Here, on his third effort Butcher is finally starting to home in on something that might turn out to be rather good. His skill as a writer has improved significantly, which accounts for the majority of the improvements.
The usual laundry list of problems are still there. The story follows the same formula that both of the previous books followed. Dresden has no money, Dresden gets in over his head, Dresden gets beat to a pulp and then somehow muddles through in the end and saves the city/the world/his friends.
It’s actually amazing that this book is as enjoyable as it is with that tired formula as a base. Early in the book Dresden is attacked by a demon that eats part of his soul, taking away most of his ability to do magic. He finds that he isn’t even strong enough to light a candle and he even has a hard time standing up on his own. Then he spends the rest of the book traipsing all over Chicago chasing demons, working magic and just barely being able to pull enough strength together to make it work — over and over again. This would be only mildly irritating if it hadn’t been the same story in the last two books. I’m expecting it to be the same in most of the rest of them as well.
Butcher understands the maxim of putting your hero through the worst thing that could happen to them. He constantly and imaginatively puts Harry Dresden through physical and emotional torment that most people would need counseling for. Unfortunately what he doesn’t understand is the eye of the storm. A story that is all hurricane and no calm is actually boring. This is one of my biggest complaints about Butcher as a writer. I can get over the terrible puns and the painful pop culture references and the clumsy uses of metaphors but the action starts usually about page five and never stops until the end. By the middle of the book my thoughts are usually on the order of “Oh, no. Not another fight.”
This particular book introduces a new character named Michael who is vitally relevant to the story and starts out on page one fighting ghosts with Harry. Michael enters the text as though he is an old friend that we’ve adventured with before. The problem is that we haven’t. Michael was not in either of the two previous volumes. After the first chapter we get a couple chapters of flashback to explain what Michael and Harry are doing but even in that flashback it is assumed that everybody knows who Michael is.
Much of the other background for this story is handled the same way. There was an evil sorcerer that Harry and Michael helped put in jail, from whence many of their troubles in this book spring, he is referred to obliquely so that I found myself looking at the previous volumes to see if I had missed something.
That brings me to the good part. Michael is possibly the sole reason that I will continue to read these books. Harry is only a reasonably likable character who has questionable morals and an annoyingly cliche dark past. I’m sure many people have a similar reaction to Michael and his supreme faith in his religion — a faith that is so powerful that Harry relies on it to save him on occasion — and his stalwart moral uprightness but he appealed to me in ways that Harry and his friends could not.
The other reason I will continue reading these books is that Butcher showed us that he is not afraid to change things… and people. Even Harry’s friends are not immune to the hell that is being around Harry Dresden.
It’s kind of a dichotomy, I guess, that I dislike Harry for being dark yet what I like about Butcher’s writing is that he is willing to do dark things to the characters. That feeling that nobody is safe really raises the stakes and makes the story more interesting.
Let’s see what the next one brings.