So… you’re Jim Butcher with a best-selling series on your hands in the shape of tough-yet-vulnerable PI wizard Harry Dresden, whose adventures just get more and more apocalyptic. Come the thirteenth instalment, what do you do to up the action? Well… continue the jaw-dropper that confronted all Harry Dresden fans in Changes would be a good idea.
Firstly, though – if you’re just dipping your big toe into the genre of Urban Fantasy and haven’t yet come across this series, then please stop reading. Now. And rush off to the library to pick up the first book in the series, Storm Front, put up your feet and start reading. It’s an excellent series and I envy your pleasure as you gradually get to know Harry and the characters that accompany him on his adventures. If you ignore my advice and continue reading this review, you’ll be very, very sorry – because even the blurb contains major SPOILERS which I’m normally quite nifty at avoiding. However this time around, I cannot sensibly discuss this book without revealing a couple of doozies…
Meet Harry Dresden, Chicago’s first (and only) Wizard P.I. Turns out the ‘everyday’ world is full of strange and magical things – and most of them don’t play well with humans. That’s where Harry comes in.
Harry Dresden forgot his own golden rule: magic – it can get a guy killed. Which didn’t help when he clashed with unknown assailants intent on his murder. And though Harry’s continued existence is now some doubt, this doesn’t mean Chicago’s resident professional wizard can rest in peace. Trapped in a realm that is now quite here, yet not quite anywhere else, Harry learns that three of his loved ones are in mortal danger. Only by discovering his assailant’s identity can he save his friends, bring criminal elements to justice, and move on before he becomes trapped in his own unending nightmare.
It would just be easier if he knew which three friends were at risk. And had a (working) crystal ball. And had access to his magic. Instead, he must accomplish his mission unable to interact with the physical world – invisible and inaudible to all but the most specialised of magical talents. He’s also far from the only silent presence roaming Chicago’s alleys. Hell, he put some of them there himself. And now, they’re looking for payback.
I have to say I started this book with a fairly major grizzle. My fan-struck husband rushed out and bought the anthology of Harry Dresden short stories, Side Jobs. With a constant mountain of books piled up at my bedside, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it – until he plonked the final novella-length story in front of me, Aftermath, with strict instructions to read it before starting Ghost Story.
‘You really, really need to read this first,’ he said. He was right. And for my money, Butcher has significantly short-changed his large fan base by not inserting Aftermath either at the end of Changes, or the beginning of Ghost Story. The story gives a very useful update on what has happened to Chicago during Harry’s inevitable absence, and explores the full emotional impact of his death on those closest to him – something that cannot be adequately done from Harry’s viewpoint. Aftermath also establishes the grimmer, more muted tone that pervades Ghost Story. As it stands, Butcher needs to take a significant amount of time at the start of Ghost Story to set the altered mood and setting of Chicago in Harry’s inevitably confused and fragmented viewpoint. To the extent, that I was beginning to wonder whether Butcher’s huge risk in killing off his protagonist had paid off.
However by a third of the way in, the pace picked up and Butcher’s deft storytelling skills fully kicked in. One of the outstanding aspects of this particular series, is that it isn’t only the protagonist who is on a major journey. His companions and friends suffer and grow alongside him. So, we see how Harry’s death has affected Molly, his apprentice and Karin Murphy, his accomplice and would-be lover. The large supporting cast are not merely paraded in front of us in a never-ending procession of paper-thin constructs designed to fit the current plotline – the author gives them weight and thought and provides them with sufficient complexity that they provide page-turner appeal of their own over a number of the books. After all – Harry’s tale is told in first person point of view, and if we don’t fully engage with the characters that he’s willing to risk all for, then the point of the story would fall flat. And it doesn’t.
Once Ghost Story gained momentum, the story rocked along with all the verve and excitement Dresden fans have come to love and expect and the ending was suitably climactic – with a twist that I didn’t see coming. On balance, I think Butcher’s big risk in killing his protagonist worked… but I do think he unnecessarily jeopardised the whole venture by not including Aftermath in either Changes or Ghost Story.