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Cold Days (The Dresden Files, #14)Cold Days by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Look, this is book fourteen, and I still don't know why I'm here. By now evidence is mounting to suggest I don't want to know why I'm here. So fine. I give up. I'll just read the damn book and stop interrogating my enjoyment of it for an explanation that might make even a little bit of sense.

I didn't like this one as much. It got a ton of shit done, but that was part of the problem. It was all A plot! B plot! C plot! D plot! B plot C plot B plot A plot! Because it had to move a whole bunch of pieces into a new configuration and it only had so many words to do it in. Ghost Story was a quieter book on the gratuitous fight scenes per page ratio, and while it's not like I really enjoy Harry Dresden when he's getting all philosophical – God save us – that book had a stronger emotional throughline, and *gestures* other analysis stuff I don't really care enough about in this context to put words to.

Which is all a silly reviewer way of saying this is a setup transition book, so yeah, it was unsatisfying. Do I care about the stuff it was setting up? Sure, why not. Though the shape of the conflict – the outermost reaches of it as revealed in this book – are so exactly identical in presentation to the conflict in his other series that it made me a bit weary even before we've gotten to the doubtless pages upon pages upon pages of Jim Butcher jizzing over just how much he loves 'defend this wall from an unbeatable hoard of millions of monsters' battle scenes. Get some new material, dude.

…Lol. Spoiler. He won't.

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Ghost Story (The Dresden Files,  #13)Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had most of my reaction to this in another forum over a month ago, but the completism, it drives us, precious.

So, hmm, yeah. . I enjoyed this, as a reading experience. It has maybe 30% fewer gratuitous slugfests by volume, and is just that titch more contemplative than the last book. I mean, this is not a game-changer in any sense. It felt like a transitional book internally, and externally . . . yeah, not everyone can manage to like these books, and this one is not going to persuade anyone new, because it’s not doing anything new.

(By the way, someone dropped a semi-coherent comment on my review of Changes recently to inform me that by that point in the series all the sexism was gone. You guys. I died. And after I wiped the tears off my face, I deleted the comment, because seriously, what could I possibly have said to that?)

Anyway, what I actually wanted to say here is that this series is going down the path of literalized metaphysics. Angels aren’t ideas, they’re facts. Which – and I say this as a howling atheist – completely removes the . . . narrative force. The emotional umph. The psychological zing of that kind of power. Angels aren’t our personal constructs and vessels of faith and historical reimaginings and power fantasies anymore. They’re just another set of dudes on the board.

Dudes that can occasionally pull literal God mode and deus ex machina things right up my nose. I can see this one coming multiple books off – there’s going to be this big old thing about free will and humanity and whatever, and it’s going to be awkward and confused and freshman-philosophy – it’s going to be extra special written by Jim Butcher. And it’s going to give me a headache.

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Fool Moon (The Dresden Files #2)Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

See, this is the difference between Jim Butcher and me.

. . . Well, okay, no, it’s not the difference, there are a lot of differences. He thinks women are smaller weaker men with breasts (nearly an exact quote); I do not. He doesn’t have a very good grasp on what sexual assault and rape are; I really, really do. He thinks it’s appropriate to go off on people of color who read his books and find them racist (how dare they, you guys!); I – yeah, you get the picture.

But the point here is that he thinks a book ends with a battle, and I think a book ends with, um, an ending. It’s continually astonishing to me that a guy could come up with a set of characters I’ve become this sincerely attached to when he doesn’t write any of the bits I really care about. I mean, werewolf battle with mobsters, whatever. Nice scenery, magic, it’s not like we don’t all know how this goes. But it’s like, I don’t know, it’s like Butcher thinks the tension actually lives there in the showdown of good and evil.

It really, really doesn’t. In these books, it particularly doesn’t, because the only surprise in a Dresden battle is how, never who or why. No, the interesting bits would be after the dust settles, with a number of uncomfortable interpersonal questions floating around, and the implications of power still in the air. But do we get any of that? Nope.

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Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1)Storm Front by Jim Butcher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For the group reread. My God, I’d forgotten what a terrible book this is, in my wryly pained affection for the later series. It’s not even just that the protagonist is an asshole, though he is (and a multi-flavor asshole for extra points, with ‘sexist’ and ‘patronizing’ for topnotes). It’s not even that I hate this sort of lone ranger secretive warrior bullshit. Particularly with a character like Harry Dresden, who at this point is all clichés and traumatic history (or is that redundant?) and who definitely can’t support the entire book on his own.

No, it’s actually just a bad book. It runs on coincidences, it’s all external forces and no internal. There’s even a glaringly obvious continuity error at the end with a pair of handcuffs which are apparently both open and closed at the same time. It must be magic. But I can’t blame the copyeditor for having gone glaze-eyed at that point.

