Friday, August 5, 2011
Ghost Story is the 13th book of Jim Butcher’s long running and successful Dresden Files. In it’s predecessor; Changes, Butcher finished the book on a cliff hanger (he does say in his introduction that it wasn’t really a cliff hanger, entering spoiler land here, Jim, you killed your title character, if that doesn’t qualify as a cliff hanger I don’t know what does!) with Harry’s death. However Dresden isn’t going to let a little thing like death get in his way.
Harry finds himself ‘in-between’ (a sort of never never land somewhere between true death and life) and is given the opportunity of passing on, in which case he accepts that he is truly dead and can never come back or going back to the world of the living and finding out who murdered him. Although it’s phrased as a ‘choice’, the alternative is allowing great harm to come to some of those Harry holds nearest and dearest, there really isn’t much of a choice in it.
The title kind of gives away what Harry will return as; a ghost. He soon finds out being a spook isn’t much fun at all. He can’t be seen or heard by most people, including some of his best friends and allies, he has no magic and he cannot influence the living world in any physical way. He can however still be killed by some of the things that inhabit the spirit world.
Harry’s guide to his new state of being is one of Butcher’s new characters; Sir Stuart Winchester, Captain in the Colonial Marines, he’s about one of the oldest ghosts Harry encounters, but also one of the most powerful. Harry’s bridge and the best way of communicating to those who are not sensitive to ghosts is the ectomancer Mortimer Lindquist. Mort has featured in three previous adventures, but Ghost Story is by far his biggest role and gives the character some genuine depth.
Ghost Story saw a far more reflective and passive Harry, bound as he was by the limitations that had been imposed upon him. Harry had to think his way through a lot more and use his mind and past experiences without his physical size, strength and magic to fall back on. Despite the lack of action, relative to some of the other books, Ghost Story doesn’t really flag at any point. I did find a couple of chapters in the middle a little heavy on the magic explanation and these could have been shortened, by that’s really a minor quibble and other readers may find them quite interesting.
I’ve seen a bit of talk around various forums wondering exactly what it is about Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files that makes it so popular (most of the books reach the higher spots in the Times best seller list), and it’s something I’ve asked myself. There’s nothing truly remarkable about the books, they’re not epic, although they are involving and they’re certainly not life changing, nor do they pose any controversial questions. What they are is: FUN. Butcher knows his audience and he writes for them and to them. As always the pop culture references abound (my personal favourite from Ghost Story is a hilarious Star Trek spoof featuring a USS Enterprise full of Molly Carpenters). Given how many of the references hit my pop culture nerve I get the impression that Jim Butcher, Harry and I, and I suspect a good portion of his audience, are roughly the same age.
Possibly due to the fact that his cast of thousands was getting a little out of hand in Changes, the cast has been pared back a bit for Ghost Story. Aside from Mort and Sir Stuart (who is a new character, I unfortunately don’t think we’ll see him again), readers get plenty of Karrin Murphy, Waldo Butters, Molly Carpenter, Father Forthill, the Leanan Sidhe (she has grown on me so much, I think next to Harry and Murphy she’s my favourite character now) and Bob the talking skull. The villain’s role is taken by the evil spirit Corpsetaker (shades of Glen Cook’s Black Company books there with that name) with help from Bob’s evil aspect (it’s complicated and requires reading Dead Beat). There are also cameos from some of Billy Borden’s wolf pack, another member of the large Carpenter family and Harry’s pet cat Mister and dog Mouse.
While I found the mystery of who killed Harry totally shocking and unexpected, not to mention fairly satisfying, and the second last chapter was a total heartbreaker, I thought the ending was a bit deus ex machina, although not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book as a whole. Jim Butcher has delivered another solid, enjoyable, readable and gripping entry in the Dresden Files and I’ll be strapping in for number 14; Cold Days, probably about this time next year.
A small note here: while it is not necessary to have read the short story collection Side Jobs to understand Ghost Story there are a couple of references to entries in the collection in Ghost Story. I’d recommend you read Side Jobs in any case as it’s a good read.