No fifth star here, folks. What we’ve got here is a part one of two situation. This is basically the first book in a duology inside the series proper, with Battle Ground being part two. We now know why the surprise second book! And I can’t fully judge this one until I see how (most of) it turns out. Luckily, September 29th isn’t that far away.
I had to step away from this one for a bit to try and see what Butcher was going for, since it’s such a huge change of format for him. All previous Dresden Files books have contained a full story arc, wherein the temporary bad guy or crisis is resolved or defeated, but that is not the arc this book employs at all, and it’s jarring, and depending on how you feel about waiting two months (less than one month at the time of posting this review) for another book to finish up the main conflict, may make or break the book for you. A good way to explain is like those special two-parters you sometimes get on TV shows, where the first episode sets up the conflict, and part two resolves it. Because I spent last weekend finally finishing Picard, I will use an example from Star Trek: TNG. Think “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I,” which finished up season three of that show with an unprecedented cliffhanger (beware thirty year old spoilers): SPOILERS Picard being taken, and turned into Locutus of Borg END SPOILERS and fans had to wait for season four to premiere to find out what happened.
That’s what you get when you are reading this book. If waiting sounds terrible, it may or may not be a good idea for you to wait until Battle Ground is published on 9/29, so you can just go straight to the conclusion from the end of this one.
But, this book also does have its own arc, and it’s run in parallel between two very surprising characters: Lara Raith and Ebenezar McCoy. I’m going to get into mondo-spoiler territory while talking about this, but for non-spoiler purposes, Harry’s relationship with both of them takes on a different flavor, and indicates further that Butcher is moving the series closer and closer to his eventual endgame, and that he is more and more interested in changing the status quo and allowing not only Harry to grow emotionally, but other characters as well.
SPOILERS While the titular peace talks (between the Unseelie Accords and the Fomor) are occurring and Harry has a part in them as representative of both the White Council and as an emissary of Winter, as always with this series, Mab throws in a wrench and says Harry is responsible for dispensing two favors she owes Lara Raith, and Harry has to do them, as long as doing so doesn’t hurt Mab herself, or compromise Harry’s position as Winter Knight. This is a source of tension for Harry, who feels held hostage, until Thomas (for some still unknown reason) tries to assassinate the leader of the Svartalves (who are still giving shelter to Harry and his daughter Maggie), and fails. He is being held captive, and the Svartalves want his blood as reparation, both for the assassination attempt, and the death of one of their own in the process. Harry speculates that Thomas was being leveraged to do said violence, as it’s entirely out of character for him, and he has a good idea a lot of that has to do with Justine and the fact that she’s pregnant with Thomas’s child, something he is very unhappy about. We end the book still not knowing why Thomas did it, or if Justine is some sort of leverage or betrayer or both, and Thomas is half dead from his treatment at the hands of the Svartalves.
All of that to say that both Lara and Harry love Thomas, and they don’t want him to die at the hands of the Accords, so they hatch a plan to bust him out. Lara makes the surprising choice to use her favors on something that Harry would fully have done on his own anyway (though there is a moment of tension, when she exerts the power of that promise).
Let’s move to McCoy next, because I can’t say what I want to say about Lara without talking about what happens with McCoy first. Harry’s grandfather (and before he knew he was his grandfather, his mentor) has nearly always had a special place in Harry’s life. He’s the only paternal figure Harry had that treated him with any kindness (Justin certainly doesn’t count) after his own father died. Harry used to look up to Ebenezar with awe, and love was mixed in there even before he knew they were related. The past several years, their relationship for Harry has been mixed with familial love and increasing doubt. When Harry learned Ebenezar was the Blackstaff, the only wizard allowed to break the laws of magic, his idealized image of his grandfather took a hard hit. That hit has developed more and more cracks over the years, and in this book it finally shatters. Harry breaking with Ebenezar as happens here has been a long time coming. Ebenezar cast a long shadow, and as we see here, he has never been able to develop an emotionally mature relationship built on mutual respect and trust with Harry. He still sees him as a child who can’t make his own decisions, and he refuses to look past his own hatred and biases to consider other viewpoints. It’s not coincidental that he never calls Harry by his own name, always “hoss,” or more frequently (especially when disagreeing with him), “boy.” Harry may not be three hundred years old, but he is a grown man who has proven himself willing to make hard choices and learn from his mistakes, but Ebenezar can’t imagine a world in which his own viewpoint is wrong, and his grandson’s (who is still a “boy”) could be right.
The tipping point here is Harry’s family. Harry has made a deliberate choice to be in his daughter Maggie’s life. He stayed away from her for a long time, for her own protection, but soon rethought his actions (thanks to Michael, in large part), and in remembering his own yearning for a family at Maggie’s age. He thought and thought over the very same points he and his grandfather fight over, and he made a conscious choice, one very different from Ebenezar’s. He and Ebenezar have their first of three showdowns in this book, each escalating further, over Maggie. Ebenezar learns that Harry and Maggie are living together, and that Harry is caring for her as a parent, and this sets him off (it doesn’t help that Thomas is present when Ebenezar arrives at Harry’s apartment; Ebenezar does not trust Thomas or like him, no matter how often he’s helped Harry out; Ebenezar also doesn’t know Thomas is his grandson).
