BooksReview

Harry’s Dresden’s Heist Steals the Show: “Skin Games” Review

Jo Wylie ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

HARRY DRESDEN – WIZARD

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations.

Consulting. Advice, Reasonable Rates.

No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment 

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The first Dresden Files book, Storm Front, hit shelves in 2000, and fans instantly fell in love with the only wisecracking wizard in the phonebook. Fourteen years and fourteen books later, Harry Dresden has become no less dear to the hearts of his many fans, and Jim Butcher continues to awe and excite us with every new title.

With an artfully constructed world, a wonderful narrative style, and cast of characters that could easily fill a football stadium, Butcher has crafted a stable, recognizable, and well-loved universe. It’s undeniable to any fan, though, that the books have been getting darker in the last few years. Starting with the cataclysmic events in the aptly titled Changes, three books ago, things got darker and darker – (spoilers for earlier books) Harry almost losing Maggie, the massacre of the Red Court, Harry dying, and how that affected the characters left behind, Harry becoming the Winter Knight…. It was clear that the series was a long way away from the simple werewolves, warlocks, and Special Investigations Unit we would recognize from the early books.

So, understandably, picking up Skin Games was a bit of a wild card for fans. What would Jim Butcher do now? How can things possibly get any worse? where would this dark path take us next? Skin Games quickly qhuashed any fears, however. The book may begin with talk about the parasite lurking in Harry’s brain, the plot hook from the end of the last book, but within a page our favorite wizard is running through tunnels, and shouting “Parkour!” as he jumps obstacles, his usually zany humour back again. With a refreshing suddenness, the latest book thrusts us back, at least a little bit, into the wonderful fun of the earlier books.

In an interview with aintitcool.com, Jim Butcher talked about the darker turn the series had taken in previous books. “For me personally, Changes, Ghost Story, and Cold Days is the big three-part special episode that comes in the middle of the season,” and this ends up being a very good way to look at the tone of the series. You read those three books, in all their dark, gritty glory, and think, ‘those were amazing books.’ ‘Those were really well constructed and beautifully written.’ But ultimately, it was time to get back to the episodes we’re used to in the rest of the series – it was time to shed the nail-biting finale-like drama and have some fun again. Butcher manages this transition with wonderful balance, promising that we’ll get back to Chicago and the usual “Scooby Gang,” and then delivering the old tone in a way that makes us feel like we’re home.

One of the best choices Butcher makes in bringing that tone back is the re-appearance of a classic villain. Harry is expected, due to his job as Mab’s knight, to work a job with none other than Nicodemus, fallen angel, head of the Order of the Blackened Denarius, and all around Bad Guy. Nicodemus and the Order are some of Butcher’s best villains, and that’s saying something, with the author’s skill with character and world design. In Skin Games, Harry is lent out to what Butcher jokingly describes as the “Evil League of Evil” to pull the biggest heist of the century – right into Hades’ vault. Yes, that Hades. Along for the ride is a cast of recurring characters we’ve been sorely missing – the increasingly badass Butters gets the recognition he deserves, Michael is as cool as ever, and Karrin Murphy kicks as much ass as you could hope for. Butcher then rounds out the cast with a number of new, exciting characters; Goodman Grey, a shape-shifter on the Evil League, is penned with Butcher’s usual flair, and was a particularly enjoyable and engaging character who’ll hopefully pop up again in a later book.

After 14 books and over a decade of readership, there’s a very real danger that a  series can become stagnant, confusing, or just plain boring. Butcher’s decision to shake up the system with the darker patch, but his return to something a bit more classing in Skin Games was the best decision he could make – he’s successfully upended the hourglass, changing everything for a while but stabilizing it perfectly afterwards. The scenes which markedly lighten the tone are few, but powerful. Butcher doesn’t weigh the narrative down with heavy exposition and laborious existential scenes where characters question how it could have all gone so wrong. Instead, the scenes that begin to shed the darker themes of the previous books – a powerful talk about the state of Harry’s soul with Michael, the scenes between Harry and Maggie that have been desperately lacking since her reveal – are simple, honest, and potent.

Harry – or, more accurately, Butcher – has also taken a step away from some very dangerous moral territory. In the last few books, Cold Days in particular, there was a sudden prevalence of dark sexual themes. With Harry’s newfound power in the mantle of Winter Knight came a serious lack of control. He was left with a somewhat carnal monologue that filled the narrative with landmines full of what was, at best, Harry directly expressing a desire to sexually assault the women around him.

Although Butcher was using this as an indication that Harry was being tempted by True Evil, it still forced readers to listen to one of their most beloved characters wax poetic about how “she couldn’t stop” Harry if he decided to go for her. The Dresden Files has always wavered around problematic, but usually kept itself in line, and Cold Days began to lean away from acceptable to such a degree that many fans were talking about leaving the books behind. Thank heavens, then, that Skin Games bounces back from this tangent. Harry still thinks about sex a lot – something he’s been doing since day one – but his thoughts no longer leave female readers like they honestly wouldn’t ever want to be in the same room as him. Either due to the series heading in a lighter direction or due to Jim Butcher realizing what he was doing was Not Cool, this was possibly the most rewarding book in the series yet, when it comes to the treatment of female characters. The main crew on the heist is half women, for the most part, and those women are multi-faceted, developed, and varied. Jim’s got a history of good characters, but he really kicks it up this notch, and female fans will get particular joy out of this novel for it.

Jim Butcher has pulled his series back from the dark depths without a single iota of convenient “oh, well, everything’s okay again, of course” narratives. Ending the book with an explosive post-heist climax, Butcher once again draws his fans in and gives them everything they could hope for and more – and the ending will, as always, leave us waiting avidly for next year, and the next installment in this wonderful, fluid, and well loved series.

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