Sunday, September 04, 2011

Review: "Ghost Story" by Jim Butcher

SPOILER WARNING: If you have not read the previous volumes in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, particularly the last book, “Changes,” don’t go any further if you don’t want to ruin the experience. There is a major surprise plot point at the end of “Changes” that I cannot write this review without revealing.

So, those of you left with me, I’ll assume know what happened at the end of “Changes.” We’ve spent a year now, wondering how the tale of Harry Dresden could possibly continue, and now we have our answer in the latest volume “Ghost Story” ($27.95, Roc.)

Harry ends up in a sort of limbo, a ghostly Chicago, where he meets up with the shade of Karrin Murphy’s father and is presented with a decision. He can go on to whatever comes next, or he can go back to the real Chicago as a ghost to try to solve the mystery of his murder and in doing so, possibly save the lives of several of his friends. For Harry, that’s no decision, so he ends up back home, but unable to use his magic, communicate or physically affect anything. It’s quite a challenge for a guy who tends to prefer action to deep thought.

With the help of ectomancer Mortimer Lindquist, who can communicate with spirits, Harry discovers that his death and final actions have left a mess in their wake. His friends – and at least one enemy – have banded together with their backs against the wall as, in his absence, supernatural advances on Chicago have become regular occurrences. His apprentice has been badly damaged by what she’s seen and his absence, and might possibly be mad. And an old nemesis, the Corpsetaker, is back in town and up to something fishy involving the local ghosts and spirits.

Few, if any, of the situations presented in this book are resolved by its end. Rather, this is a book that takes Harry through a major transformation. As a ghost, and seeing the havoc his actions have created, Dresden is forced to take a hard look at himself and give more thought to what he does and why.
The downside of that is that much of “Ghost Story” is slow and introspective. Readers of the Dresden Files are used to a pretty badass wizard full of witty banter and pop culture references. Those are still there, but a very distinct shift in Harry’s character happens here. The action of the book, at least until the final act, is not as breakneck and lively as in previous books. We do meet a few new interesting characters, like the ghost of Colonial Marine Sir Stuart and the leader of a local band of misfits with slight magical abilities, that we’re sure to see play a role in future tales. The finale, though, gets us back into more familiar territory and prepares to relaunch the series.

Fans of Butcher may have mixed feelings about this book. I do. I had a little trouble adjusting to the idea of Harry as a ghost in the early going, and, in parts, I kind of wondered where Butcher was going. Having stepped back and looked at the book as a whole, though, I think it was a necessary move on his part, even if “Ghost Story” isn’t as good as some of his previous books and didn’t quite live up to the high expectations I had of it. It puts some new wrinkles into the series that could keep it fresh. The Dresden Files has far exceeded the shelf-life of most series already, and has continued to get steadily better, so I’m all for something that might keep it headed in that direction – even if it provides a little lull in the story.

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