Monday, July 7, 2014

[Book Review] Skin Game by Jim Butcher

In his latest adventure, Harry Dresden finds himself pressured into helping pull off a heist run by one of his deadliest enemies, to recover a holy relic from the vaults of Hades himself. Dresden's going to have to keep his cards closer to the chest than usual if he's going to survive this job, and to top it all he has to deal with distrust from one of his own allies which threatens to mess up the whole game.

For those of you who have not read up to Cold Days (or haven't read any of the Dresden Files series yet), this review will almost certainly contain spoilers. So you should probably stop reading. Like, now. Go read the rest of the series instead.

Still reading? Then hopefully that means you've read up to Cold Days, and I'm not about to give anything away that you don't already know.

Skin Game picks up a few months after the events of Cold Days. Molly is incommunicado, thanks to Mab's meddling, and Chicago's only professional wizard has been living on isolation on the island of Demonreach because the island is the only thing that can suppress the parasite threatening to burst out of his head until he can get his trusted padawan to help get it out. He now has little time left, and Mab knows it. She's been keeping Molly as a bargaining chip to force Harry into doing a job which he absolutely would not want to do. Help Nicodemus Archleone break into the vault of Hades, god of the Underworld.

It was only a matter of time before the Dresden series tackled a heist story. I'm actually surprised it took this long for Butcher to write one, but it was worth the wait. As I mentioned earlier, Dresden keeps his cards closer to the chest than usual this time, which is a pretty standard trope in heist stories. He's not the only one, Nicodemus has parts of his plan kept secret until the time comes to put them in motion. Both of them have their own aces in the hole which you may or may not guess at before they're brought into play. I kind of guessed what Dresden's ace was about halfway through. Regardless, I'd love to give the book another read to see where the 'tells' are which foreshadow the twists.

This book completes the arc of bringing Harry back into the world after his untimely demise back in Changes. He's been in seclusion since Cold Days, by choice as much as necessity. He doesn't trust himself anymore, afraid of what kind of monster the Winter mantle will make of him. At its core, that's what this story is really about; it's about Harry overcoming that fear and getting back out into the world. He has the support of a couple of old friends, but others are less trusting of Harry now that he's the Winter Knight, which serves to externalise Harry's own concerns and force him to prove to them - as well as himself - that he is still the same, good old Harry. At the same time, he still has to fulfil his duty as Winter Knight enough to satisfy Mab, which is a pretty tall order to fill, but it's a challenge that he rises to admirably.

Those of you hoping to see what the dynamic between Molly and Dresden in their new roles is like will, sadly, be disappointed. To get Dresden involved in this plot Molly is, by necessity, kept away for the majority of the story.

Some old plot threads are revisited, I'm not telling you what they are, but some of you will have been waiting a while for it to come up. One of them is, annoyingly, a bit of a Deus Ex Machina, while the other - the reveal about the true nature of Dresden's brain parasite - is just plain silly, in my humble opinion.

Also, Butcher employs Chandler's Law as usual. It wouldn't really be the Dresden Files if he didn't get into a lot of scraps along the way, but it does somewhat clash with the 'heist genre' feel that Butcher is going for here. In a heist story, even when things seem to go wrong, it turns out that the protagonists had it all factored into their plan after all. While there's a certain amount of scheming on both Dresden and Nicodemus' sides, there's still that element of chaos to Dresden's life that makes things not go smooth. I suppose I can't really complain too much about that, though.

Overall, it's another solid entry in the Dresden Files series. There are a few disappointing absences by regular characters, a bit of a silly plot reveal midway through and it never quite manages to feel like the genre it's attempting to emulate. But it's still unmistakeably Dresden, which is the message at the emotional core of this story. No matter what temptations he faces and no matter what changes to his job description, Harry is still Harry. And he still deals with any challenges he faces with the same snark and stubborn determination as ever. He just does it with ice a bit more than fire these days.

Skin Game is available in print and Kindle editions, as well as in audiobook format narrated by James Marsters, best known as Spike from Buffy. I haven't listened to any of the audiobooks since Changes, since Ghost Story had John Glover as its narrator instead. But Marsters has always done a wonderful job not only as Dresden, but in doing various different voices for the characters that Dresden encounters, so if you have an Audible account I'd highly recommend checking out the audiobook.

Undecim Rating: +4

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