nature towards outsiders, even the extreme female attractiveness and blatantly eroticized elements at play. More disturbing, the whole structuring of the plot appears derivative of stuff the series has already done: innocent child held for apocalyptic stakes, internal threat between vampire father and daughter for who rules, a formalized duel followed by a general and Court-destructive battle. There's too much here that we've seen before, and it points to a basic issue of creativity. Butcher has, rather absurdly, made a setting in which all myths are real, a huge expanse of magic and variety are possible. Yet he's within that reaching to stock archetypes and is already to an extent repeating himself.

Having the point of the ritual be against Ebenazor instead of Harry is a good twist. It nicely deflates his assumption everything is always about him, and more fundamentally makes sense--Ebenezor is the one really to seek revenge on, he's much harder to kill and he's a far greater threat to leave roaming around. It makes sense that the Court would finally try to wipe out such an opponent. On the other hand, that this is done by making Ebenzor Harry's grandfather is pretty pathetic. It's soap-opera level hijinks, disclosure of past family ties to build drama and connections. And it's particularly disturbing given what Changes presents in terms of relationships. It's not at any level about fighting to do the right thing in the abstract, to see unknown people and work for them, to be a hero or champion. That's not what Harry is about here. Instead, the book is about personalized ties. Fighting and sacrificing for those that are your family or your romantic interest. So of course everything is about Harry's daughter, and even when the Merlin flat out argues that a calculated restraint is necessary to save millions of lives Harry doesn't even think about obeying, because it's his daughter, damn it! One of the more problematic things is the way that the book quickly legitimizes Harry's path--it turns out restraint would have been devastating to the White Council, and rash action was awesome at stomping the enemy. Almost as if the author is consistently on Harry's side or something. The motif of personal ties coming first wouldn't be so problematic if it didn't accompany the revelation that Ebeneazor was only so protective of Harry because of blood ties, and Molly's dogged work as his apprentice is because she's still carrying a torch for him, and Harry and Murphy are planning on sexualizing their relationship. This dynamic leaves little in the way o friendship, so say nothing of greater good, it's fundamentally a narrow view of relating to the world.

Going along with that, Thomas. There's mention in his first appearance that he and Harry have been distant and that he's gone back to taking huge chunks of people sex-essence and life. Yet after about thirty seconds of tension on that it's not made an ongoing issue, Thomas is with the group, trusted entirely when he's not actively loosing control, and the whole ugly standoff at the end of Turn Coat basically forgotten. Butcher really drops the ball on this, morally and dramatically. The whole Shagnasty Face Heel Turn looks even more aggressively pointless if it's just going to be dropped like that.

On the more mundane plot level the whole FBI plotline was completely unnecessary, and should have been cut. It covered familiar grounds, pushed through the usual nuts and bolts and could have been excised completely without issue. At most it was necessary to further push the arc of Murphy losing her job and becoming a Knight, but that could have been done at any point and even off-screen for all the legwork done with that, so having FBI agent Tilly and his magic lie-detecting was just wasting time. It doesn't help that I find the whole idea of Murphy's switched careers and the concept of the Knights more generally boring to the point of tears, but in any case having the main story stop so we can run through Rudolph's intrigue and FBI interrogation 'comedy' is rather flat.

Of course one strength the book has is its disruption of the status quo, the titular changes. A lot of this isn't as strong as it might seem on first glance, however. The most prominent one is Harry accepting the mantle of the Winter Knight, committing himself to serving Mab in the future. This does meaningfully build on the theme of Harry continually being tempted by having him finally give in, and makes potential for Mab to be more interesting than the oh-so-uber oh-so-hot model she's been so far. That said, Harry's decision is the promise of an interesting story rather than an interesting story in itself. He was not in Changes made inconvenienced by the decision, and in particular his allies fell over themselves to show their understanding for him joining the faction of an amoral goddess. There simply has to be a reckoning, Harry needing to pay in his deeds and soul for making this bargain. I'm not confident that will be followed through, given how the Lasciel arc ended with instead having more of Harry Is Awesome--the only person capable of resisting a Denarrian!. There are many times the series has derailed everything else to testify to the unique wondrousness of Harry Dresden, and I can have little confidence it won't do that again to some degree.

Second issue, Susan's death. Better handled overall, particularly for once Harry did his ruthless act with a minimum of pretentious self-reflection beforehand (contrast with his murder of the last Winter Knight). And this is perhaps the first thing he's done that's genuinely as ruthless and disturbing as he thinks it is. That said, the impact of this is muted a bit, because who exactly is Susan? Beyond recently the idiot who kept Maggie's existence secret and then let her get abducted. She was a bit part in the first two books, significant in the third, then a minor appearance in the sixth. Since then, she's been a fading memory, occasionally recalling her gives Harry venue to angst about his failure in letting her be bitten. We can be told that she's the great love of Harry's life, but the books have never done the legwork to show that effectively. And so, when he kills her it's a decent dramatic moment, but it's far from the epic and tragic sacrifice

Related to this is the wiping out of the Red Court. A good move in itself, definitely an improvement to another cold war or prolonged active struggle. Of course seeing them as a pretty bland group of grotesque mustache-twirlers makes me pleased to see the end of them, but more positively this is an interesting development for the wider setting, a good move that resolves a long-standing arc and raises some very interesting possibilities. While the Black Council are nothing more than a name here, the scouring of the Court does show the greatest commitment to move the series on to some kind of new switch and final resolution.

