Friday, September 19, 2014

Changes: You Can't Go Home Again

When Jim Butcher does wholesale change, he doesn’t mess around. Changes, the 12th novel of in The Dresden Files, is a book with twists aplenty and a story packing maximum emotional wallop. Many of the disparate threads from the previous 11 novels meet their end in this book. Like many books in this series, Changes is filled with explosive payoffs and tectonic shifts in narrative.

What happens when a wizard discovers he has a daughter and that his child has been abducted by the Red Court of vampires? Said wizard goes on a roaring rampage and his friends come along for the ride. My only complaint about Changes is that there were times in the beginning chapters where it felt like too much was being piled on. It’s a minor gripe on my part that doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of Butcher’s story. The preamble for the novel’s epic final showdown can be best described as frenetic.
Like no other novel in this series, Changes pushes Harry Dresden to make drastic, difficult choices. In novels like Dead Beat, White Night, and Death Masks, Dresden’s circumstances have strong-armed him into making morally ambiguous and questionable actions. Making a deal with Lasciel’s shadow can be rationalized considering the imminent threat of the Darkhallow. Breaking Cassius’s knees to find out more about Nicodemus’s plague scheme was both coldly logical and emotionally satisfying. Keeping Lara Raith in power despite knowing she kick-started a murder spree is simply a case of “the devil you know”. In Changes, Harry takes up the mantle of Winter Knight, a role he’s been refusing since Mab first offered it at Summer Knight. By aligning himself with the Winter Court of the Sidhe, Harry has effectively cut himself off from his origins as a wizard detective. Now he’s the enforcer for one of the coldest, cruelest creatures in this series’ universe.
Everything readers have long associated with Dresden’s life, from the patchwork Blue Beetle Volkswagen to his private detective business to his cellar apartment, is systematically stripped away. Even his body, which has withstood torments Dante wouldn’t dream up, is taken from him while trying to do the right thing. The core of Changes is parenthood and what choices a parent would make to protect their child. Harry’s not always been keen on taking the high and mighty path all the time. The threat to his daughter’s life pulls Harry closer to his own dark side. Most heartbreaking of all is the decision Harry makes to secure his daughter’s freedom. As Mab states in the book, “[f]or love will men mutilate themselves and murder rivals. For love will even a peaceful man go to war. For love, man will destroy himself, and that right willingly”. By the end of Changes, Dresden shows the truth of Mab’s observation.
The supporting cast of the Dresdenverse gets their moments to shine in this as well. Mouse speaks and reveals that living with Dresden for so many years has made him as snarky as his owner. Sanya gets to stand out in the more humorous scenes, particularly the one involving Harry, Sanya, and Major General Toot-toot Maximus. It’s a credit to Butcher’s writing skill that he can fill his books with some of the grimmest material and still find a way to make manic, whimsical pixies not seem out of place. Murphy continues to feature centrally to the story and she pays a steep price for helping Dresden. The adage “no good deed goes unpunished” (first uttered by Rawlins in Proven Guilty) continues to bear bitter fruit for the tiny but fierce detective.
In many ways Changes contracts and expands Dresden’s universe at the same time. The Red Court vampires had served as the series’ Big Bad (both in the foreground and background) since Grave Peril. There were other groups making moves in the shadows of Dresden’s world but they were villains without a face. The Red Court has been a constant threat for years in the novel’s timeline. The plotline of the war between the White Council and the Red Court has run its course and Butcher cuts that thread with total finality. The series introduces new elements to replace the Red Court, revealing that Dresden’s world is still going to be a weird place. Introducing Vandderung (aka Odin the Allfather) and Monoc Security (the firm Marcone’s been using since Death Masks) shows that Dresden will still have new mysteries to unravel. The vacuum left by the Red Court should allow Butcher to introduce the series’ true Big Bad, the Outsiders and their pawns the Black Council.

I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews for The Dresden Files that I was waiting for Butcher to write a bad Dresden book. So far that expectation has not been met. My view on why this remains so is that Butcher has an end point in mind for Dresden’s journey. So many urban fantasy authors meander their way through increasingly poor plots and characterizations just to put the next book out in their cash cow series. Butcher uses Changes to shake up the status quo and increase the pace to the ultimate endgame he has in mind. After 12 excellent books, I’m still all-in for seeing there the journey leads.    

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