By the time the audience meets Harry Dresden in White Night, the 9th book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, our hero has been exposed to nightmares galore. Combine the events of the previous books with the seductive whisperings of a Fallen Angel and the recipe for breaking the hero is almost complete. White Night is a grim story dealing with the cost of and manipulation of power. The deck continues to be stacked against Dresden, leaving the hero dragged down by hard choices.
Butcher knows his around murder/mystery plotlines at this point. Rather than just some random murder, Butcher chooses two elements that are sure to draw Dresden’s attention: female victims who happen to have magical talent. If there’s anything that gets Harry’s blood boiling, it’s violence against women. Of all the male authors I’ve read, Butcher is perhaps the most pro-female empowerment. Even the females who rely on raw sex appeal (such as Lara Raith) are equally capable of outthinking and outfighting their male counterparts. There are few wilting violets in Dresden’s universe. Elaine returns in this book, serving as another great example of a strong, vulnerable female. She is Dresden’s foil in White Night, having grown morally and magically since the events of Summer Knight. Elaine became a private investigator, like Harry, and she finds herself starting out on the path Harry has been walking since before the events of Storm Front. Reading her stumbling on the path of doing the right thing the hard way allows the audience to see where Harry was and where he is now.
Where Harry is now is a dark place. The horrors of the War with the Vampire Courts (not to mention his own personal nightmares) finally come to the forefront. Butcher reveals what we, the audience, have been suspecting since the very first book: Harry is capable of sinister violence. The best moment in White Night that illustrates this surfacing darkness is the flashback to New Mexico that occurs halfway through the novel. The events depicted are spoken of in whispered tones prior to the reveal, whetting the audience’s appetite for what occurred. While out in the deserts of New Mexico helping to train new Wardens, the camp is attacked by ghouls, undead minions who serve as muscle and enjoying eating living flesh. It’s implied in White Night that one of the main villains of the novel sent the ghouls as part of the war. Harry furiously executes two ghouls but his is a cold fury. One of the deaths involves a ghoul buried up to its neck in sand, orange juice, and fire ants. This malevolence frightens both the trainees and the other Wardens, casting doubt on how mentally put-together Dresden really is.
This personality shift in Harry has been a long time coming and it’s not surprising. No one can stare into the abyss as often as Dresden does and not bring some of the darkness back with them. All of Harry’s interactions in White Night are flavored with this new murkier moral compass he possesses. When dealing with his apprentice Molly, Harry has moments where he’s a heartless taskmaster, prone to harsh reminders of how magic and the world really works. Even his relationship with Karrin Murphy, probably the most stable relationship he’s had throughout the series, is strained due to his increasingly cimmerian attitude. At the core scene in the novel Harry discusses free will with Lasciel’s shadow, a constant companion in the past few books. Their conversation sets the stage for a surprising final act.
Butcher pulls no punches with the violence in this book. Unlike previous novels, the kills that are part of the mystery are up close and personal. Butcher highlights the different factions of White Court vampires. Raiths feed on lush, Skavis on despair, and Malvora on fear, a triumvirate of nasty human emotions. The author explores all three through his main characters, especially Harry. The villains are outstanding in this novel. All of the major powers set against Harry prove to be worthy adversaries. Antagonists make or break modern fantasy novels. Butcher brings back an old, powerful enemy and teams them up with a newer foe with its own powerful abilities. I find it interesting that the villains of the past two novels, Proven Guilty and White Night, feed on fear and despair. For me, these villains’ traits mirror Harry’s growing concern that he’s losing his humanity.
White Night exhibits Jim Butcher’s maturity as a writer. He writes the interpersonal relationships well, with an ear for honest, real dialogue and reactions that feel genuine to who these established characters are. Butcher also takes great pains to highlight the costs of evil and moral compromises. No one walks away from trauma unscathed, not even our heroes. Everyone gets dirty after rolling around in the muck.