Book Review: “Skin Game” by Jim Butcher

It’s the fifteenth book of the Dresden Files. I know some avid readers who say the series has long since become same-old, same-old. Weirdly enough, I’m still engaged. In the latest few books author Butcher has shaken the formula up by killing off key members of his admittedly huge cast of characters. He has unrepentantly thrust Harry Dresden, wizard detective of present-day Chicago, into situations that redefine his role in the world of magic. He has let the passage of time catch up on many of the mortal characters, and we have watched as the changing alliances and power structures have changed the dynamics between them. And he continues to do that in this book, in which anything can be expected to happen. Even while I can spot a joke about, say, big monsters not cornering well from a sentence or two in advance, there are still moments when I tense up, wondering whether it’s all over for this longtime character or that. And sometimes it is.

Harry has been dead and got better. He has become a father, but has not yet really embraced the role of Dad. He has lost everything he owned, but he is more powerful than ever. No longer just a chump wizard who always has the White Council breathing down his neck, he is a full-fledged warden of the Council (for quite a while now), a member of its magical law-enforcement branch. No longer housed in a cramped basement apartment, he has become the warden of a demon prison on a Lake Michigan island you won’t find on any map. No longer a consultant with the Chicago Police Department, his on and (mostly) off romance with former Detective Karrin Murphy is throwing off more sparks than ever. No longer just a target of a vampire vendetta, he is the guy who wiped out an entire court of vampires. No longer just the Za Lord whose offerings of pizza buy the loyalty of a band of little people with wings, he is the Winter Knight, champion of Queen Mab herself. No longer the guardian of the swords of the angelically protected order of Knights of the Cross, he now finally chooses the next knight worthy of bearing the sword.

But before he does that, he has to navigate one of the trickiest, stickiest courses of traps, double-crosses, and conflicting agendas ever. Get this: by command of Queen Mab, he has to help one of his bitterest enemies, Nicodemus Archleone of the Order of the Blackened Denarius, break into the second most secure vault in Chicago. Not only does this mean working with a virtually indestructible villain, a casual murderer who shares headspace with a genuine fallen angel and who commands a coterie of squires who have willingly agreed to have their tongues cut out. It also means violating the sanctum sanctorum of Gentleman Johnny Marcone, a vanilla mortal gangster so dangerous and resourceful that he managed to become Baron of Chicago under the Unseelie Accords. Even that is only the first step in a heist of an even more unassailable stronghold, belonging to an order of being before whom mortals cower and blubber. And the nature of Mab’s deal with Nicodemus is such that Dresden has to honor it, though he would like nothing better than to put a spike in the denarian’s wheel. Mab, in fact, expects him to stab Nicodemus in the back. She insists on it. Only, if he values his life or his sanity, he must not do it until Nicodemus stabs him in the back first.

It’s the kind of tight spot that forces a fellow to keep strange company, like the thief who stole the Shroud of Turin in an earlier installment, and a couple of renegade warlocks he has dealt with before, and a creature that combines the physique of Bigfoot with an immunity to magic and a mind of pure evil. He has to bring a former Knight of the Cross, long sidelined by injuries in the line of duty, back into the game and somehow get him to work on the same team as a fallen angel, for a while. And he has to run a gauntlet of things that can slice, dice, puree, and charbroil human bodies, all while his skull is about to split open from a mysterious entity growing inside. It’s the kind of caper Dresden specializes in, a caper fraught with conflicting loyalties, with mental, physical, and moral traps and puzzles. It’s the kind of caper in which failure is not an option, but success might be just as bad. And before it’s over, the little girl who owns his heart will be in terrible danger.

Like I said, still engaged. I’m also impressed by audio-book reader James Marsters, the actor who played Spike on Buffy. Not only does he own the voice of Harry Dresden, but he has the versatility, knack for accents, and downright acting chops to sell any character, human or otherwise. As for Jim Butcher, he keeps starting blockbuster fantasy series by trying to write a stupid novel and failing. May he continue to fail just as miserably!

Buy the book!
Jim Butcher’s website
Recommended Ages: 14+