Thursday, March 25, 2010
White Night by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 12
We're coming up to the theoretical midpoint of the series, since Butcher has suggested that he might take it to twenty books or so. Given that number, I'd say it's time to look at the series-level story as well as the particular adventure for this book. It's pretty clear that Butcher has a much larger story arc that he's working on, moving us slowly away from the one-shot mysteries of the early volumes and into a larger world.
If we want, we could divide this series into thirds, and right now, I'd say we're well into the second third. I would put the first from Storm Front to Blood Rites, with the scarring of Harry Dresden, the discoveries he makes about his mother, and the damage done to his relationship with his mentor. It's Harry losing his lone wolf status and beginning to become a part of a larger community. He has friends now, something that was missing at the beginning, and people he truly cares about. In other words, he has much more to lose.
The second third began with Dead Beat and continues through this book. Harry becomes part of The Establishment, has something living in his head that could probably get him killed, and takes on a young apprentice, giving the former lone wolf a lot more responsibility. His decisions now have greater impact on both the mortal world and the world of the magic-users. He's going up against far more powerful foes, and encountering moral dilemmas that prevent him from knowing when he's actually doing the right thing.
This book is, in my opinion, a weaker sample than the ones that have come before it. Probably because it's the one with the most convoluted and difficult to explain back-story, one that the reader has to piece together along with Harry and friends.
In simple terms: the White Court vampires - who feed on emotional energy rather than blood - are in the middle of a power struggle. Their King, of the Raith family (who feed on lust) is about to be toppled by the Malvora (who feed on fear) and Skavis (who feed on despair). The White Court despises open confrontation, and traditionally do their dirty deeds through proxies and cats-paws. This makes it nigh impossible to see any kind of action by the White Court in a straightforward and clearly understandable manner. It's certainly more interesting than the standard vampire direct approach, but it creates additional challenges for the author and reader.
In the middle of this power struggle, someone is killing women of magical talent - not strong enough to be members of the White Council of Wizardry, but women with talent nonetheless. And there's a guy who looks an awful lot like Harry Dresden who's been seen sneaking about with these women. Given the rumors flying about, rumors that Harry has become darker, angrier, and considerably more powerful, well... people think the worst, as people often do.
It's once again up to Harry to not only clear his own name, but to also clear his brother, Thomas of the White Court, who's been very obviously keeping secrets. All the while, he has to keep from being seduced by the shadow of a Fallen angel in his head, make sure his young apprentice doesn't stray from the straight and narrow, try to help his first love protect the women she's sworn to help, and generally try not to get killed by any of the horrible things that want to kill him.
It's a fun read, as they all are, with some great character moments in it - one of the true strengths of the series. Butcher's characters behave, by and large, like real people, saying things that we could imagine saying to our real-people friends. His writing is, as usual, compelling and engaging (with the exception of some incredibly purple writing over on page 235 - "We're all of us equally naked before the jaws of pain" - that stood out like a drag queen at a bake sale). The books are all very quick reads, but it isn't because they're simple - this book defies simplicity - but because they're interesting to read, with very few wasted words and a good sense of what the reader needs to know.
As soon as it got to the White Court civil war, however, Butcher began front-loading a lot of information that probably should have been more liberally sprinkled throughout the previous books. I knew about the Raith family, and their penchant for Lust, and I knew that the White King wasn't exactly the power on the throne. But I wasn't prepared for the Byzantine levels of power-plays that go with White Court politics, and found it kind of rushed. It is possible that I was being a Lazy Reader, and indeed on the second read I found it easier to follow, but still - when you're dealing with villains who disdain clear and obvious action, you need to make sure the readers can keep up with the story. It's a fine line to walk, especially in a first-person narrative - the reader can't know more than the protagonist does, so feeding those hints to the reader is difficult work. Putting another White Court storyline into the series before this one might have helped, but if we look at the series story arc, there may have been no good way to shoehorn that in.
There were far more interesting story points in there that I would like to have seen expanded upon: Molly Carpenter's training, the evolution of Lash, the darkening of Harry's reputation within the magical community.... They're all interesting, and no doubt essential to the goings-on of the later books. And I'm pretty sure that what happened to the White Court will also be really, really important as well - I just hope Butcher remembers to make sure we have it all clear in our heads.
This is all just nitpicking, as the intrigues of the Vampires aren't my favorite part of the series. I'm sure there are plenty of readers out there who would be perfectly happy if the rest of the series was just Harry the Vampire Slayer, and I can't say I blame them. To each their own, right? Regardless of my preferences, I can say that the world of the Dresden Files is complex and ever-shifting, which is worth making time to read it.
"Life's easier when you can write off others as monsters, as demons, as horrible threats that must be hated and feared. The thing is, you can't do that without becoming them, just a little."
- Harry Dresden, White Night
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