The fundamental disagreement here is that a long time ago, Ebenezar made the choice to cut ties with all the people he loved, keeping him away from them for “their own protection”; we still don’t have the backstory on exactly what made him do that, but Butcher has said his daughter, Maggie Sr., is only part of it. Even when taking Harry in and essentially raising him, he kept him at arm’s length and never told him he was his grandfather. Ebenezar sees this as protection. But in reality, he has only protected himself. Maggie still died. Harry has been hurt over and over, in some cases because he didn’t have all the important information Ebenezar could have given him.
Maybe keeping his distance did help in some cases, but what Ebenezar doesn’t see, and that Harry sees all too clearly by the end of this book, is that this approach takes away entirely the agency of the person you are supposedly “protecting,” and it shows that you don’t have respect for their choices or how they decide to live their life. I am right, and I am the only person who can make the right choice, is what Ebenezar’s actions tell Harry: Mine is the only opinion that matters. This is a lesson Harry had to learn, and it’s one he won’t have to learn again. Even in this very book, he has interactions with Murphy where he worries for her safety, but he allows her the dignity of her choices, to follow him into battle despite her possessing no supernatural powers, and being injured on top of that. He does this because he respects her, and allows her the dignity of knowing her own mind, and understanding the potential consequences for herself. Ebenezar may love Harry, but he doesn’t respect him.
The second breaking point comes over Thomas, and then the third, culminating in a seriously intense fight between Harry and his grandfather, to allow the boat carrying Thomas to get to Demonreach safely. Ebenezar is enraged that Harry has disobeyed him and risked so much all for a vampire, a creature he sees as irredeemably evil. Harry finally gives up and tells him that Thomas is also his grandson, and makes his position on protecting his family very clear. Ebenezar loses control, and hits Harry with a killing shot of magic. The fight ends with trickery that is undercut with betrayal and sadness. Harry had been inhabiting a magical decoy created by Molly while fighting his grandfather, and it’s that decoy Ebenezar shoots the killing blow at. Ebenezar is entirely shaken, at having essentially killed his own grandson, at the knowledge that he has another grandson who is a vampire, a creature he hates beyond reason, and with the knowledge that Harry has chosen another path, and no longer looks up to him in the same way. There’s a moment during the fight where Harry tells him he’s done making his choices based on Ebenezar’s mistakes, that really sums it up. He tells Ebenezar that Ebenezar doesn’t know Harry at all. As for Harry, his image of his grandfather is entirely shattered. That he could so lose control and let his hatred take him, that he could kill his own grandson. Their priorities on opposite ends of the spectrum, and it’s going to be really hard to come back from.
All the while, Harry (in part thanks to and in reaction to Ebenezar’s irrational hatred of all White Court vampires, and a complete unwillingness to even entertain the idea that they are humans beholden to a terrible demon) begins to consider Lara in a new light. By the end, they hold a new respect for one another, and even Lara gets it into her head that she might not actually know Harry as well as she thinks (his actions completely puzzle her because she assumed he played the game like she does). Harry knows that a lot of what the White Court does is bad, but he also sees that White Court vampires are as much victims of circumstances as they are their own choices. They are born with the Hunger, and not told enough to avoid feeding it and turning into a vampire later in life. For the past ten years, Thomas has been living proof that even when a White Court vampire tries to be good, it’s extremely difficult. Every time he has thought his Hunger under control, something has happened to sweep all his progress away, and it happens again here, to the point that it’s killing him.
These two parallel character journeys make this book something that ultimately works for me: the break with Ebenezar, the realization that someone he thought he knew is someone totally different and not worth trusting, and that another person he considered a black and white enemy may be a person worth knowing END SPOILERS.
I didn’t actually plan to write an enormous analysis of this book and its characters arcs. It just sort of sat in my brain, and came out while I was thinking what to type. Ultimately, I think this book was successful, if you don’t judge it by the metrics you are used to judging a Dresden Files book by. It does a good job of setting up conflicts, breaking things and putting them back together in new ways, and I’m very curious to see what is put back together by the end of Battle Ground, and what is still broken.
Some miscellaneous thoughts:
*I’m not the only who noticed that Harry is worse than usual this book in his noticing of women sexually, but he seems to be trying to get it under control, which makes me think it’s the Winter Mantle more than anything, bringing out Harry’s worst impulses and trying to get him to give in to it. We’ll see.
*Molly isn’t in this one as much (hoping for way more in Battle Ground) but when she is here, it’s significant. In particular, her emotional crisis when Harry confronts her about not having told her family she’s the Winter Lady.
*I’m a little worried about Murphy, to be honest. She and Harry have made so much progress as a couple, and they really seem to have hit their stride, on their way to an emotionally stable and supportive romantic partnership. Do not kill Murphy, Butcher! Or, at least not permanently!
*Some really cool stuff with the knights. I have theories about that third sword.
*The fucking White Council still doesn’t trust Harry, despite all he’s done for them. I wonder how much of that is fear and idiocy, and how much is Black Council interference. Carlos is acting like a different person. It’s been a while since I read his novella with Molly, but those events really seem to have changed him.
*Some very interesting worldbuilding, re: Harry slipped in here!
*There’s a new character called Freydis, and I basically love her. There’s a moment involving a “romance novel” she writes, and she’s so proud of herself I just wanted to hug her from affection in that moment.