My last two reviews focused on individual characters. Now, with Butcher’s 2007 White Night, the series reclaims its origins with an ensemble cast. To make it better, Butcher treats half of that cast better than in previous books. In case you can’t tell, I liked this book very much. So much so that there are multiples for each category. Let’s dive into it.
Spoilers for all of White Night and for previous books.
So, What Happened?
White Night opens with Murphy inviting Harry to help her investigate a ‘suicide’. He finds out that she practiced magic, and the killer left an ominous message. They track down her fellow practitioners, which include Priscilla and Helen Beckitt. Protecting them is Elaine. They explain that the man killing them wears a grey cloak, is tall, and dark haired. Considering one of the women died from sex magic, Harry starts looking for Thomas.
The killer tries to kill one of the Ordo Lebes by setting fire to her apartment building. With Mouse’s help, Harry gets everyone out. He tracks the killer and ‘follows’ Grey Cloak to a meeting with the still-not-dead Cowl. Lasciel talks with him about her coin, and Harry refuses. He goes to Thomas’s apartment and sees a murder wall about the dead women. Thomas turns out to be protecting the women on his boat and at a safe house. Grey Cloak, or Vittorio Malvora, Madrigal Raith, and Cowl are competing with a Skavis assassin. Malvora and Skavis want to stop peace talks hosted by ‘Lord Raith’. They started killing practitioners to prove the peace talks unnecessary. Harry realizes the Skavis was Priscilla and arrives in time to save Elaine and the surviving Ordo Lebes.
Harry sets up a dire scheme, going to confront Vittorio and Madrigal. He and Carlos fight a duel and kill Madrigal. Vittorio summons an army of ghouls and it turns into a slaughter. Harry summons Thomas, Murphy, and Marcone. They turn the tide, for a moment. Cowl confronts Harry and Lasciel’s shadow dies protecting him. All escape. Harry finds out Lara influenced Malvora and Skavis and extracts a weregild for the dead and injured. He and Elaine plan to start a network for people with a little magic.
Best Moments – Personal Connections
Harry, Murphy, Molly, and Crime Scene Investigation
This opening scene shows lovely banter and camaraderie between both Harry and Molly and Harry and Murphy. It also builds the relationship between Molly and Murphy and builds to later events.
Harry and Murphy finish up their investigation of the ‘suicide victim’. Murphy grabs Molly, who hid invisibly under a veil. She then proceeds to read her the Miranda rights and to cuff her. Harry tells Molly to apologize, and Murphy explains that she could have ruined an actual police investigation. Murphy frees Molly, who then asks how they knew she was there. They read off a laundry list of things, from scents to sounds that let them know she was there. It ends with “‘But we didn’t see you, did we, Murph?’ Murphy shook her head. ‘Not even a little.’” (p. 34).
This scene does so much, because it showcases Murphy worrying about the sanctity of the law and with justice. She brought Harry there outside an official investigation because it concerned her that the dead woman might not get justice. That shows in how she treats Molly: as a cop first, and then explaining how it would affect an investigation, even their informal one.
Molly wants to help people, from what we see of her tagging along here. It shows in her later actions, both immediately after in gazing one of the corpses and in staying in the car at the end.
Harry wants to help both Murphy and Molly. This shows in how he respects Murphy’s decision to ‘arrest’ Molly and his willingness to go along with it. But he also turns it into a teaching moment for Molly. Both about investigation and proper procedure and how magic works. Molly takes the notes about smell and sound to build her veils later in the book. Their ribbing helps her improve.
Finding Elaine By Adding Pain
Okay, this title seems weird to be on a “Best Moments” phrase. But, in context, it makes sense. After Harry realizes that Priscilla is the Skavis, he needs to find Elaine and the remains of the Ordo. Considering he knows Elaine the best, he focuses on her.
But he still views her as the sixteen-year-old he first met her as. He thinks of her from that first soulgaze, and after several compliments, he thinks, “The wisdom, maybe, was still in progress, as evidenced by her choice of first lovers, but even as an adult, I was hardly in a position to cast stones, as evidenced by my choice of pretty much anything. What we hadn’t know about, back then, was pain.” (p. 298). Harry has this view of Elaine as good and better than him. But he still thinks of her as young.
The next two pages aren’t voyeuristic. They’re taking Elaine down off that pedestal and recognizing that she’s changed. It makes her human, makes her an adult in his eyes. We know that because of what he thinks, what he adds.
“Pain is a part of life … Either way, pain leaves its mark. … Adding pain to that vision of Elaine wasn’t a process of imagining horrors, fantasizing violence, speculating on suffering. It was no different from an artist mixing in new color, adding emphasis and depth … So I added in all the pains I’d learned. Cooking blunders I’d had to eat anyway. Equipment and property constantly breaking down, needing repairs and attention. Tax insanity, and rushing around trying to hack a path through a jungle of numbers. Late bills. …You know. Life. And the image of her in my mind deepened, sharpened, took on personality.” (p. 299-300)
Then he finds her, and helps her rescue herself.
