Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Review: Ghost Story By Jim Butcher

(Very mild spoilers for Ghost Story itself but major spoilers for all of the books that came before it in the series.)

Now this is my kind of ghost story. I guess it is not uncommon for the main character of a book to start off dead, but it is pretty rare in the books that I tend to read. Jim Butcher makes it work, however, and he does so in an inventive and entertaining roller-coaster ride of a way. 

When I finished reading the last book in The Dresden Files series, Changes, I was curled up in bed and it was rather late at night. I still got up an ran to my computer the second I closed the cover to make sure that it was not, in fact, the final book in the series. You can see where ending the story by killing off the main character, the character who is the narrator of the books, would make one worry. Imagine my great relief then, dear reader, as my trusted friend the internet told me that there would indeed be a next book. That it was available to pre-order on Amazon already, even. Phew. HUGE sigh of relief. I went to bed that night surprised and shaken, but reassured that my questions* would be answered in time.

The most pressing of those questions, of course, being a tie between "Is Harry really dead?!?" and "Who killed Harry Dresden?"

Ghost Story manages to eventually answer both of these questions, along with a slew of others that you might not have even thought to ask. That right there is the true genius of Jim Butcher. It starts out just after Changes left off--with Harry dying. He finds himself in the tunnel with the bright light, but from there things stop going where he was expecting them to go. He is informed that he is "Between" (as in between life and death) and has been brought there because the party responsible for his death somehow cheated. Harry must find his killer and set things right before he can move on. Being Harry, of course, he gets a bit belligerent and threatens to drag his heels. Until he is informed that if he doesn't complete this task, three people he cares about very much will die. 

Best way to convince Harry Dresden to get his butt in gear? Show him a threat to the people he loves and has sworn to protect.

Of course it isn't really that easy. This is Harry we're talking about, nothing is ever that easy. And nothing is what it seems either. As a spirit, Harry has to learn a new set of rules and seek out a different sort of ally than he is used to working with. By the time he does manage to track down the pals from his life, he is presented with a whole new set of problems that keep getting in the way of his mission. For starters, Harry has been gone for six months by the time his spirit gets back to Chicago. Quite a bit has gone down in that time, largely as a result of his destruction of the vampires of the Red Court just before his death. Not only does Harry have to learn the new status quo of being a spirit, he has to learn how to deal with the new status quo among the living, which presents its own challenges to getting both his mission done and to helping his friends with their own problems.

Going in to Ghost Story, most readers will have the expectation of a fairly obvious endgame (I know that I did). That being the restoration of Harry to his body, and as a result, his regular life. After all, Jim Butcher has gone on the record as stating that he expects there to be about twenty-three books in the series when all is said and done, and Ghost Story is only number thirteen. I am not going to tell you whether or not that happens. I will tell you this: There is no reset. The old status quo is gone, broken, crumbled into microscopic pieces and brushed away to make space for the new order. I can't wait to find out just what shape that new order takes on. 

As a book in The Dresden Files series, this is a top-notch entry. Harry is at once both at his most vulnerable and most badass. We've seen him beaten down before, at a huge disadvantage and about to go up against insurmountable odds. We've never seen him do it quite like this--completely out of his element in a way he could never have imagined he would be, alone even when surrounded by his friends. If you love watching Harry get creative in order to get himself out of a pickle, this book is right up your alley. Ghost Story is the kind of tale most writers of series can only hope to write to close out their worlds. This is just the middle of the series, and Butcher left me with every confidence that things are only going to keep getting better. I'd call that pretty damn impressive, myself.

As just another book, to those not familiar with the series itself? Well, I could be a bit biased, but I think that Ghost Story still holds up. The story itself is amazingly solid. Certainly it relies on all that came before it, but Butcher does a wonderful job of giving in explanations for things a new reader might not know (or an old reader might have forgotten) without interrupting the flow of the narrative and without being annoying to those of us who (theoretically) already know this stuff. You know those "previously, on" segments at the start of so many television shows these days? Yeah, it's nothing like that. I think someone who just happened to wander into a bookstore and pick up Ghost Story, or who received a copy as a gift, might be a little confused here and there, but not enough so to lose the thread of the story at all, the narrative does such a good job of moving forward and keeping the reader completely immersed and intrigued about what comes next. Would I recommend this book as a starting point for someone looking to pick up The Dresden Files? Hell no. But I do think that someone who just wandered into it first would still enjoy it, and would be quite likely to want to go back and check out the series from the beginning.

As I flew through this book (and make no mistake, fly I did, finishing it in four days, with the rest of my life still happening), there were only two things that bugged me at all. The first was, of course, that rather "obvious" conclusion that I assumed the book was heading towards. But I was curious enough about how Butcher would get us there (or even, after a certain point, if that was where it was headed after all) that I was more than willing to just go along for the ride and let the story unfold. The second was something that seemed like a glaring omission on the part of Butcher--a character that should have been mentioned or at least thought of by Harry almost from the start and who seemed to have been completely overlooked. I won't lie, I  was mad about that omission--until I got to the part where the omission was revealed to be quite deliberate and I was given the why of the matter, a very satisfying why, as it turned out. This is the kind of book where, if you are paying attention, you think you know exactly where it is headed, but don't mind reading on anyway to get there. Then, when you least expect it, you are rewarded with a sharp left turn that you totally didn't see coming. Even when my suspicions were on the right track, I really didn't know the half of it.

I can't imagine that someone who has been reading this series wouldn't want to pick this book up, at least not once they had gotten to Changes, but if you have been dithering, I promise you, you want to go get this book now. Right now. Go ahead, I'll wait....There. See? Totally worth it, wasn't it?

*The truly clever thing about Changes was that the manner in which it ended managed to completely distract me from asking or even thinking about one very important question in particular. I suspect most people also forgot to ask this question, or asked entirely the wrong question about this situation. Butcher is a sneaky bastard who did this on purpose, and wow, does it pay off at the end of Ghost Story.

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