Reading a DRESDEN FILES book at this point is literary equivalent of sky-diving. I think I’ve compared the experience to a roller coaster before, but I was in error. Roller coasters, in the main, start off with a slow clickety-clack up a steep slope, and you sort of bob up and down and round and round after that before finally drifting to a long, hissing halt. Skin Game, however, dispenses with the trappings and simply shoves your exuberantly screaming self out an airplane door and directly into glorious freefall.
When last we saw Harry Dresden – wizard and Winter Knight – he had learnt that he had somehow been conned into becoming Warden for a maximum security magical prison called Demonreach, an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. We pick up the narrative one year on, as Harry is extorted by his boss, forced to work with an old enemy, and set up as a piñata for a conga line of supernatural bruisers to come along and take a swing at – all the while on a deadline that, if unmet, will mean not only trouble for Chicago as a whole, but Harry’s gruesome demise.
So, in Dresden-verse terms, a Tuesday.
This time, it’s a heist novel. Nicodemus, venerable DRESDEN FILES big-bad, is plotting to rob the vault of Hades, lord of the Underworld. To do this, he wants the services of Dresden — the Winter Knight — because Hades’ vault is apparently built along the same lines as the final sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with three death traps (and that is almost certainly an intentional homage: this is Jim Butcher we’re talking about). One of these death traps is called the Gate of Ice. Ice, Winter Knight, seems legit. Fortunately, Mab owes Nicodemus a favor, so Harry is press-ganged into service after his usual, obligatory sequence of “I won’t do it! I won’t, I won’t, I… okay, I will.” Only took one pedantic, step-by-step explanation to get him primed this time — let’s shoot for a paragraph next time. Anyway, once Harry’s on board, this novel simply does not stop. Butcher’s been doing this for a while, and his mastery of suspense and action has progressed with each installment. In this one, there’s barely an instant that doesn’t compel further reading — particularly remarkable given that there’s actually a lot of plain old talking in this installment, relatively speaking.
The main theme of this book, I’d have to say, is Harry’s place in the world, and his uncertainty thereof (so rejoice, readers of the last installment who felt Dresden was left too up in the air). Yes, it’s another Blackened Denarius book, with all the usual elements that entails (the Knights of the Cross, the specter of Lasciel’s involvement, the angels, etc.); but while the plot is fine and the heist is fast-paced and entertaining, Butcher deftly weaves in a good bit of information about Harry’s life — specifically, how he needs to get one again. In my review of Cold Days (the preceding novel) I praised Butcher for having the gumption to stick with his new direction rather than slumping back into the old status quo. This novel is fairly obviously setting the stage for Harry’s eventual return to Chicago, which I admit has made me anxious that I may have handed out the medals a bit prematurely. On the other hand, Butcher isn’t rushing anything, and he is introducing new plot elements. Part of me had hoped that Dresden might remain on Demonreach, but thinking it over that was probably always impracticable. For now, I find myself approving of most — even all — of the threads Butcher’s braiding together for the new status quo, and though Skin Game undoubtedly is a set-up novel, it’s very fun set-up that never forgets that it’s also supposed to be standalone entertainment.
This being number fifteen in the DRESDEN FILES series, most readers of this review are probably fans to some extent, so I’ll simply add that the beloved Dresden tropes are still very much in evidence. The supporting cast is on the money. The villain is suitably slimy and aristocratic (the better to contrast with Harry’s blue-collar-magic schtick), the jokes are memorable, and the mysteries keep slipping in at the peripheries (who’s the British inmate in Demonreach? Is it Merlin? Crystal cavern, island on a lake… we’re probably supposed to think it’s Merlin, anyway). The characterization is good, the heist itself is at once typically Dresden and an affectionate homage to a handful of caper films (right down to the last-minute “here’s how we pulled it off” time-jump backward), and overall, it’s just a damn good popcorn novel. I rarely read any novel in a single day anymore, much less one I can’t skim (I went through this in audio book format), but on this one I got pretty close. Skin Game was for me like a basket of candy is to a pudgy, unsupervised eight-year-old. I just couldn’t leave it alone, and in shockingly short order, it was all done.
This isn’t to say the novel is without flaws. While Butcher’s style of genially winking through his cinematic clichés gets him a lot of indulgence, occasionally the clichés get too much for any amount of good humor to cover. This has occasionally been true of Butcher’s “serious dialogue” before, which is a particular problem for Skin Game because nearly everyone in Harry’s contact list seems to be lining up for a bonding moment and a bro hug in this one. Now, just to be clear, I am not criticizing the Dresdensnark. You will find hardly a stauncher defender of the Dresdensnark than I. But when Harry and Murphy sit down to a little powwow about Very Important Topics, for instance, one can almost feel Butcher’s discomfort. It’s not that such scenes are awful, or even that they would be a stand-out element in a less carefully crafted series, but the oh-so-serious way Murphy spells out a comprehensive explanation of Harry’s emotional state (followed by a “that wasn’t it. WAS IT?” on Harry’s part) feels a little too much like the sort of exposition-masked-by-emotion that we’ve all seen — and recognized for what it is — in other works before. By the time Michael started in on a very similar speech, I half-expected him to start whipping out charts and graphs.
As another minor critique, one is forced to remember that on the two previous occasions Harry and Nicodemus met, Harry proved himself the world’s grandmaster at screwing things up — for himself, true, but more egregiously for Nicodemus (and indeed for any other baddie on hand). With Dresden’s impressive history of screwing things up, one would think Nicodemus would at least be taking other resumes on the whole Gate of Ice issue, particularly since he has no idea what it is, exactly. But no, apparently his first choice was Harry “Avatar of Looney Tunes-esque Chaos” Dresden, the man with a PhD in screwing things up. It seems a little hard to credit. What, was Mab offering some kind of Coupon Day? Free White Sox tickets with every rental of the Winter Knight? Not that I’m complaining, really, I enjoyed the hell out of it. But yes, we have to admit it’s slightly contrived.
Of course, Urban Fantasy has a long tradition of this kind of thing (often intentionally), and it’s hard to take many points off for it. In fact, it’s hard to take points off very much at all in Skin Game. It’s an incredibly fast-paced, exciting ride, Butcher’s styling is at this point the best-oiled of machines, and the final page leaves the reader to look up at the calendar on the wall with mournful dismay, as he or she calculates down to days and hours the time left before the story might resume. I listened to the audio version this time around, and found it an excellent experience. James Marsters is a good fit for this series, his reading in some places greatly enhanced the fun. I recommend the book in either form.
Tim, I completely agree with your assessment. I was eagerly awaiting Skin Game and when it arrived, I dropped everything and sped right through it. The story made me think of Indiana Jones and Ocean’s Eleven.
Harry is more powerful than ever and he continues to develop in a believable way. His friends are worried about what he may be turning into, which adds a delightfully shivery sense of foreboding. I was thrilled to see Michael back to form (but majorly scarred) in this installment. He’s one of my favorite characters and I appreciate the way that Butcher portrays his Christian faith. I could have used some more Bob the Skull. We saw Bob but didn’t get to interact with him, which was slightly disappointing, but I feel sure that we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.
James Marsters (you know, Spike) narrates the audio version, and it’s brilliant. As long as he keeps reading the DRESDEN FILES to me, I’ll keep choosing the audio.