With the 2014 Skin Game, we come to the current conclusion of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels. True to form, Skin Game includes devastating villains, wonderful and horrible worldbuilding, and the occasional problematic element. That’s right folks, the worst worldbuilding category is back, and this week it’s replacing the worst moment category since there wasn’t a worst moment but there was something I have a major worldbuilding issue with. Join us as we look at what happened to Harry Dresden, and what menace is after Chicago this time.
Spoilers for Skin Game and Butcher’s Previous Works.
So, What Happened?
Skin Game opens with Harry playing parkour in the depths of the prison on Demonreach, when Mab arrives with the news that the parasite will kill Harry within three days unless Molly helps him. Mab keeps his messages to Molly away from her and manipulates him with by offering her help in return for doing a job for her. That job turns out to be helping Nicodemus Archleone steal something from Hades in repayment of a debt Mab owes Nicodemus. Afterwards Mab reveals that she wants Harry to double-cross Nicodemus and prevent him from stealing what he wants. Harry insists on bringing backup and picks Murphy, who lectures Harry on his self-imposed isolation.
They meet Nicodemus’s team, Hannah Ascher (a warlock), Binder, Goodman Grey (a shapeshifter), Genoskwa (a Sasquatch/Forest Person), and Anna Valmont, whom Nicodemus sends Hannah and Harry to collect. This results in a fight with the Fomor that leads to Butters patching Harry up and mentioning some suspicions that Harry hasn’t come back right.
The next day, Deirdre, Harry, and Grey go to capture a financial assistant, whom Harry insists they not kill. Polonius Lartessa, Deirdre’s mother, attacks them and kills Harvey. Nicodemus reveals they are stealing the Holy Grail from Hades. Harry goes to Michael and talks about his problems, including the fact that he’s working for/with Nicodemus. At a later meeting at the warehouse, after revealing that they need to break into Marcone’s bank to open a way to Hades’s vault, Genoskwa knocks Harry unconscious. He speaks with his Id-self, revealing that the parasite is a spiritual entity that is the ‘child’ of him and the impression that touching Lasciel’s coin left in his mind.
After recovering, the robbers discover someone spying on them, which leads to them chasing Butters to Michael’s house, with Harry and Murphy ‘chasing’ him as well. Murphy threatens Nicodemus with one of the swords while Genoskwa threatens Harry and strikes at Nicodemus in anger, which breaks Fidelacchius. Nicodemus then slices through her ACL. Michael agrees to come out to meet Nicodemus in exchange for his friends, and Uriel loans him his Grace, restoring Michael’s mobility. Butters gives him Amoracchius, temporarily restoring him as a knight. Harry claims Michael as his new backup.
That evening, Harry meets Maggie, awake and conscious for the first time, and immediately decides he cannot neglect being a father anymore.
Then comes the heist. They break into the vault and Lartessa attacks them again, wounding Harry before they drive her away. Hannah takes them past the Gate of Fire, Harry past the Gate of Ice. Nicodemus kills his own daughter so that her shade can open the Gate of Blood. Harry finds the Grail as part of a display of other religious items, realizes Nicodemus is after them too, and hides them with Valmont’s things. Hades stops by, pausing time to explain he’s in on the plan with Mab and shakes Harry’s hand to wish him luck. Harry turns over the Grail, fulfilling Mab’s word, then goads Nicodemus with the death of his daughter to make him turn on Harry and Michael. This leads to the revelation that Genoskwa and Ascher have Coins, Ursiel and Lasciel respectively, and that Harry hired Grey before this whole thing started. There is a throwdown in the vault, killing both Genoskwa and Ascher and the survivors flee, but not before Nicodemus threatens Harry with the knowledge that he knows Maggie exists.
Binder, Grey Valmont, Harry, and Michael manage to escape Marcone’s building, and Grey, Harry, and Michael head to Michael’s house. Nicodemus tries to burn down the building with the children still inside. Harry throws the hilt of Fidelacchius to a captured Charity, who bobbles it. Butters catches it, and the hilt of the sword turns into a lightsaber, which he uses to scare off Nicodemus. This allows for his human lackeys to be rehabilitated. Molly delivers Harry’s spiritual child. They confront Mab and Marcone, because they figured out this was a plot to break Nicodemus in response to the events of Small Favor. The story ends with Harry sitting with Maggie and Michael, in temporary peace.