Ah well. I’m here for the fandom, anyway.

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Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden FilesSide Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dresden Files short stories. Jim Butcher’s capacity to write about sexual assault and rape without having any idea that he’s doing it will never cease to amaze me. That’s the uniting theme of this collection – Harry Dresden, magical slugfests, and rape culture, woo! I think my favorite bit was Harry getting turned on by watching Murphy make out with another woman on the magical equivalent of a date rape drug, and then lying to her about what happened later because it would just bother her to know. Awesome. Oh, wait, wait, no, my favorite was really when Thomas unloads all his vampire angst for pages and pages, then uses his mojo to rape a woman to death. No, I’m wrong. My absolute favorite has to be when a woman who was once mind-whammied into having a relationship with Harry that she wouldn’t have otherwise later apologizes to Harry for it. The fact that she’s a rape victim doesn’t actually make Harry a rapist, but it makes her apologizing incredibly fucked up. Perhaps nearly as fucked up as Jim Butcher not having any apparent idea he’s doing any of this shit.

. . .Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Oh, you know, it’s Jim Butcher. The emotional palate hits a peak complexity somewhere around the eleventh grade boy level, and most conflicts get resolved by a metaphorical dick-measuring contest, and I quite enjoyed a few of these stories. Like you do sometimes.

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Dark and Stormy KnightsDark and Stormy Knights by P.N. Elrod

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Anthologies, you know. It’s like asking people to throw random things at your head and hoping they pick cotton balls instead of rocks.

The good

Rachel Caine, “Even a Rabbit Will Bite” – A surprise standout. I’m not a Rachel Caine fan (hello, deliberate impregnation without consent plotline in her series, unclean unclean!) but this really worked. Very ancient dragonslayer teaches the trade to her apprentice. There’s just one dragon left in the world now, and only on the brink of extinction can you ask if this should ever have happened. Nothing hugely surprising, but one of the most balanced, layered stories here.

Jim Butcher, “Even Hand” – Oh Jim Butcher, how are you so charming while still being . . . you? A mystery for the ages. Harry Dresden is Sir Not Appearing in this story, except for how when a story is about John Marcone, it’s really all about Harry Dresden anyway.

Ilona Andrews, “A Questionable Client” – A long night’s slugfest of bodyguard work, enlivened by some interesting worldbuilding and a nice ending. No real there there, but lots of color.

The bad

Deirdre Knight, “Beknighted” – How am I supposed to take an author seriously when she says “preciseness” instead of “precision?” Also, the story is a floridly overwritten bit of nonsense that is supposed to be romantic and atmospheric but . . . isn’t.

Shannon K. Butcher, “The Beacon” – A story about a guy who shoots people before they can unknowingly pull demons across the void to kill everyone. Except one day, it’s a little girl, and you know shooting those old people, that was okay, but this is just not on, and also the girl’s mother is hot. The story isn’t great, but I hated it more than it deserved for its inept attempt at depth.

Vicki Pettersson, “Shifting Star” – It’s so awkward when you automatically assume the sexually harassing neighbor dude who can’t take no for an answer is one of the bad guys, only to discover he’s supposed to be the hero. Always an awkward cocktail party moment! Add in the bit where the heroine fucks with his memory and then makes out with him, and I pretty much had to scrub my brain out after reading this. But I think we already knew Vicki Pettersson’s sexual politics were this bad.

The indifferent

Carrie Vaughn, “God’s Creatures” – Unexceptional story about a werewolf hunt that does the whole “who’s the real monster here?” routine. Been there, done that.

Lilith Saintcrow, “Rookwood and Mrs. King” – Vampire detective gets hired to kill a woman’s undead husband, and then she pwns him all over the place. Vaguely entertaining.

P. N. Elrod, “Dark Lady” – Chicago, vampires, mob, etc. Fun, but not something I’ll remember two weeks from now.

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Changes (The Dresden Files, #12) Changes by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have realized that reading this series is a live fire demonstration of that definition of insanity about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

By which I mean that this book is hilariously inept but enragingly compelling, with a gratuitous magical brawl every fifteen pages and towering manpain and the stakes on the battle against ultimate evil, take 12, this time with ultimater!evil cranked up yet higher. So business as usual.

Seriously, I could not put this book down, and I spent over half the time wanting to punch it squarely in the face. If anyone ever needs an example to show the ignorant of what we mean when we talk about glaringly sexist books that the author doesn’t know are sexist, here it is. This book is all about terrible things happening to women and young girls for the purpose of making our hero feel manly rage. And he gets to – I am not kidding about this – stab a woman to death for plot-related purposes that essentially boil down to “so he can feel bad about it.” And there are a few agonizing moments where Butcher is clearly trying to cope with the multiple “dude, stop being a sexist fuckwit!” memos he must have gotten over the past decade, because he has his hero thinking things like, “I like strong women, I don’t understand what’s wrong with that! I said I like women, God!”

