Having just finished reading Jim Butcher’s latest novel, Skin Game, from his series The Dresden Files, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.
I am an overall fan of Butcher’s work. His fantasy series, Codex Alera, may have left something to be desired, by I’ve always enjoyed his urban fantasy, Dresden Files. Following the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard who sells his services to the people of Chicago, these novels generally blend and balance the natural and supernatural worlds, humor and horror, action and dialogue, in wondrous adventures. Harry himself is on an endless quest to save the world, protect the innocent, and pay his rent.
Butcher accomplishes all this while advancing intricate stories, almost all of which have some symbolic theme, or message, or discussion for the audience. Blood Rites, for instance, argues that family is more than a genetic accident, by having a villain who believes exactly that. In fact, the value of family is a major theme throughout the whole of the series, but it comes to the forefront every so often.
It did so again, to a point, in Skin Game.
In the last few novels, Harry Dresden has learned he has a daughter, has died in her defense, has come back to life, and has been forced to own up to a deal he made to save his daughter’s life, at a terrible price. The ending of the previous novel, Cold Days, sort of fell apart for me. There was a pivotal event which transformed two characters into princesses of the Sidhe (the fairies), and it could have been tweaked just a little so it did not rely on one of the previous princesses, the one we like more, having a mental breakdown in the middle of the climax. It felt a unjust to her character, not to mention… I want to say, “wishy-washy.”
But I was, and still am, prepared to forgive that little slip-up.
Skin Game features an elaborate game of shadows with one of Harry’s old foes, Nicodemus (who, appropriately, manipulates his shadow), the mortal host of a fallen angel. In a politically-complicated convolution of interests, Harry, now serving as the Winter Knight to Queen Mab, is lent out to Nicodemus to help him steal something of value and power from none other than the Lord of the Underworld, Hades himself. It’s one of those deals where everyone knows that the minute all obligations have been met, all freaking Hell is going to break loose, in more ways than one.
And since Nicodemus, just to get what he wants, proves that he will even sacrifice, literally, his own daughter… well it promises no mercy to be found for his enemies.
This is a perfect contrast to Harry. In this novel, he has his first true meeting and conversation with his own daughter (in his defense, he was kind of dead for awhile, and this rather limits one’s abilities to socialize with one’s offspring). He gets just a taste of what it means to be a father, in those first moments, where she is “daughter” and he is “daddy.” For his daughter, not for himself, Harry Dresden will do anything.
He has plenty of help, fortunately. His good friend Sharon Murphy plays her usual significant role. We see Michael Carpenter, former Knight of the Cross, take up a blade again in defense of friends and family against the fallen. An old friend, of sorts, who owes her life to Harry and owes Nicodemus a black eye for murdering her friends, enters the fray as well, albeit mostly in a supporting, background role. There are others, but I don’t want to spoiler everything. Most inspiring, we see the unassuming coroner, Walter Butters, transform into a wily and determined warrior, even a heroic champion.
Hmmm, momentary side-note: I notice another recurring theme of small, weak background characters developing into strong heroes in their own right.
Heck, we even see the avatar of Harry’s subconscious for the first time in several novels, as he delivers an interesting bit of news! Which I am not spoilering for anything! But which does, in its way, also relate to the theme of family’s importance, and how truly alone the man is who casts it aside.
There was plenty to enjoy in Skin Game. The magic, the battles, the tension, the complicated plots, the inspiration, etc. I particularly love how Dresden Files has the constant humor of its characters, the recurring jokes (which often refer to Star Wars), and a gag that runs through this novel alone (“Parkour!”).
There were some other things I liked less, and which make this, perhaps, not advisable for everyone to read. For instance, I believe this novel had the single most explicit sex scene yet of the entire series, as opposed to the one in Fool Moon which, until my second read-through of it, I had not even fully realized was precisely that.
I also disliked how they put forth the rules God and his angels play by. The Carpenter household is guarded by angels. Freaking angels. If there is danger, and coming from an approaching enemy, I find it should matter not at all if they are entities of darkness, standing just barely outside the threshold, or its mortal servants who are invading. Now, I can see a certain method to the madness in the end, particularly with Butters’ transformation, but, still, come on!
The major redeeming point there is both Butters’ story and how the archangel Uriel has mentioned, in a previous novel, the reason they have the rules at all: to ensure man’s ability to choose, for himself, with complete freedom, between good and evil. So I can forgive the limits Butcher places on his angels.
My single biggest disappointment in Skin Game was right near the end of novel, when things manage to turn around instantaneously for the good guys, and in the fraction of a second where it seems like Nicodemus is about to finally get his, he gets away!
I mean, come on! They were this close! (as I press my thumb and forefinger tightly together) They had him! They had him! Theyhadhimtheyhadhimtheyhadhim!!!
All I can say is, Nicodemus had better have been spared for a very important role in the series finale (which I believe is looming fairly close now, only a few more novels away). He is, after all, a major recurring villain who just barely escapes his demise, but now knows potent secrets (such as Harry’s status as a father) and has the mother of all holy Christian relics (the advertised target of his thievery in the novel) in his possession. While being possessed of a fallen angel. Not a good combination, and we do know that the concluding trilogy of novels is going to be apocalyptic.
So, I suppose I can quell my grumbling for awhile.
In conclusion: I recommend this novel. If you’ve read everything that comes before, of course. 😉
Rating: 4 stars out of 5.