So it's a shame that Butcher screws up the narrative layout for this slaughter so badly. Classic bad writing again, in this case both the mechanics of the sacrifice itself and the final turn of Martin, making for an extremely awkward deus ex machina. First, there wasn't nearly enough setup to the idea that the ritual was a loaded gun that could be targeted at anyone by the victim sacrificed. This should have been brought up a lot earlier, but I suppose I can buy the concept of it. However, what actually happens when Susan is sacrificed is absurd--by everything we've been told previously it should have killed her human relatives and maybe the immediate vampire tree that sired her. The notion that this wiped out the entire Red Court vampire subspecies just comes out of nowhere. Butcher never bothered to make that reasoning coherent, so we ultimately have a spell that performs drastically different than advertised. There have been some courageous efforts to fanwank the process by followers of the series and rationalize out how the magic played in-universe. That is necessary because tje author didn't lay the grounds sufficiently, which is just weak writing. It's not like Butcher is Proust or even Gene Wolfe, this is a page-turning magic thriller, and the minimum he's expected to do is lay things out so his huge plot device work as advertised.

Even worse is Martin. The notion that he's a deep cover double agent is awkward enough, but then Harry manages to learn at the last possible moment that he's really a triple agent, and the plan he's allegedly following becomes absurd. This was the ideal situation he sacrificed everything towards? The whole storming in the face of the Martin is shown to be an incredibly intelligent, calculating, brilliant figure to have set things up so they'd play out in this way. Which is another way of saying that Martin is an idiot and that it's ridiculous things played out remotely as envisioned when there were so many variables and possible run off at stake. This is absurd, even worse than the stupid vampire conspiracy for porn. The only thing dumber in the series was the FBI werewolves, and at least they had the excuse of being driven insane by the times of their worst screwups, and being villains. Martin here is on the side of the angels, and he's necessary to drive everything forward to its conclusion.

The bullet at the end I'm discounting since it looks just like a cliffhanger for the sake of exciting more speculation and focus for the next book. It could mean anything at tis point, could have come from so many different faction, influence Harry's life in so many ways that Butcher is just toying with the readership. Killing Harry off mid series and following friends/acquaintances as they struggle to hold up the center would be a courageous narrative move, one far more ambitious than Butcher has demonstrated to date. He's clearly invested this much focus in Harry to continue him forward, and I see zero chance that Harry will not soon be among the living in some similar capacity.

For characters, Molly was pretty well served overall, and Murphy did okay although I still loathe the arc of her becoming a Knight which not seems a done deal unless the series is really preparing a whole tank full of red herrings. Speaking of the Knights Sanya really didn't need to be there at all, and didn't seem to add much beyond route combat. Lea was pretty good, I found her irritating before and, while she still pushed the evil fairy-godmother too much, mostly she was a blast.

Turning to more episodic reflections. Beginning with the point that Harry Dresden is really an idiot. Not knowing a Red Court outpost was in Chicago, not knowing it was in his building, not knowing there were explosives in his office. As well, he mentions in relation to the White Council it being good to not spread word of him having a daughter, least his other enemies figure it out and use it against him, that he keep it strictly need to know. Of course this is a weaker strategy because the first thing he did upon hearing was getting drunk and telling the details to Mac. There's also him opening his final duel with his most characteristic attack and almost getting killed, and failing to realize Ick would be one of the challengers for the earlier duel. On the whole it doesn't matter too much that Harry is an idiot, and his stupidity is certainly lampshaded a lot in this book, but it does make the points where the story pretends he's the most capable and resourceful mind in all of wizardom a bit hard to swallow.

The series also plays fast and loose with some basic staples of the magic. Take the death-curse: Harry is always bringing that as a threat to stop his opponents killing him out of hand, but it doesn't work in reverse. Harry fights extended duels with creatures close in ability to him, but when they die they don't make a substantive last attack. With Ortega's widow in particular, she had the chance to realize she was dying and have a last insult "cow", and from everything presented should have been enough to blow Harry out of the water easily. Yet she doesn't do a death-curse. Damn lazy writing to have only the hero ever bring up this major facet. Yes, there's reference to the past ex-Danarian (die alone) but even that's just to emphasize how it's not really important. You'd think that given how focused the Red Court was on death there would have been using an effective last assault there, but then you'd be wrong.

Or the soulgaze, which just lends itself to bad writing. Bad enough that apparently no one ever got a look at Peabody across all his tenure as a double agent. It's also the case that Martin's intricate little scheme would have blow up if Harry had locked eyes with him before, and that he had the opportunity to do it right at the end just to fill in bits of the plot. As well, one wonders why Ebeneazor doesn't just soulgaze someone they suspect of being Black Council. Well, no one ever accused the Dresden Files of being a well constructed universe.

