New Release Review! Jim Butcher’s Skin Game
One of the reasons I’ve focused on book reviews over, say, movie or TV reviews, is a matter of timing. I tend to be a little behind the curve of a lot of pop culture, and when there’s all kinds of commentary available the next morning, why bother? I figure it’s more interesting to talk about some obscure fantasy novel from a few years ago rather than a movie you just watched a week or two ago.
Of course there are some exceptions.
I’m a big fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, to the point where I pick the damn things up in hardcover the day they’re released and binge-read them over the next few days. I know there are people who’ve already raced through the book already, but I’m more of a fan of sleep than Harry Dresden.
For those not familiar with the series, the Dresden Files can be pithily described as “If Harry Potter grew up to be Sam Spade.” They center around one Harry Dresden, wizard for hire. Harry crosses paths with all kinds of nasty monsters, zaps them with spells, solves mysteries, and provides snarky commentary.
It’s pretty much THE Urban Fantasy series, to the point where it’s spawned a short-lived Sci-Fi (or should I call it Syfy these days?) TV series, a couple of comic books, and even a tabletop RPG (with a Live Action version in the works). In lieu of re-hashing the plot, I’ll just share the fan-made book trailer below.
Nevermind the cheesy photoshop backgrounds. Those people are fans, dammit.
To be honest, I really couldn’t recommend Skin Game for someone who hasn’t read a Dresden Files book before, since it’s the 15th in the series. And for someone who has read the rest of the Dresden series, you’re probably going to read it anyway (if you haven’t done so already). But I’ll share some thoughts on the novel anyway, because that’s what the internet’s for!
Skin Game hits all the notes just when it’s supposed to: you have a ragtag group of criminal specialists going after The Biggest Score Ever, only to have things invariably go to shit. Call it The Italian Job with magic missiles. Actually, don’t call it that. I went into Skin Game hoping for a crazy-ass crime caper, and while it certainly delivers on the crazy aspect, things felt a little too straightforward. It’s even straightforward when compared to Butcher’s earlier work- earlier Dresden Files books tend to have ridiculously convoluted plots as two or three different factions of otherworldly monsters scheme against each other and try to kill Harry. Skin Game is just goes from point A to B to C- there are complications, sure, but it never really changes the course of the novel.
The final heist reads a bit more like a dungeon crawl than a proper caper. Still, at least it’s a dungeon crawl with some really fun characters- in particular, we get a showing from Michael (he’s the lumberjack-knight from the trailer), so there’s something to be said for that. A common criticism of The Dresden Files series is its gender issues. In the past, I’ve admitted this weakness, noting a lot of it comes from the genre. Butcher draws heavily from old Noir mystery novels, and so I’d argue that one should expect various femme fatales and distressed damsels. On the one hand, I’ve taken to starting a ‘naked lady count’ of each new Dresden Files novel (Skin Game scores a 4, by the way, which may be a little bit low for a book with that kind of title). On the other, I could at least point to a couple of kick-ass women who hang out with Harry and help him kill the bad guys. At least, I could until now. So, here’s the deal. One of Harry’s allies (and burgeoning love interest) is one Karrin Murphy- Karrin’s a former Chicago Detective who got caught up in magic shit. Having no magic powers of her own, Murphy tends to deal with monsters by shooting them ’til they stop moving. It’s pretty great.
There’s a sequence, about two thirds through the novel, where it’s explicitly stated that Murphy is unworthy of a fancy-ass magic sword. Nevermind the fact she wielded it briefly in an earlier book, and nevermind the way she was declared unworthy was due to some rules lawyering bullshit on the part of the bad guy, Murphy gets her ass beat anyway. With Murphy wounded, her position in the heist-gang is taken over by a male character. Admittedly, this opens up room for one of my favorite characters to get in on the heist/dungeon crawl, but it’s still fairly galling. (Upon relating this to a friend of mine, who isn’t a Dresden Files fan, she hit me with a well-deserved “I told you so.”)
Now, I’m not saying an author can’t be just as terrible to female characters as he can to male ones. Throwing complications at the characters in a novel is what a good author does, after all. What makes the whole setup stink to me is, later in the novel, the same magic sword is taken up by a character named Butters. It’s not the kid from South Park, but he’s exactly what one would expect from a character named Butters. Now, I’m all for the ‘nerd turns out to be a badass hero’ trope as much as anybody, but this particular sequence comes off as a bit gratuitous, considering Butters has a bunch of other shiny junk dumped on him over the last novel or two, including (but not limited to) a super hot redheaded werewolf girlfriend and a magic skateboard. Seriously, Butters is turning out to be the character your GM’s little brother came up with back in the 90’s.
On top of that, a re-occurring theme in the most recent Dresden Files novels has Harry saddled with dark fae magic(tm). This gives him extra power- but at the same time, it often gives him a rather predatory outlook on things, to the point where there’s a dark voice at the back of his head that urges him on to rape all the women he meets and kill everyone else. Harry doesn’t act on these impulses, mind you, and one could spin it as a part of the horror-flavor, but it’s still fairly glaring.
From what I’ve gathered from various internet discussion, Butcher isn’t necessarily misogynistic- it’s just that a lot of moments like this seem to come unconsciously, because he doesn’t know any better. At least when Harry Dresden starts going on about being angsty or old fashioned or chivalrous or whatever, the other characters call him on his bullshit. Sometimes I wonder if, after all these novels, Butcher’s editors won’t.
Has this ruined the series for me? No. Will I pick up the next Dresden Files hardcover the day it’s released? Probably. But at the same time, I expect I’ll read the next novel (and those after that one) with a far more scrutinizing eye. Nothing wrong with a guilty pleasure, so long as you know what you’re getting into.
It’s probably a bad sign when that steampunk corset romance book deals with gender and sexuality better than you do.