Most Improved – The People in Harry’s Life
Helen Beckitt and John Marcone
Harry has an antagonistic relationship with these two people, and it shows here. From the first moment Helen turns up, he immediately pins her as guilty. He forms a wild conspiracy theory that she and her husband killed all these women. Murphy puts a pin in that when she tells him Helen’s husband died in jail. She seesaws back and forth on the suspect list for a while. She comes off it when Harry reveals her past to the Ordo and comes back on when being framed by Priscilla.
Then, Harry and Murphy go to the Velvet Room, because one of the dead women worked there. They run into Marcone and to Ms. Demeter, aka Helen Beckitt. Considering that she went to jail because she dabbled in drug-running to ruin Marcone, to find her working for him is a shock. But it shows she’s healing from the death of her daughter somewhat. We see she’s changed more when she agrees to a soulgaze when Harry tells her Anna died. That’s character growth.
Harry hates Marcone. Hates him so much he was willing to risk Marcone not cooperating when the mob boss asked him to say ‘please’. Marcone agreed to extract him and the rest from the caves. But Harry realizes that if he doesn’t save as many people as he can, he can’t live with himself.
“I jerked my head at the cavern. ‘People are dying, John. Help me save them. God, please help me.’ Marcone’s head rocked back as if I’d slapped him. After a second he asked, ‘Who do you think I am, wizard?’ ‘Someone who can help them,’ I said. ‘Maybe the only one.’ He stared at me with empty, opaque eyes. Then he said, very quietly, ‘Yes.’” (p. 394).
The growth here is amazing for both of them.
Ratio and Treatment of Male and Female Characters
I counted the number of important and semi-important male characters and female characters in White Night. The numbers turned out even with eleven male and eleven female characters, with a good ratio of important and semi-important for each. Given that in the past, these numbers would have skewed heavily male, this marks improvement in Butcher’s writing.
Also, beyond the ratio, the treatment of women in this book seems better than in previous ones. Butcher toned down the sexualized language and saved it only for the women of the White Court, where it makes sense. Harry’s protective streak towards women still exists. Elaine even calls him Paleolithic for his chivalric streak. This might be part of my resolution to question my own biases but it also feels like there is a genuine improvement here. It feels less like Harry being overbearing and more like being a proper white knight.
One thing that makes it feel this way is a conversation between Murphy and Harry halfway through the book. Harry had behaved erratically towards Marcone and Molly recently. Murphy confronts him while they sit in the car and plan their next move. She tells him that she thinks he has anger issues, or developed them over the past year. Harry reacts negatively, realizing that he’s proving her point. While he processes this, “Murph sat beside me, not saying anything, not accusing me of anything. She just sat with me. Friends do that.” (p. 316). Given that male-on-female violence due to male anger issues is a major threat to women, Murphy’s making Harry self-aware shows an improvement in gender relations. A few books ago, he would have brushed her aside without self-reflecting. She wouldn’t have sat next to him and helped him process. It shows the growing depth of their friendship.
Best Worldbuilding – Magic Comes in Multiples
Strength vs. Finesse in Magic Users
It would be an easy fallacy to believe that Harry’s powers were the extent of wizardly magic. White Night deconstructs that from the second chapter. Butters makes another appearance as the one through whom Butcher filters exposition. Harry asks Molly to soulgaze the corpse in Butters’s mortuary, and Butters asks why Harry hadn’t done that earlier.
Harry explains. “The wizarding business isn’t standardized,’ I said. ‘Any given wizard will have an affinity for different kinds of magic, due to their natural talents, personalities, experiences. Each has different strengths. … ‘But… it’s the difference between me strumming power chords on a guitar and me playing a complex classical Spanish piece.’ Butters absorbed that and nodded. ‘And the kid plays Spanish guitar.’” (p. 44). He doesn’t overplay his own abilities, and he doesn’t underplay Molly’s. Stronger isn’t better, but subtle isn’t better.
To continue the music metaphor, it’s the pieces you pick and how much you practice. Harry mentions that his own magic improved in teaching Molly, because he went back and practiced the basics in teaching her. This manifested in creating a better shield bracelet.
He also admires Elaine’s more subtle technique when escaping the burning building. Elaine crafts a permeable shield that lets living things through. “Permeable? Holy moly. I could never have managed that on the fly. But then, Elaine was always more skilled than me when it came to the complex stuff.” (p. 130). The fact that both female magic users do subtle work and Harry does strong work could be made into a negative gender thing. But Butcher prevents that with how Harry shows open admiration for their skills. It plays into the better gender dynamics section discussed above. There’s more respect here now.