. . .

Dear Jim Butcher: Dude, stop being a patronizing sexist fuckwit. And also try to think of women as actual people rather than just objects of violence for the purposes of male angst. Actually, try thinking of women as people, full stop.

This is what I mean when I say it’s enragingly compelling, because omg, next book please?

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First Lord's Fury (Codex Alera, #6) First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Conclusion to this six-book epic fantasy about the lost prince rising to power in the land overrun by creepy hive-minded spider thingies.

It's not romanesque, it's romanish. Which explains everything you really need to know about this series, except that it's predictable and has quietly annoying gender issues and is deeply, deeply satisfying. Like dolphin noises satisfying. Like Anne McCaffrey when you're twelve satisfying, only more swords.

No, wait, I do actually have something else to say. There's a moment in the epilogue where one of the characters explains Jim Butcher's books to us. He's talking about writing a history of the war, and he says the bits they're living now – everything since the very last second victory at the OMG! Last! Stand! Of brave! Men! – is the boring stuff, and all Jim Butcher cares about the interesting bits are the heroic battles and close calls and fights to the death. Forget about the reconstruction and the politics and the reunions and relationships.

Jim Butcher is wrong, and wow did he drop the ball on the denouement here, which is, you know, what he does every. Single. time.

But I dolphin noise anyway.

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May. 6th, 2009 06:22 pm
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Turn Coat (The Dresden Files, Book 11) Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Oh, Jim Butcher, honey. Whoever told you your work is morally complex was lying to you. But it's all right -- just stick to big roleplay game magic slug-outs and occasional wisecracks, and we're all good. Okay? Okay.

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The Furies of Caldaron, Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury

So at the end of a lot of the Harry Dresden books there's this author biography that talked about how Butcher has loved epic fantasy since he was a wee thing, and how he wrote it for years but never got published, and it was urban fantasy that broke him into print. But what he really loves is epic fantasy, because he imprinted on Lord of the Rings and he just, OMG, he loves it.

Which tells you most of what you need to know about this series. Epic fantasy where the good guys win through ever-mounting odds, male virtue is constructed almost entirely through soldiering, and did I mention the long lost prince who rises to bring hope and goodness to the threatened realm?

Man, these were awesome finals reading.[1] I mean patriarchy blah flat female characters blah moral complexity of a high school history discussion blahcakes. But the valiant battles fought against vast evil! The inspiration of the faint-hearted and self-interested by a great leader! Man, if these had been around when I was twelve or so, they would have been the best things ever. As it is they were, uh, well. Shockingly addictive and compulsively readable (2500 pages in twelve days, if you must know).

[1] See, the thing I need for good finals reading is a series, because I want my brain to get into a particular universe groove and just run on it. Changing books mid-finals takes too much brain I need elsewhere. And it's got to be a lot of reading, to carry me through. And I've got to want to read it at any given moment where I might need a breather, because I have this overfocusing problem where I study study study, and then when I take a break I can't actually switch my brain over to anything that isn't tax law and I go a little crazy because I'm too tired to keep studying but too rabbited up in the head to do anything else. This series totally wins on all fronts.
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The latest – geez, tenth -- Harry Dresden book. Winter fairies something something missing mobster something evil demons, insert explosions where appropriate.

Sorry. I read this book in less than thirty-six hours, while simultaneously getting over law school exams and a hangover, and packing everything I own. It was exactly the right reading choice for that situation, for everyone's reference. I mean, it's a Harry Dresden book – a 350 page string of magical battles in increasingly bizarre and urban picturesque locations, punctuated by tarnished hero angst and a lot of sarcasm. There are days when that's exactly what you need, you know?

So did the TV show get canceled? That would be a shame, because I seem to recall it spontaneously developing some awesome at the end of the twelve-episode run.
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Ninth Dresden Files book (click author link for the first eight) in which Harry begins investigating the deaths of a number of local small-time magical practitioners and, say it ain’t so!, ends up in the middle of a massive vampire power struggle with wide-ranging implications for the continuing war.

I’m almost tempted to re-skim Storm Front, the first book in the series, just for the purpose of enjoying how much Butcher’s talent has grown. His writing is smoother (if not, you know, particularly beautiful), his dialogue downright sparkling in places, his plots much less contrived, his jokes funny-lame instead of stupid-lame. And he’s discovered subtlety in character work, which is worth a cheer all in and of itself.

