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Book Review - Cold Days

Posted: Thu Nov 29, 2012 9:51 am
by Luthien
Last night I finished the new book Cold Days, by Jim Butcher. I was initially flushed with the urge to sit down and write this review, but I figured the best thing to do for presenting a slightly more objective perspective on the novel was to sleep on it. So, here we are!

The first point: Cold Days is the fourteenth novel in the Dresden Files series, which follows the adventures of a private detective in Chicago...who happens to be a practicing wizard.

The second point: Stop whatever you're doing, right now, and go buy this book. OK...well, let's slow down a second. If you haven't read the previous 13, that's probably not the right move (get them and read them first). If you have read up through Ghost Story (#13), then drop whatever you're doing and go buy this book.

So that was a strong statement, I guess. Let's figure out why I say that.

In my opinion, Changes (#12) was the best of the lot once it hit bookshelves. The Dresden Files started as a series depicting the worst day of the year in Harry Dresden's life. It was episodic, and a lot like some classic X-Files in that it was very much in the "monster of the week" basket of tales. All the various threads that were laid in those early books started to slowly ease together as the series went on, and Butcher really starts to develop these longer plots near that important breaking point. Changes, I am not completely convinced, would seem to represent a clear end point for the first half (give or take, from what Butcher has said) of the Dresden Files. It is a book in which all of the comfortable, familiar elements of the series are picked up, thrown into a blender and pulsed until you aren't quite sure what will come out. On the flip side, Ghost Story really serves as kind of an interlude, an intermission that breaks things up and bridges the gap between the two parts of the series (that have been laid out so far). What that would seem to imply is that Cold Days represents the start of a new segment of the tale for Dresden. Everything changed, what happens now?

Note: now we get to the book, a few possible spoilers for folks who have not yet completed at least Changes.

The book picks up essentially right where the previous one left off, and chronicles the very start of Harry's life as the Winter Knight. One of the themes in this book is about what that means, and how it might affect and even change Harry over time. The question of free will, and what it takes for a good person to turn into a monster has been a thread throughout quite a few of the last batch of novels in the series, and it is certainly present here as well. The plot of the book traces the first "case," essentially, for Harry to work on in the new way of things. We do have some similarities to previous books in that we definitely are faced with some of the mystery elements that we've seen in the past. Part of how you describe Harry is, after all, as a private detective, and that mystery element of the series is an important one. We also have plenty of the wizarding action that we've seen in the previous books. Given the way things are aligned in this book, Harry throws around some punches that are supposedly a lot tougher than most of what we've seen in the past. I found this to be somewhat less convincing than Butcher might have wanted it to be. I mean, Harry has really had some epic beat 'em up confrontations in the past, so it'd really take something special to wow readers at this point.

It is perhaps as a way to address this power usage issue that Butcher does something interesting with this novel. With the average power level being slung about raised, he needed to find a way to keep the threats seeming credible. Because of that, after a certain point in the book, it seems like every chapter raises the stakes just a little bit higher. What Harry is fighting against gets more dangerous, the odds get more stacked against him, and the consequences for losing get higher and higher. It's an exciting thing for readers as the book progresses, as it raises the tension and the excitement just that little bit each step. The downside is that I'm not entirely convinced that the stakes are raised to a credible level. It's hard to tell precisely what this is setting the series up for as you read through Cold Days. Is Butcher aiming at this being the issue for this book, or is it intended to be setting the tone for the next several in the series? Harry is usually at his best in situations where he is totally outgunned, but sometimes it makes me worry a bit that Butcher is moving things too fast and the pacing is all at odds with what is actually going to happen. It's one of the reasons I absolutely hate George R.R. Martin's big fancy epic that everyone seems so excited about. When your writing make promises to the readers, you should probably keep those promises. Butcher seems to skirt the line a little bit in this novel with that issue, though I think he manages to sufficiently keep the reader distracted by bright and shiny objects that they won't really notice until it's too late.

Besides the stakes constantly being raised, there's another thing that makes this book so exciting. In previous novels, there have been places where Dresden encounters someone or something that's clearly, obviously, very cool and interesting. As readers, we want to know more. Cold Days is awesome, partly at least, because it finally tackles some of these things head on and begins to explain them. There are at least two...two and a half things that are really nifty that we get to know a lot more about in this book.

Some of the reveals are tied into the issue of foreshadowing. Vandread has been talking about that lately, and how that interrelates to narration and whether or not a narrator can be reliable, and in what circumstances. It brings up an interesting thing for this book and how some of these things have been foreshadowed. There definitely are things that have been if you paid attention to the right details. The smart thing about what Butcher has done is that some of the foreshadowing has clearly been directing the reader toward one possibility because the narrator seems to painting things in that light...but first person narrators are certainly not infallible. When the narrator is conned, the reader of a first person book can be conned all the more easily. It's right to be left guessing in a series of this sort--things shouldn't come too easily after all. Butcher really does seem to have stepped up his game a bit with how he has tied some seemingly disparate plot elements together here for some of his big reveals. There's definitely some solid skill being evidenced here as he seemingly says "Know all that stuff you thought you know about X? Throw it all out, here's why, here's what you should think now, and here's what's been pointing at that even though you didn't realize it."

There's one last thing I wanted to remark upon before wrapping up this review. There's certainly a notion regarding the quality of books where there's a tension between the idea the book is based on and the quality of the writing. A truly great novel will have both in spades. The Dresden Files have usually been rooted in an interesting idea, with OK writing that relied upon pacing and a character that was easy to identify with for the draw of the series. Cold Days takes the idea element and really cranks it up. The book introduces several really interesting ideas, though it's too early to tell how or even if they will pan out over future books. I would tend to posit that some of the structural writing in the book is elevated, as Butcher increasingly seems to be starting to shift the focus of the Dresden books more toward telling a big story, rather than lots of loosely connected small ones. On the small scale, however, he hasn't necessarily raised his game. This writing in this book continues in the same vein as the previous ones, just moreso. Harry deals with more pop-culture references, makes more wisecracks, etc., and even comes close to breaking the fourth wall at least once in the book. The Dresden files are great because Harry is a great character, and Butcher really pulls off the first-person narration with him. In this book in particular though, it really seems like he's hamming it up a bit too much. Ghost Story and Changes were darker books, and I suppose a case could be made that Harry's narration is pushing the levity a bit because he's now alive again, but it does feel like a bit too much at times. It's hard to tell whether it's intentional because of who Harry is and what he's gone through, or because Butcher just overselling the character.

Ok, all that being said, this book is great, and I like it immensely. It being basically December now, I can easily say it's my book of the year, beating out The Blinding Knife hands down. If you're a fan of Harry Dresden, you owe it to yourself to get to this novel as soon as possible.

Overall: A/A- | 9/10
Verdict: Buy!