THE DRESDEN FILES is a weird series, even for urban fantasy. My go-to example for non-aficionados is a wizard riding a polka-powered zombie T-rex through downtown Chicago, and that’s not even the wackiest thing that’s happened. So it’s saying something when I have to acknowledge that the series is in a weird place right now. Maybe I should call it weird plus. Weird squared?
For once, though, when I say “weird,” I’m not talking about the content so much as the form. The DRESDEN books have generally followed a pretty straightforward formula: Harry Dresden (wizard private eye, basically) is minding his own business when life ambushes him with at least two crises at once. In the process of juggling his A and B stories (and trying to figure out which is which), Dresden uncovers some kind of complication or dastardly adversary. After a heartfelt discussion with a friend over his doubts that even he can save the day this time, he knocks off the B story in about five minutes and then launches into a great big cataclysmic conclusion to the A story. And saves the day, of course.
It’s a successful formula, and Jim Butcher has kept the bones of it fairly untouched over time, though he experiments constantly with the variables. For one thing, his cataclysmic conclusions have generally gotten bigger and bigger over the course of the series, building from fistfights with rival sorcerers to the aforementioned T-rex, to … well, this book we’re talking about now. See, sixteen novels in, it finally happened: the cataclysmic conclusion got too big for even Butcher to handle. So he lopped it off into its own book and called the resulting work Battle Ground. This novel is effectively 400 pages of final showdown. That’s … well, a lot, and I’m on record as not loving long battle sequences that much. I didn’t even particularly care for WHEEL OF TIME‘s Tarmon Gai’don Extravaganza Finale (yeah, yeah, come at me, fandersons), so I came into this book with a grimmer-than-usual expression when starting a Dresden novel. But damn it if Butcher didn’t somehow pull it off.
All right, quick plot summary, though at seventeen books in, hopefully no one needs it: there’s a great big evil titan that popped up out of nowhere in the last book and is trying to conquer Chicago (because it’s always Chicago in Dresdenverse). A bunch of familiar characters — both good and bad — have joined forces to try to prevent the great big evil titan from doing that thing, and … yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Or at least, that’s all it is on the surface. Battle Ground works, I think, because Butcher is canny enough to realize that despite what teenagers may say, nobody really likes non-stop thrill rides that much. That’s not to say Battle Ground isn’t a thrill ride, but it finds moments to breathe in the bedlam, pacing its action beats just enough to avoid becoming overwhelming. There are also enough twists in character relationships along the way that the violence never feels mindless. We’re getting something out of almost all of this. There’s a function. That said, readers who tire quickly of war scenes may dislike it regardless. For one thing, the fact that the whole novel takes place in one very long night of running conflict and loss means that the tone is necessarily somber and even bleak. There are a couple old-school Dresden-y moments mixed in (I never knew I needed the image of Queen Mab with a shoe-print on her face before), but for the most part, Chicago’s wizard is in a dark place this time around.
The reader who does relish big battles is in for a treat, of course. Dresden fights Norse monsters, Slavic monsters, Welsh monsters, Irish monsters, and probably a bunch of other cultures’ monsters that I forgot in the general mayhem. In fact, Dresden fights almost everyone — friends, enemies, and himself — and it’s all really cool. Butcher has a gift for filtering fantasy’s typical Epic Battle Scenes through a hefty dose of folksy emotion, which makes it all feel more real and present than a lot of this stuff should. In fact, I’ll say it — the secret weapon of the DRESDEN books is and has always been schmaltz. For books about big dumb fantasy fights, this is a shockingly schmaltzy series. Either ingredient by itself (that is, the bombast or the gooey sentimentality) would be indefensibly cheesy, but in conjunction the two somehow work, like two overpowering spices that combine to form something interesting and surprisingly balanced.
As we draw ever nearer to the series’ endpoint, it’s clear that Dresden is an increasingly titanic force in and of himself, a far cry from his relatively scattershot and small-potatoes youth. Part of this gradual evolution is sloughing off the trappings and associations of the bumbling private eye he used to be, and in that regard Battle Ground hits the series like a scouring pad. Readers will be surprised at some of the changes in this book. I know I was. For one character’s fate, even all the death flags in the universe couldn’t save me from shock and dismay when the end came, and that’s a mark of just how well Butcher plays his hand.
In fact, that’s a solid metaphor on which to end this review. Butcher doesn’t have a diverse selection of cards in his hand this time. They’re all the same suit, as it were, and a lot of the individual reader’s enjoyment of Battle Ground is going to come down to how well s/he likes the kind of thing that Battle Ground is (read: exactly what it says on the tin). But for what he’s working with, Butcher plays skillfully.
Final note: I listened to Battle Ground on audiobook. James Marsters returns, and delivers his usual amazing performance. At this point, Marsters’ voice simply is Dresden’s to me.
Like Tim, I am a reader who doesn’t love long epic battle scene finales which is basically what Battle Ground is, except that it’s not a finale. I’m not sure what Butcher’s plan is, but clearly he’s not finished with Harry. In many ways, the ending of Battle Ground feels like a new beginning.
Despite the nearly non-stop action, there are several moving scenes, a couple of which had me in tears. Like Tim, I was shocked, dismayed, and kind of in awe at perhaps the biggest plot twist that Butcher has given us so far. I look forward to seeing what happens next.
The audiobook performance of James Marsters is sublime.
So, there’s a third book in this story arc?