Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review of Summer Knight

The natural world is a microcosm of forces in constant struggle against each other. The magic (if I may use a rather loaded word) of passing seasons, of vibrant summer giving way to harsh winter, is a storytelling idea that has been constant throughout literature. In certain cultures, particularly the mythologies of central and upper Europe, these opposing forces were personified by the Fae or Fairies. The Seelie Fae represents summer while the Unseelie are cold winter made flesh. Jim Butcher’s Summer Knight brings the Fae of Dresden’s universe to the forefront, revealing the supernatural politics that drive the frenzied spirit realms.
Butcher’s devotion to continuity is impressive. Four books into the series and Harry Dresden is worse for wear. The sacrifices made in the first three books, particularly Grave Peril, have left the protagonist broken and despondent. Butcher starts his hero in the absolute bottom both emotionally and mentally. Dresden has always shown an overwhelming need to blame himself for the troubles in his personal life, especially when his friends suffer dire consequences. What impresses me most is that Butcher holds his hero accountable. He makes sure to show his readers that actions have consequences, especially for the hero.
Of significant note besides the Fae in Summer Knight is the White Council, the ruling body of wizards. As one can expect from a group of powerful beings, they are mostly haughty and consumed with self-interest. Butcher shows the thick layers of politics involved in the group, which are positively lethal and anachronistic. The group’s insistence on using Latin for their meeting indicates the hidebound, calcified nature of this august body. This allows Dresden to stand out even more as a character, showing that he is far more in touch with modern sensibilities. Dresden’s defiance of the Council is rooted in his sense of justice (tempered as that defiance may be in this book) and it was a joy to read. Butcher’s writing style shines best when his lead character is allowed to indulge in barely-veiled sarcasm. The White Council, as written, should provide excellent impediments and antagonists in future novels.
The Fae in this novel are shown with fresh angles by Butcher. Traditionally the Unseelie Fae has been portrayed as evil or unnecessarily cruel while the Seelie Fae is given a far more favorable disposition. In Summer Knight, the author makes both groups of fairies distant and manipulative and adds byzantine political struggles for flavor. Neither group of Fae is particularly trustworthy or benevolent. The parallel to how unforgiving nature can be is displayed by the fairies in this literary universe. I did enjoy the visit Dresden makes to the eldest queens of the Fae. If the house they lived in stood on chicken legs, it would not have seemed out of place. Much like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the actions of the Fae have a direct cause-and-effect relationship with the mundane world. Of particular delight to me was the return of Leanansidhe, Dresden’s conniving fairy godmother, who is shown to possess more layers behind her cold, Machiavellian exterior.
The cause and effect angle of Butcher’s tale (and universe in general) cannot be overstated. Dresden’s hook into the events of the book is based entirely on decisions made before and during the previous books. From the debt to Leanansidhe that is transferred to another Fae to his showdown with the Red Court of vampires in Grave Peril, Harry’s choices have come home to roost. Butcher’s commitment to logical consequences is the right thing for an ongoing series of novels. The notion that each novel is a snippet of time and the characters do not reset to zero at the end of the story is refreshing to see play out.

Summer Knight is an excellent addition to the already great Dresden Files. The modern fantasy genre has a checkered history, with some of the entries being barely passible as a good story. With the Dresden Files, Butcher has managed to produce a series that keeps getting better and more nuanced with each entry. It would be easy for the author to just keep churning out the same tripe but Butcher largely avoids this trap. As should be obvious by now, I highly recommend this novel for any fan of the modern fantasy genre.  

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