Best Moment – Harry and Hades Meet
First off, I think that this is one of the best depictions of Hades in popular culture in a long time. Rick Riordan’s depiction also does well, but something about Butcher’s depiction of Hades just strikes me as excellent. Secondly, I really appreciate that Butcher is involving non-Christian, non-Faeire, non-Odin divinities into his universe. This is the only other god, except for Odin, to appear so far, which seems shocking, but is true. There are connections to the Fae and Western religions. A statue of Hecate has suspicious overlays of the Winter and Summer Mothers, Queens, and Ladies. Hades also collects, “a number of Western religious icons” (p. 191), including the Holy Grail and the authentic Shroud of Turin.
Butcher manages to capture the fear that Hades inspires as well as the more peaceful characterizations that tend to be ignored in modern media. His initial appearance scares Harry and the audience. Since such a point has been made of avoiding Hades’s attention, his “basso rumble of a voice” (p. 370) and the mordite, “A substance to deadly that if it simply touched anything alive, it would all but disintegrate it on the spot, devouring its life energy … Hades was wearing a crown made of it” (p. 373) are really striking. He’s a chthonic god, a god of the underworld and death, and that scares people.
But Harry is also right when he points out that, “You had a reputation for justice, and never for cruelty” (p. 376). And when Hades explains that Cerberus’s name “is from an ancient word, Kerberos. It means ‘spotted.’’ I blinked. ‘You’re a genuine Greek god. You’re the Lord of the Underworld. And . . . you named your dog Spot?’ ‘Who’s a good dog?’ Hades said, scratching the third head behind the ears, … ‘Spot is. Yes, he is” (p. 378).
Finally what really makes me like this scene and list it as the best moment is what follows after. Hades explains that:
“I am misunderstood by most, feared by most, hated by many. I do my duty as I think best, regardless of anyone’s opinion but my own, and though my peers have neglected their charges or focused upon inconsequential trivialities in the face of larger problems, it does not change that duty – even when it causes me great pain. And I have a very large, and very good dog … whom other people sometimes consider fearsome.’ He turned to me, put his wineglass down and regarded me frankly. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that we have a great many things in common.’ He rose and stood before me. Then he extended his right arm. ‘You are here because I wanted to take a moment to shake your hand and wish you luck.” (p. 378-9)
It’s a lovely, human moment in a book that requires so much lying and secrecy from Harry. It gives us a moment to breath with and sympathize with these characters after Deirdre’s death and before the attack on Michael’s home. I couldn’t do anything else but name this the best moment because of that.
Most Improved – Harry Actually Being A Father
After distancing himself from Maggie over the course of several books, we finally see Harry reverse that trend and become the father that he showed signs of being in Changes. His journey there takes time.
We first see signs of it when Murphy calls him out of his self-isolation on Demonreach. She grabs his hand, and this leads to an internal philosophy monologue that culminates in,
“we all come into the world blinded by light and color, deafened by riotous sound, flailing in a suddenly cavernous space without any way of orienting ourselves, shuddering with cold, emptied with hunger, and justifiably frightened and confused. And what changes that first horror, that original state of terror? The touch of another person’s hands.” (p. 45)
This pondering of childbirth and the protection of scared children foreshadows the changes that will come later in the novel.
It is remembering Maggie and his failure to save Susan that brings him to Michael’s house for comfort. While there, they talk about Maggie, how she needs her father and how in many ways, he needs her as well.
The second return to Michael’s house leads to their first proper meeting.
“At the top of the stairs stood two figures—an enormous dog and a little girl. … The little girl stood with her hands buried in the thick fur of Mouse’s mane, … Maggie. My daughter. My heart all but stopped beating—and then it lurched into high gear in pure terror. What should I do? What should I say? I mean, I had known I was a father and whatnot, but . . . now she was looking at me. And she was a person. … She chewed on her lip thoughtfully, a gesture that reminded me so much of Susan that a tangible pang went through my chest. ‘Um,’ she said. … ‘Would you like to read me a story?’ Mouse’s tail thumped enthusiastically against the wall. ‘Sure,’ I said. And we read Where the Wild Things Are. … She looked at my face searchingly for a moment and then said, in a tiny voice, ‘Do you want to be my dad?’ I went blind for a few seconds, until I blinked the tears away. ‘Sure,’ I said. It came out in a tight croak, but when I said it she smiled at me.” (p. 287-90)
It is a beautiful moment, and when reticent and holding himself back from his friends and family of choice, the fact that he chooses to be Maggie’s father makes the events of Changes and all the moments that come before more poignant.
