Book 14 of “The Dresden Files” follows up on Chicago-based wizard/detective Harry Dresden’s apparent death in Changes and post-death experiences in Ghost Story. If you haven’t read those books yet, I’ve already spoiled that much; to say anything about this book, I’ll have to spoil a lot more. It’s too late to pull out now, so here goes: Dresden lives! Can I avoid spoilers by not telling you how he manages this? No, I can’t. So I might as well also spill the fact that he has been summoned back to life by Mab—the Queen of Air and Darkness—the head of the Winter Court of Faerie—the middle in age and power of three ageless, powerful female aspects (kitten, cougar, and crone) who hold power over all that is dark, cold, and hungry. You see, Harry had set up his own assassination in an attempt to duck out of his commitment to become Mab’s new mortal champion, the Winter Knight. Only, it didn’t take. And now he has until sunrise the morning after Halloween to carry out Mab’s first assignment: a hit contract against Maeve, the homicidally frisky Winter Lady—Mab’s own daughter and heir.
This is going to be tough. First off, immortals (funnily enough) aren’t so easy to kill. Second off, Harry must also juggle his duty as warden of Demonreach, a powerful nexus of evil energy off the shores of Lake Michigan, which someone or something is planning to blow up—Demonreach, Chicago, the Great Lakes region, boom! Third off, invaders from outside our universe—beings so hostile and alien that they make the vilest monsters from the Nevernever seem like the middle-class family next door, by comparison—are gunning for Dresden, and they have planted a mindworm in someone, or any number of someones. Dresden doesn’t know whether it’s Mab who’s insane and needs to be taken down, or whom among his circle of allies, frenemies, neutral parties, and cordial enemies he can trust. He might be infected himself, and never know it. It’s enough to make a wizard uneasy. Especially a wizard who has just returned to the world of the living, and doesn’t have any of his old standbys standing by—staff, blasting rod, shield bracelet, spell-impregnated leather duster—nada.
So Dresden begins his first day amongst the living by breaking and entering the home of one of his closest friends, abducting Bob the Skull (sort of a spiritual research assistant), and reconnecting with his sometime apprenctice Molly, who remains an outlaw wizard on the run from the White Council. Speaking of White, this leads him to a reunion with his half-brother Thomas, the White Court vampire, and others among his antemortem associates, one by one. He can’t gather his reinforcements too quickly, since the enemy immediately starts taking shots at him—including a blitzkrieg by bitty faeries armed with nails, an Outsider attack on the Accorded Neutral Ground of Mac’s tavern, and an ambush by the folk of his own Winter Court during a conference supposedly protected by safe conduct. Even with his own band of faerie warriors, a network of tough and resourceful friends, the mantle of the Winter Knight, and his perquisites as warden of Demonreach, it is all Dresden can do to stay ahead of the incessant attempts on his life. And all the while he knows that before Halloween night is out, he must learn the truth, make his decision, and do or die. Or perhaps both.
More than ever—and that’s hugely saying something—Harry Dresden finds himself at the center of a kaleidoscope, a cornucopia, a cyclone of things magical and whimsical and terrifying. The folks he encounters, and the cultural phenomena he riffs on, range from Star Trek and Star Wars gags coming hard on each other’s heels to brushes with angels, vampires, werewolves, goblins, a Redcap, a Norse god, witches, aliens, the genius loci of a demon prison, a monster made out of the bones of slaughtered animals, an anthropomorphic cat, the butt-kicking avatar of Santa Claus, and all six Faerie Queens. Guns, swords, spells, the bite of a super-intelligent dog, and strategic pizza delivery become weapons in the hand of one hero who can barely hold in check the villain inside himself. From a motorcycle race with the Erlking’s wild hunt to an amphibious battle against beings that want to destroy the world, an often overpowered, outmaneuvered, mentally and physically battered Harry leapfrogs his way to a final round against the real culprit… a round that, once again, will leave the playing-field changed for good.
After reading twenty of his books (counting the six Codex Alera novels), I can truthfully say that Jim Butcher never disappoints. To be sure, each of his books does run along similar lines as far as their overall plot goes. But with each book—especially these last few in the Dresden Files—come big changes that propel the hero into new territory, and his adventures to a higher level. From the relatively simple, original concept of a hardboiled wizard detective to the universe’s best hope, Harry has grown and his world with him—in cosmic power, in human vulnerability, in multi-layered complexity, in the diversity of its cast of characters, and in the chances that may befall them. Even while the roll-call of people and beings Harry can call friend (or enemy) grows past the point where the average reader can keep track of them all, the very pointed reality that any of these recurring characters could be killed off at any time keeps the danger real, and the narrating wizard’s inward and outward patter of referential humor shines as an encouraging gleam in the increasingly threatening night that looms over Harry’s Chicago. Long story short, my mouth waters for the December 2013 release of the next Dresden Files book, Skin Game—and the at least three further books author Butcher reportedly has planned for the series.