Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story

US cover of Ghost Story by Jim ButcherThe Dresden Files was always a series that was going to appeal – a hard-boiled, wisecracking detective in an urban fantasy setting was something that I could be guaranteed to like. And, as a concept, I most certainly have enjoyed it: Butcher has done a fine job of world building, and I’ve greatly enjoyed the place he has created.

For those who haven’t caught the series, the Dresden Files follows Harry Dresden, a wizard and private investigator working out of Chicago. Dresden has been described as a magical thug – he doesn’t have the finesse to pull off many complex magical spells, but he has the raw power to hit hard. Thus the series tends to follow a basic framework: Harry discovers something is wrong, Harry finds the cause, and Harry burns the perpetrator (be it a vampire, evil magician, werewolf or other) to death in massive amounts of magical fire (or some similarly, over-the-top, magical spell). Harry isn’t subtle. On the way Harry tends to get caught up in a mess of problems, typical arriving at the story’s climax half dead from the various battles he’s been through on the way. It feels a bit like a fantasy version of Die Hard, where Harry survives more by stubbornness and an unwillingness to die than anything else.

This, of course, changed in the aptly named Changes, the 12th novel in the series. At the end of Changes Harry was dead, creating a bit of a problem, although the alert reader will presume that this isn’t a state that is likely to limit Harry: Butcher had already revealed that there would be at least 20 books in the series, so his continued appearance was assured. Thus Ghost Story continues to follow Harry’s adventures, only now as a corporally-challenged magical private investigator.

In the latest novel, Harry returns to Chicago as a ghost under instructions to find his murderer, knowing that if he fails at least two of his friends will suffer. As a ghost his abilities are severely curtailed: he can only been seen by a select few individuals, he is under constant threat by his fellow undead, and he can’t directly interact with the physical world.  Therefore in this novel he is following a new set of challenges, having to stop and think rather than just throw fire and burn everything that stands in his path. The opposition has changed as well. In Changes, Harry was fighting against the vampires of the Red Court (the world of Harry Dresden involves four distinct types of vampires, with Red Court being a variation of the traditional blood-sucking, sun-avoiding monsters). This is no longer an issue. The new villains major are The Fomor,  but they play a mostly off-stage role in Ghost Story. Instead the focus is the Grey Ghost, a seemingly new character that is interested in Mortimer Lindquist, an ectomancer. On Harry’s side are many of the same characters from the earlier novels: his apprentice, Molly, ex-cop Karrin Murphy, coroner Waldo Butters, the friendly werewolves, and Bob (the skull). What makes it more interesting is that they don’t trust Harry, and tend to marginalise his input – an interesting change from the preceding novels, although the focus remains on the somewhat-ignored Harry throughout the book.

So now for the negatives. I stand by my earlier comment that I love the world building in the novels, and I’ll add to that a love of the plotting and the witty- one-liners. What I don’t love is the dialog and characterisation – if nothing else, there are only so many times you can read “hell’s bells” on a page before it becomes more than just a tad distracting, and other than Harry and Bob, most of the characterisation tends to be poor. Butcher did spend some time on the secondary characters here, but it still felt a bit like a wasted opportunity. Generally speaking, Butcher’s writing is serviceable, (even though his plotting and world building are very strong), and while this is sufficient for a while (in much the same way that you can ignore the script in a big-budget Hollywood special effects extravaganza, and for much the same reason), over thirteen novels it tends to make itself felt.

Other than those concerns, I have to admit that, although I love SF references and in-jokes, I’ve now discovered that I have my limits. Unfortunately, we ran into that limit before the end of the novel, so the climatic scene fell more than a little flat. It was also disappointing that some of the themes that were alluded to – such as the nature of free will, the soul, and the role of memories in identity – were referred to but barely explored. As part of this, it was, in a sense, disappointing how the solution to many of Harry’s problems was the same as it always is: the situation Harry was in was, unsurprisingly, very different from those he had been placed in before, yet his response was, ultimately, what we’re used to. It seemed a bit like another lost opportunity, a chance to explore alternative directions that don’t involve massive amounts of killing fire. But, I guess, there’s something to be said for special effects, even if they’re literary instead of on the screen.

But there was one major plus that has restored my enjoyment of the series. The earlier Dresden Files novels had delightfully convoluted plots: Harry would be chasing several different leads on several different problems, which may or may not come together at the end. Thus the last stages of the novels saw Harry running from place-to-place, winding up plot threads has he worked his way to the ultimate showdown at the end. But this had been reduced in the more recent books, with more narrowly focused stories that lost some of that Die Hard feeling that I had enjoyed so much before. Ghost Story brings it back: by the end of the novel Harry has multiple threads to follow, some of which are related and some which aren’t, and all of which he has to settle within a few hours. Thus we fully return to the model that I had enjoyed when I first encountered the books.

Overall, I purchased this book with some trepidation, but was rewarded with what was both an enjoyable read and a nice segue into the new direction for the series. I’d have loved to have seen more of the characters that weren’t Harry, and perhaps less of the SF references, backstory and painful self-recrimination, but it provided some much-needed backstory, was pleasantly convoluted, and had the action one would expect from a Dresden novel. All of which combined to make for a good return for the series, and one which has reinvigorated my interest.