Mouse the Magical Dog
Mouse even gets development in this book. During the fire at Anna’s apartment, they worry about getting everyone out. And Mouse starts barking. “Now, saying that he was barking might give you the general shape of things, but it doesn’t convey the scale. … Every time he barked, I swear to you, several of my muscles tightened and twitched as if hit with a miniature jolt of adrenaline. I couldn’t have slept through half as much racket, even without the odd little jabs of energy that hit me like separate charges of electricity with each bark. … He let out twelve painfully loud barks, and then stopped.” (p. 127). Mouse’s barking wakes everyone up.
Elaine asks how Harry got a Temple Dog and Harry doesn’t know how to respond. Later, he visits Bob in his basement and asks about Temple Dogs. Bob can only tell a little to Harry, but he says that Temple Dogs aren’t entirely canine. They’re hybrids of mortal dogs and celestial canine beings. That gives them above average intelligence, and they prove very protective, making them excellent guard dogs. Their bark can be heard in the Nevernever and can be heard for fifty or sixty miles. Harry contemplates making Mouse a bulletproof vest at that point. This adds more depth to the series, and shows up again in later books.
Also, Mouse is just adorable. So, I like having the excuse to talk about him.
Worst Worldbuilding – Playing with Negative LGBTQ+ Stereotypes
Thomas’s Apartment and Cover Story
Harry goes to Thomas’s apartment, and because Thomas didn’t list him as a possible list, the security summons the cops. In order to get out without problems, he pretends to be Thomas’s estranged gay lover. He goes into the next room and hears the cop and the security talk. “ ‘If they’re in a relationship,’ the cop said, ‘how come this Raith guy never cleared his boyfriend?’ ‘You know how queers are, the way they sleep around,’ the security guy said. ‘He was just covering his ass.’ … ‘I don’t want a jilted queen making a big scene. No one wants that.” (p. 100). While Harry correctly notes the security guard’s bigotry as a negative thing, the pattern concerns me.
A lot of the reaction surrounding ‘gay’ people in White Night, or people pretending to be gay relies on stereotypes, goes uncritiqued. Harry mentions several times that he pitches his voice higher when talking to the cop and security. Thomas turns out to be working at a hair salon so he can feed while doing women’s hair. He affects an exaggerated French accent, where his name is pronounced Toe-mass. He says, “No one expects a man with a place like this to be straight.” (p. 462).
It gets around the cop circles too, and Murphy brings it up to Harry later. “[Rawlins] asked me if he should get you the sound track to Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera for Christmas this year. … Stallings and I found an autographed picture of Julie Newmar on eBay.” (p. 263-4). Every single element of LGBTQ+ ‘representation’ in this book depends on stereotypes of gay people as effeminate, theater heads, and fashionistas. It rubs me the wrong way, and I can barely sit through reading the apartment scene.
The Skavis’s Disguise as ‘Priscilla’
The impersonation of Thomas and Harry being gay relies on stereotypes, but not too exceedingly negative ones. The Skavis assassin’s disguise on the other hand pulls from the very worst stereotypes about transgender women.
“So right now,’ Murphy said, ‘you think Priscilla is shilling for the Skavis agent.’ ‘No. She is the Skavis agent.’ ‘I thought you said it was a man,’ Murphy said. ‘Strike you funny that Priscilla wears turtlenecks in the middle of a hot summer?’” (p. 294-5).
They flee to the hotel where they left Elaine and the rest, and ‘Priscilla’ comes outside. “She ripped the turtleneck away in a kind of wobbly, disoriented panic—and revealed a bra and falsies. Those got ripped off too, and what was left, while slender and hairless, was also obviously the upper torso of a very pale, rather effeminate-looking man.” (p. 303). First off, the turtleneck comment doesn’t make sense. Trans people can wear any style of clothes that they want to, so it doesn’t make sense as something that identifies ‘Priscilla’ as off.
Secondly, this plays deeply into negative stereotypes about transgender people. The entire premise of this plot is that a man disguises himself as a woman to gain access to other women, all the better to hurt them. This myth lies at the heart of the ‘bathroom bills’ that aim to strip transgender people of their rights. And the myth is proved in this story.
Admittedly, most depictions of LGBTQ+ people, especially transgender people in 2007 weren’t progressive by today’s standards. But both the Skavis agent’s disguise and the scene at Thomas’s apartment leave a very sour taste in my mouth because I’m reading them now in 2019. I try to remind myself that something like this wouldn’t get published now because we’ve progressed in the past twelve years.
Sometimes it works. And even when it does, that doesn’t make the story any less harmful because there are still people who believe these stereotypes are real.
Despite the massive downer that was the two sections for Worst Moment, I enjoyed White Night. Butcher’s plotting skills remain hyper-sharp, and he starts ramping up the threat that the Black Council plays. I really appreciated the way that Harry interacted with his female colleagues and the worldbuilding that bolsters that. The interpersonal relationships also get a heavy dose of influence. Butcher has come into his own and he stays there, right on top of character and plot. See you next month for a look at Small Favor.