Ghost Story is the 13th novel in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, immediately following after Changes. I’m going to review it a little differently than usual.
Usually when reviewing a book I give a little background, and then describe the setup; then I might make some general remarks; and then I say whether I liked it, and whether it’s worth reading. And I don’t do spoilers. The trouble with this book (and with the series in general) is that I can’t even discuss the setup without giving you spoilers for the previous books in the series. So I’m going to do things backwards, and start with the general assessment.
First of all, this is not one of Butcher’s best—it took six or seven chapters to really grab me and keep me reading. Part of this was due to the premise, which unavoidably led to a number of unpleasant confrontations between Harry and his friends. I could see them coming and didn’t really want to read them. (In the event, they weren’t as painful as I’d feared.) It ends with a bang, though, as usual; and of course you’ll need to read it if you want to go on to Cold Days, which I’ll write about another day. On the whole, I enjoyed it once it got moving.
OK, now then:
So the big twist at the end of Changes is that Harry’s finally getting a moment’s rest after having taken on and destroyed the entire Red Court of Vampires with the aid of his astonishingly varied and capable array of friends. He’s tired, he’s not happy with himself, he’s made some bargains he’s going to hate living up to, but for just a moment he’s at peace. And on the last page he feels a blow, and a hole in his shirt, and there’s a red splatter on the bulkhead behind him and he falls into the cold water of Lake Michigan and dies.
This is why my friend Ian exclaimed, “Butcher, you bastard!” when he finished the book.
But though dead, Harry Dresden still keeps busy, and that’s the important thing: keeping busy. He’s sent back to Chicago as a ghost, having been told that three of his close friends are going to die if he doesn’t quickly discover who it was that killed him.
And the big deal is, he’s now a ghost. Hardly anyone can see him. Those he does manage to talk to don’t want to believe that it’s him, and don’t trust him. He can go anywhere in Chicago in moments, but he has to be back in his grave by dawn. His physical enemies can’t hurt him, but there’s a whole host of ghostly enemies who can. His control over magic is minimal, he can’t effect the physical world, he can’t talk to people, and basically he’s got nuttin’. What’s he going to do?
And therein, of course, hangs the tale, and also the reason I found the opening chapters so frustrating.
There’s one bit I especially liked. In Dresden’s world, ghosts are essentially made of memories, and it is these memories that give them power. Dresden’s ghost isn’t Dresden himself, precisely, but rather is all that Dresden knew and remembered. Now, Harry Dresden has always enjoyed dropping pop culture references when talking with other characters. He does it in this book, too. He does it even more often than usual, in both speech and exposition….and the neat thing is, he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s doing it. It’s as though it’s easier for him to remember words he’s heard than it is to make up new ones. It’s subtle, to the point that Butcher might not even have been doing it on purpose, but it’s there, and it works. (And now I wonder how many pop culture references I missed.)
Another bit I liked is that the action in Chicago begins about six months after Harry’s death, after all of his friends have had to learn to cope without him. And there’s a lot to cope with. The Red Court of Vampires had been the dominant supernatural force in Mexico and South America. Can you say “power vacuum”? There’s a whole host of new enemies, and the normals are being to notice that something’s wrong. Harry’s always been over-protective of his friends, and it’s probably good for him to see them in action without him.
And, of course, there’s the looming question: is Harry really dead? No one’s seen his body….. (Short answer: well, gosh, this is a continuing series. What do you think?)