I had planned on reviewing Shadowmarch by Tad Williams this week. And then I finished listening to Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (I listen to audiobooks on my way into school every morning) and knew that I had to write about it. Because here’s the thing, friendly reader: Dead Beat is an awful book and I think I might’ve figured out why. Really, it’s bad. Like “The Neverending Story III” kind of bad.
The Dresden Files chronicles the life and troubles of Harry Dresden, a professional wizard/detective for hire. Harry balances identities in several circles: he’s a wizard of the White Council, the group of wizards who serve as the ruling body for the magical world; he’s a consultant for the Special Investigations unit of the Chicago P.D.; he owes a certain debt to his faerie godmother that continuously hangs over his head; a few books in, he gains responsibilities and obligations with the faerie queen of the Winter Court, the wardens of the White Council, and a fallen angel. So, Harry is a busy wizard, and Jim Butcher has definitely written himself into an impressive juggling performance. And each new book tends to add a few balls to the act. Dead Beat is the seventh book in the series; the most recent addition, Ghost Story, is the thirteenth, and Butcher has announced that he is currently writing Cold Days, the fourteenth installment.
The Dresden Files are part urban fantasy and part hardboiled fiction, and, although this cool combination often leads to neat narrative possibilities, it’s one of the reasons why I’ve really started to dislike these books. Take Dead Beat: the Black Court vampire Mavra, one of Harry’s most dangerous enemies, contacts him at the beginning of the story and blackmails him into finding something called the Word of Kemmler. In his search for it, Harry gets mixed up with a pack of necromancers and our hero spends the book fighting against an impending deadline and doing his best to discover what these necromancers want and how they’re going to get it. Meanwhile, the war with the vampires (started a few books earlier) is still raging in the background. And the gumshoe thing, complete with all of the deception, manipulation, and espionage, definitely works in some ways. It seems like a lot of fantasy literature’s tension rests on how to get something done (How will Frodo get the ring to Mordor, How will Harry and company defeat Voldemort, How will Roland get to the Dark Tower, etc), but Dead Beat, like the other Dresden Files books, rests–for almost the entire novel–on what it is that Harry actually needs to do. Sure, we know that he needs to find the Word of Kemmler, but that bit of purpose really only serves as the push to get us into the larger narrative question, which is something like: what is happening with the necromancers who are in town and what can Harry do about it. When there is no immediate object for the narrative to focus on, it creates the beginnings of a really cool story. As far as something to take from the hardboiled genre, this narrative shift works really well.
Unfortunately, whereas this strategy is great in the beginning, it tends to undermine any sense of verisimilitude in the ending of every book (so far). Because Butcher has inherited the mystery genre’s attention to the “who did it” question, the one that’s primarily focused on uncovering the machinations at work throughout the duration of the narrative, he tends to take that tendency a little too far and wrap things up really neatly at the end of every book. Now, I realize that Harry might be a little banged up at the end of some books, or that irreparable, long-lasting damage has been done to certain characters’ relationships, but that’s not what I mean when I talk about wrapping things up neatly. I was listening to a Writing Excuses episode today, and they had Patrick Rothfuss on to talk about suspension of disbelief. Understandably, they worked their way into talking about verisimilitude in stories, and Pat said something about being really frustrated by a book that had every character with a name show up in the final battle to do their part. He said it felt too neat, and I think he’s really right. Something similar tends to happen in the Dresden Files books. Butcher sets up these multiple narrative threads and he tends to draw them together at the end around the character of Harry. To be clear, I have no problem with tying up loose narrative threads; I’m all for that. The problem with what Butcher does is that he mistakes tying up narrative threads with tying up character threads. For me, when you have every character in your book coming together at the very end to form a perfectly completed puzzle that allows your main character to overcome all odds, well, that feels a little convenient and a lot contrived for me as a reader. You’ve probably seen this before: the main character of the book is at his or her seeming end, he or she is in danger, about to die, and has no more tricks up his or her sleeve. Then, magically, at just the right time, a friend you had forgotten about shows up to save the day. And the thing is, if this happens once, it’s a little convenient but potentially understandable, but when it happens all the time with multiple characters showing up to supplement the rough spot in the narrative, it gets kind of weak. It abuses the reader’s suspension of his or her disbelief. Because the thing is, things like that don’t happen in the real world, not often at least. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief on a lot of things: Magic? Sure. Vampires? Sure. A tabby cat as large as a small dog that seems to understand people better than they do themselves? Sure. But a narrative that seems dependant on completely unpredictable acts of salvation by perfectly timed friends? Not so much.
And I actually thought Jim Butcher was going to turn that around in Dead Beat. There is a point at which Harry is being tortured and he explicitly recognizes that his only hope to survive is for someone else to show up. This is absolutely Chekhov’s Gun: Butcher has set up friends of Harry’s throughout the first several books with the possibility (or probability) of tapping them later in times of need. And Harry, in his inner monologue, draws our attention to this. He runs down the list of people that could come and save him, and any audience member worth his or her salt is thinking the exact same thing because, you know, it’s happened in just about every book thus far. But here’s the problem: Harry, after a few minutes of no one coming to his rescue, comes to this great epiphany that he’s totally alone in the world, that no one is coming to save him. You can probably imagine the line; phrases like “cold realization” and “on his own” are skating circles in the “overused clichés” rink as you read this. And what happens? Someone rushes in to save Harry at the last minute of course. Verisimilitude is maintaining the sense of truth in a story; it’s the believability of the thing, and it’s what suspension of disbelief absolutely hinges on. In Dead Beat, Jim Butcher uses his main character to not only explicitly reference how often he dumps on verisimilitude, but then he goes and does it again!
Urban fantasy seems to be concerned, at least in large part, with attempting to take standard fantasy elements and placing them in the real world. That might seem obvious, but I don’t just mean, “Hey, look, a dragon in Texas. Neat.” I mean the genre takes the things that high fantasy treats as sacrosanct–the overly-dramatic proper nouns and fanfare associated with fantastic elements–and shows them as they might actually function in our world–a world where, sure, wizards would do magic and fight evil warlocks, but they might also drink and have sex. However, the base narrative, the one where understandable people do understandable things in understandable situations, has to be solid if you want me to suspend my disbelief regarding the fantastic pieces of the story. And Jim Butcher hasn’t done that–not even a little bit.
As a side note (though it has no less bearing on why I dislike these stories; it’s just a little more straightforward), I should mention that Harry Dresden is a bit of a misogynist. He hides it under the smarmy veil of chivalry, but much of Harry’s understanding of chivalry comes from a belief that women are weak and in need of male protectors. Harry doesn’t want to help them because he likes helping people in need; quite opposite, his urge to help is dependant on their status as women, which is problematic in its own way. I could handle this character flaw if it was presented in a way that suggested that the author recognized it as such, but it’s instead validated by the world of the book, which seems to suggest that at no level is it recognized for what it truly is by the author. Having Harry say things like, “I know it’s old fashioned and a little sexist of me, but I have a soft spot for helping women,” doesn’t make it ok, especially when every other freaking character in the books validates Harry’s misogyny by either laughing it off or saying the “oh, that’s just Harry” sort of line. He’s never held accountable for it, and I have yet to see the world of the story or the narrative punish him for his beliefs.
Dead Beat gets one slice of lasagna from me–one slice of burnt, spinach lasagna from the corner of the pan.