Sunday, September 1, 2013

Left Me in the Cold

Jim Butcher
Recommended for: Dresden fans
Reviewed by Carol
★  ★   1/2

I dream of an urban fantasy novel that celebrates humanity in its many shapes and backgrounds.
I dream of an urban fantasy that integrates folklore, the myths of world cultures, the tricksters and thieves and intelligent life in many forms.
I dream of kindness paying unexpected dividends.
I dream of an urban fantasy that moves me, pushes my boundaries, questions my institutional beliefs as much as The Sparrow did, a book that left me an emotional wreck.
I dream of an urban fantasy that doesn’t make women out to be a collection of parts that inspire lasciviousness.
I dream of an urban fantasy that passes the Bechdel test.
In short, I dream of something besides the first eight chapters of Cold Days. Butcher isn’t the only one, mind you. He’s just the one that makes bestseller lists every time Dresden hiccups.


Review thoughts

Ordinarily, I’m not one that usually pays much attention to the “show don’t tell” school of writing advice, but I immediately noticed how much of the book consists of Butcher/Dresden telling the reader about everything. Dude–you know it is book fourteen in a series, right? You don’t need to describe the Chicago skyline. (Or maybe you do–this could by Anycity, U.S.A.). You also don’t need to tell us what your apartment looked like, about Bob the skull, Butters’ job at the morgue, your creepy past feelings about Molly, your VW bug, how perfect Thomas’ body is, your preference for fire magic, leather dusters and charm bracelets or your soulfire–give us the action, how it feels and we’ll figure it out.

I confess I’ve read the series with lackluster enthusiasm since book 8 or so, but never before have I been so convinced Dresden is an asshat. I wouldn’t even friend him on Facebook, that’s how much of an Equus posterior he is. Sure, some of that might be the Winter Knight persona showing through. But most of it is the same ol’ that’s troubled him since book one. Like Rachel Morgan in Kim Harrison‘s witch series, character growth is glacial. In his continued ode to chauvinism, he admits he can’t hit a woman, even if she’s a psychopathic, possessed female who wants to start Armageddon.

Correlated to the character issues is the development of Dresden assuming mantle of the Winter Knight, one of the crucial points of this book. The power of the mantle causes intense feelings of rage and lust–at least, Dresden frequently attributes it to the ‘mantle.’ However, Butcher tells us a great deal about how ‘calculating’ Winter is, how the chief aspect is a focus on logic, reasoning, and elaborate plotting based on calculating the odds, even gauging for emotional response. So why is Dresden’s Winter aspect so prone to irrational rage and sexual rapaciousness? It felt inconsistent, and since significant plot points have to do with characteristics of the avatars of Summer and Winter fae courts, it was bothersome.

As usual, I most appreciated the supporting mythical characters. I enjoyed Demonreach, the island’s personification, and discovering the innermost workings of the island. Loved Odin. I rather liked the vicious Cat Sith. Butcher does a nice job of remaining true to the early folklore spirit of fae, their tricksy motives and inhuman ethics (although not pronunciation, natch). I liked Thomas’ brother relationship and calling Dresden out, although again, I felt like I had read that before. While I liked Molly’s character change and confident maturity, it seemed a little sudden from the Molly I remembered. Granted Dresden’s been gone at least 3 months during rehabilitation and somewhat longer during Ghost Story. But she seems like an entirely different person. I suspect her story is even more interesting… wish he could find someone to tell it.

That said, I did find the storyline rather engaging, particularly in the last half of the book, when the expositionary hiccups were ironed out and it finally progressed into steady action. I will note that a couple of plot points annoyed me. One, and this is small but telling, Dresden spent an hour telling his friends about the varied ways blood can be used for tracking (because it’s not like he hadn’t already used it as a technique in other books–eyeroll). Conveniently, he still forgets this a few hours later. Two, the overall plot continues to be

preventing Chicago from being wiped from the earth–as well as the earth from being wiped out by the Outsiders. This has been the penultimate threat in the last chunk of books (I can’t be bothered to count how many, but definitely in Death Masks and White Knight), so it’s a little repetitive.

Three, Dresden’s internal conflict is pretty much a repetition of a number of other books in the series as well, especially in Death Masks, when he picks up the silver coin and is fighting to identify self versus non-self urges and thoughts.

Writing remains uneven. Butcher continues his self-conscious writing, full of nudge-wink moments to the reader. There’s a very out front moment where Harry admits he “jokes under pressure” that sounds a great deal like Butcher trying to answer critics’ irritation with wise-cracking heroes in their moment of confrontation. Dresden misses a Firefly reference from Bob. Presumably the humor comes from the reader being in on the joke, but it did throw me out of the story long enough to consider why Dresden persistently quotes Star Wars and Princess Bride and yet remains challenged by more recent geek-culture phenomenona. There’s also an extremely awkwardly inserted “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It” conversation on some (male) gay sexuality that occurs in the Magic Hedge (!!!). It’s very strange, non-sequitur and generally smacks of half-assed defensiveness. More than anything else, that threw me out of the story (and necessitated a quick trip to the opthamologist for an eye repair).

Had Dresden not been so focused on his male organs, I might have considered 4 stars. However, his general obsession with “possessing” every female in sight (Mab, his physical therapist, Maeve, fae women, Molly, Murphy, Lily, etc), coupled with Butcher’s general insistence of describing all females in the book in terms of sexual appeal (the two that weren’t were clearly defined by their lack of appeal) makes this a library-only recommendation, and that mostly for Dresden fans.

Two and a half schwing! stars

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