Changes isn't a bad book. It's significantly better than Turn Coat, is sufficient to be fairly entertaining throughout and delivers some particularly effective scenes. Probably the third best of the series. However the setting is cardboard, most of the characters are worse, the plot has some fundamental problems and Butcher doesn't bring his effectiveness in action sequences to any other aspect of the novel. There are a lot of great fantasy writers at work currently, and Jim Butcher is pretty clearly not one of them. At this point, it's pretty unlikely he ever is going to be. Clearly he knew what he was doing in Changes and I've no doubt it will sell well. Given that, Butcher is unlikely to venture beyond the structure of the stream of OMG moments and dubious moral angst that constitutes Harry's universe. For a work that bills itself as a game-changer with the setting and characters, it's perhaps the ultimate indication that Butcher himself is playing it narratively safe, appealing to what fans expect and value, keeping enough plot zingers going to maintain attention, and ultimately keep the assumptions of the fandom mindset unchallenged. Changes is a story of ridiculously courageous characters that challenge extreme odds, and in the process it's also the story of an author that's playing it far too safe. I'd be more forgiving of this if the setting were more coherent, the themes more acceptance, the tone less pretentious. In any case, while I found Changes a fast and fun read I also expect it to be in the bottom tier of genre books I read this year.
One natural question is going to be why I've read 12 books in the series if I think Butcher is a third-rate author. For one things it's not a major commitment--the prose is smooth and for whatever the problems even in the worst Dresden books I'm rarely bored. As well, there is a way the very conventionality of Butcher's work makes it worthwhile, giving some perspective for understanding the norms that a lot of better authors are effectively deconstructing.

To move for a more positive elements, I quite liked the scene with Odin and the use of the goblins. Neat to have them be explicitly shown as a lot more powerful than the usual portrayal. And while the surprise on the Norse mythology was ruined by several comments in vs debates (and apparently based off a short story) it made for a nice moment. Although one issue with that is that Butcher clearly isn't capable of imagining a real society, the goblins apparently have 100% of their existence concerned with the hunt. Ruled by their god there's no real sense of them as having extended existence, having culture, any real politics beyond personal dominance and ritual, no functioning economy, and so forth. Similar issues come up with the Red Court, they have intrigue but not a real polity or understanding of what their extended life is like. Only the White Council comes close to being a real society beyond cliches and scheming, and they're still fairly underdeveloped. Among other things the series doesn't seem to be clear on just how stupid they are. In the start of the novel the Merlin, rather refreshingly, indicated he was well aware the vamp widow was some form of trap and they were taking care to avoid, for instance, any valuable Senior Council members get knocked out. Yet later, when there needs to be an excuse for the White Council at large to not swoop in, it seems the same widow managed to quietly inflict disease sufficient to incapacitate 60 wizards, and get away free. There's also a distinct lack of realistically dealing with the level of fatalities the Wardens took in Dead Beat and the earlier conflict. They should be more impacted then France was after WWI in terms of comparative demographics, but they seem at most mildly inconvenienced.

This novel is as sexist and as the previous ones, producing an over-sezualized and over-romanticized view of the world centered around the male protagonist. It's all about highly conventional standards of female beauty for everyone, women are always there visually for for men, "gay" is a good general-purpose term of insult. Then we have the issue with Susan's 'hide the baby' setup, the revival of sexual subtext for both Molly and Murpy in relation to Harry, and the wider reaction to the explicit magic-heterosexuality of Harry and Mab. Pretty disgusting, all in all.

Let's also talk about the basic layout of incidents here. This seems to be what most of the appeal comes from, the ongoing rush of OMG! plot hooks and moments of suspense. Really, though, this makes for some very disjointed sections, things that happen at the end of a chapter not for any grand reason but just to make people gasp and turn on to the next chapter. Some of them aren't even followed up on effectively, like the hitman recognizing Susan as the one that hired him. Again, this book is pretty episodic, and lends itself to a few more detours through fairyland than are really necessary.

Another element I haven’t seen other reviews pick up on is the level of exposition and background detail, which by this point in the series has become rather irksome. There had to be at least forty pages worth of material summarizing different people that Harry met, significant actions in the previous eleven books, major players and relationships. One would presume that most people aren't reading this book at the start of the theory, and that many of the fanbase have a better pre-existing memory for past events in the series than Butcher himself does, so while necessary to put some exposition it seems excessive. An extensive glossary or ten page packed summary opening might have been a better way to deal wit that, rather than all these page long recaps that need to be skimmed by long-term readers to avoid tedium.

I'll admit that gathering up most of the past characters into a wide-ranging band to fight the Red Court was pretty good. Somewhat like Buffy S5 when lots of past one-episode things became useful weapons for a larger strategy, except with people. Mouse needs to die, though, given its more prominent role as an overly useful and flat deus ex machina for the series. If it's going to be more than for cheap comedy its simply too useful and perfect for different situations to keep around. It's like crack for bad writing, in much the same way the Knights in general and Michael particularly were.

Better than: Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
Worse than: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, by a significant margin.

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