All of which sounds a lot more disparaging than it’s intended. Seriously. This series started out as a mildly diverting bunch of adventures with average writing and the occasional irritating element. They’ve morphed into smooth, funny, creative stories which are indulging in the sort of very long-range plotting that really pushes my buttons. There’s a really excellent and diverse supporting cast, and Harry is developing in believable and impressive ways (the apprentice angle is awesome) as both a wizard and a person, and somewhere in the past three books I started being emotionally engaged by him on levels that the first few books didn’t permit (see above re: subtlety in character work).

Harry’s chauvinism is still irritating (nope, sorry, not cute, not funny, and, most damning of all, not illuminating of character in a meaningful way). I was also a bit disappointed by the ending to this book, which returned to the old pattern of lining up the good guys and the bad guys and having them whack at each other with swords and magic and rifles until things go badly for both and the good guys pull a rabbit out of their hats. Ho-hum. This sort of thing can only really be saved for me by the delightful creativity Butcher has demonstrated himself more than capable of (resurrected dinosaur! Plant monster in a garden store!) that simply wasn’t present here. Otherwise, it reads like a description of a tabletop RPG. Which, uh, it well might be.

Anyway. Strong series that I’m glad I stuck with, because the good stuff took a while to hit me. And I have a feeling there’s a lot more of it coming.

Which, by the way, can also be said of the new TV show – I was reasonably entertained by the first few episodes, then something shifted and went click and the last few installments have been nothing short of delightful.
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Books six, seven, and eight in the urban fantasy Dresden Files, about the wizard PI in Chicago. Blood Rites takes Harry onto the set of a porn film and into a tangle with vampires and curses, Dead Beat is actually a very clever title for a book about zombies and necromancy (the necromancer has to maintain a steady, heartbeat-like pulse as part of the control ritual – rap and polka are equally effective, apparently), and Proven Guilty sees Harry drawn farther into the wizard-vampire war as a friend’s daughter is ensnared with faeries and some truly scary monsters. The arc begins to emerge as a larger struggle is set up, and Butcher is getting better with every book – he can do denouement now!

These are strong books, heavy on action and flashy, creative magic. Harry also lays the woobie on thick, as the general arc of the series sends him spinning closer and closer to some really dark forces. Though I do have to mildly complain that I’d really like it if some authors would grow more of a backbone and stop playing ‘mistake limbo.’ That is, the beloved but flawed protagonist makes mistakes, but they’re all perfectly explicable and rooted in heroism or the necessity of the moment – Harry’s first step down the dark path was a reflexive and absolutely necessary action to save a young child. While this is not unrealistic, sometimes people screw up just because they can, and I find that more narratively interesting than the eternal “I would do it again because I am a hero and I had to, but I have angst over it.”

Also, because I am cranky today, I’d also like to say that Butcher fundamentally lacks a basic, though certainly not essential, pillar of writing talent. He sketches strong, high-relief, wise-cracking characters and spins complex, engaging plots, but, well. He’s just not a very good writer on the word by word level, in the realm of beauty and felicity and grace. He’s got a great sense of rhythm on the book level, the tempo of racing plot and backbeat of emotion, but he really lacks it in the trenches with the sentences themselves. And I can absolutely live with that for books as engaging as these, but it still drives me nuts, and especially when the copyediting is so sloppy (“She looked past me, to the open floor space and the things I had sat out.” Gaaah!)

That was a lot of complaining for books that I really like. They’re a rollicking good time, and they mix sparklingly original ideas with staples of the genre. I could not put down Proven Guilty last night, and I await the next eagerly.
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Fiction, urban fantasy. First five books in the Harry Dresden series – “the other wizard Harry,” as the deeply unfortunate cover copy says. Himself is the only wizard in the Chicago yellow pages, and he’s got that whole hard-luck, snarky, “I have a tragic past” noir private eye thing going. By far Butcher’s strongest suit is those cinematic feeling action and battle scenes. There’s one in Fool Moon that had me sitting bolt upright in bed, heart pounding, and a whole Walmart sequence in Summer Knight which is just top-notch. There are also a lot of charming details – Harry’s thirty pound cat, his lab assistant (a talking skull), and the werewolves who save the world and then come home to D&D.

The books are definitely flawed, though, and I think most of it can be traced to pure authorial laziness. Butcher has a habit of writing an incredibly detailed action climax, and then summarizing what should have been the next thirty pages of denouement in five. He also consistently and irritatingly creates conflict by setting up characters with psychopathically enormous grudges against Harry, who is inevitably misunderstood and falsely accused (get another shtick, please). These are both improving with time, I think, though unfortunately Harry’s women issues aren’t; Butcher thinks he’s chivalrous, but he’s actually just obnoxious. Which is the heart of it, really, and as much as I enjoyed these books and as much as I hate saying things like this, there’s something indefinably male about these books and their concerns. Which is to say that I like them, but I simply do not care about them the way I do other urban fantasy which is very similar but more indefinably female, like Kim Harrison’s. I know, I know, please don’t start.


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