Best Worldbuilding – The Parasite
In dreams during the early phases of the novel, Harry receives mysterious warnings, saying that he’s missing signs right in front of his face. That, “She’s right in front of . . .” (p. 104), and that because he keeps missing things he’s going to die.
Then, while knocked unconscious by Genoskwa, we see the return of Harry’s id-self, the split pseudo personality that represents his basic desires, and there’s someone with him. After a lecture about not indulging himself sexually, which shows the ‘desires’ part of his personality, he starts with the important exposition. He drops enough hints that Harry finally puts together what the Parasite is.
“A spiritual entity,’ my double said calmly. ‘Born of you and Lash. … You could hear the echoes of her voice?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, feeling dazed. ‘That was because a part of her remained,’ my double said. ‘Made of her—and made of you.’ And very gently, he drew back the black blanket. She looked like a child maybe twelve years old, … She’s a spiritual entity,’ I breathed, ‘Oh, my God. She’s a spirit of intellect.’ ‘What happens when mortals get it on with spirits,’ my double confirmed.” (p. 203-4)
Given that Bob is also a spirit of intellect, it raises questions about who his ‘parents’ were. But on a more practical level, it underscores the earlier theme of Harry learning to be a father. He comforts his spiritual daughter. “She didn’t look dangerous. She just looked like a little girl. … ‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘It’s okay. I’m going to take care of it. It’ll be all right. … He took her, very gently, and gave me a nod. ‘I know she’s weird. But she’s still your offspring.’ His dark eyes flashed. ‘Protect the offspring’ (p. 205). Of course Harry decides instantly on meeting Maggie that he’s going to be her father for real now, when his spiritual self has been taking care of his spiritual daughter for longer than Maggie’s been alive.
The comment about a part of Lash, Lasciel’s imprint, remaining is important as well, because Lasciel is able to sense their spiritual daughter even when possessing Hannah. In many ways, she’s like Athena, born from the skull of her father, after the death of her mother, which makes her appearance in a book that heavily features Hades very appropriate.
Worst Worldbuilding – A Jewish Knight of the Cross?
Look. I love Butters. His character arc has been amazing: from the scared mortician to someone who understands magical theory even better than Harry, to someone who stands up with Bob because there are problems in his city and Harry’s not there to deal with him. I even like the Jedi-esque lightsaber because it fits with his nerdery.
But on an intellectual level, I absolutely hate this change to his character.
In many ways, Butcher just created a Jewish character for diversity points and didn’t stop to consider what a character being Jewish would mean in this world. In many ways, Butters taking up a mantle of a Knight of the Cross, even one who reforged the sword into something less overtly religious, reads as more akin to Messianic Judaism rather than a complex Jewish character who finds ways to do good without the trappings of Christianity.
What’s worse is that any concerns Butters might have about getting shoehorned into a different religion that is antithetical to his own is treated like a joke. “Butters grinned in relief. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘There is one thing I . . . I sort of have an issue with.’ ‘What’s that?’ I asked. He spread his hands and said, ‘A Jewish Knight of the Cross?” (p. 482). Butcher literally makes Murphy, a catholic character, burst into giggles at this point. The way the entire thing is framed makes fun of this contradiction instead of highlighting a potentially interesting conflict.
But no. This takes place in a world where a Greek God collects Christian memorabilia, and the only non-magical defense of the world takes place under the aegis of Christianity, and that his just subsumed a Jewish character.
It makes me angry.
On that note, this brings us to the end of the published novels. But not to the published stories. People who read this book will note that Butcher makes several references to events that didn’t occur in the novels. A crazy moment involving Mister and Andi in Harry’s apartment, and to Harry doing jobs for a Bigfoot. This is because those moments occur in the published short stories.
And that is where I will be turning my attention to next. First to Side Jobs, then to Brief Cases, and then on to two uncollected short stories, one a Christmas story set after the next novel and one from the point of view of Goodman Grey. I haven’t quite decided how to maintain this format, with the highlighting of worldbuilding, improvements, and good and bad moments. But next month we’ll find out.
After that, this series will take a bit of a halt. But not a very long one, since according to Jim Butcher’s website, Peace Talks, the upcoming novel, is written and undergoing revisions. When that comes out, this series will come back for an article looking at that novel. The same will happen with each subsequent novel. I’ve come this far from the horrible opening novel, I’m not going to abandon this series now.
Thanks for watching the evolution of Butcher’s work along with me. See you next month with the start of my analysis on Side Jobs.