When a Fae Queen asks you to take on a favor, you just know nothing good is going to come of it. Especially not when it involves Johnny Marcone and the Denarians are involved. Small Favor is the first novel where major shakeups begin in the Dresden universe. Nothing remains the same, especially in an action-oriented series like this. The upheaval is always hell, though, and this book’s journey is no different.
A harsher-than-normal winter has descended on Chicago and Dresden is called to a scene of carnage. It’s a typical start to a Dresden story but there is a sharp difference. With Murphy no longer running Special Investigations (and the division on a tighter budget), Dresden doesn’t get much work from them anymore. This change doesn’t seem significant until one realizes that Dresden’s connection to the police was his largest anchor to the mortal world. With that mooring cast aside, it pushes Dresden to move closer to the supernatural world. It represents his growing isolation from the mundane world.
Small Favor finds Dresden at his most relaxed in the series since Death Masks. The loss of Lasciel’s shadow has affected our hero on an emotional level. While he was never overtly fond of the constant temptation Lash represented, he certainly appreciated how the shadow augmented his abilities. The opening with the Carpenter family felt good to read. Harry’s ongoing mentorship with Molly Carpenter has softened some of his harsher edges that had developed over the last few books. The snowball fight shows that the rough relationship Charity Carpenter (Molly’s overprotective mother) and Harry have previously shared has been sanded down to a grudging respect.
Small Favor shows Harry relying on his allies to a greater extent, revealing his increased maturity. The question of relationships is important to the novel. Harry has always skirted the outer edges of the darker side of morality. His decisions in previous novels lead to increasingly dangerous confrontations, such as his growing enmity with the Summer Court of the Sidhe. Harry and Michael Carpenter have often been at odds on what constitutes moral action. This book brings that argument front and center. Michael is driven by the need to offer redemption, as a good Christian like he is should. Harry is not the forgiving sort, resorting to handing out bloody retribution when it is warranted. Both drives come from the same place, wanting to protect the innocent, but they are two wholly divergent paths to a solution.
When dealing with the Denarians, however, perhaps the more forceful path is the best one. The return of the Knights of the Blackened Denarius is a welcome one for me. With the Black Council largely keeping to the shadows, the Denarians are one of the few antagonists in the Dresden universe who are almost unambiguously evil. Nicodemus Archelone remains an excellent antagonist who possesses just the right amount of panache. The novel also introduces three new Denarians to take note of: Tessa (Nicodemus’s wife), Rosanna (Tessa’s trusted right-hand woman and corruptor of Sanya, a Knight of the Cross), and Thorned Namshiel (a Hellfire-infused sorcerer demon). It’s greatly implied that these three are either members of or working with Black Council. In a universe like Dresden’s, where gray is the predominant color, it’s always refreshing to see truly evil villains.
One of the overriding themes of Small Favor is family, even if it’s one constructed from disparate pieces. Harry has grown a close-knit, patchwork family over the previous nine novels. Despite their ideological differences, Michael and Harry are brothers, which even Charity comes to recognize. Harry certainly has a protective uncle streak when it comes to Molly. Their fights and disagreements are not born out of malice but familiarity and genuine concern. Butcher has done an exceptional job constructing this web of connected characters. You just know this will make whatever tragedies he’s concocted that much more heartbreaking when they finally happen.
Harry Dresden matures and the foundation is being laid for a mysterious and dangerous future. Small Favor is in many ways a novel that reinforces some aspects of the existing paradigm. It also represents the beginning of a seismic shift in that paradigm going forward. The readers are almost halfway through Jim Butcher’s 20+ book opus. I have the feeling the audience is on the road to Hell with Harry and we’ve all agreed it’s worth the ride.