Jim Butcher

Nicking from Novels: Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

I was recently talked into giving Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden a second chance. I didn’t much care for Dead Beat—I felt that it was larded with extra characters, and that the hero was getting bailed out constantly. The zombie T-Rex at the end and cries of “Polka will never die!” only got me so far.

Something else happened, though, since I complained about Storm Front: Steve Brust’s Hawk. Brust is one of my favorite authors, but Hawk… Well. Hawk had many of the same problems I described in Dead Beat. Vlad wasn’t necessarily getting bailed out every other chapter, but the book was larded with cameos. It seemed like Kragar got stabbed just so Aliera could show up to save him. We got a Morrolan appearance so he could prepare a spell. We got Sethra and Kiera and (of course) Daymar. We even got Khaavren! He, at least, had a reason to be in the story. Many of the cameos felt gratuitous, and the plot didn’t hold up especially well. Hawk, to me, felt like a book meant to get you from point A to point B in Vlad’s overall saga without much to recommend it as an individual story.

What if Dead Beat was the same way? A lackluster middle segment in an otherwise quality series? Butcher and Dresden deserved another chance.

The Overview
Harry’s a freelance wizard who consults for the “weird stuff” unit of the Chicago PD. Plenty of loving references to noirish detective stories. Dames and slick gangsters (even though Harry never calls them “dames,” they’re clearly dames). Magic that’s pervasive without stealing the spotlight from the detective work. Lots of werewolves of different sorts in this one. First person point of view, contemporary urban setting.

The Plot
Murders are happening in bunches around the full moon. Evidence suggests early on that Dresden’s nemesis Gentleman John Marcone is involved somehow, possibly as a target. The FBI is competing with Murphy and her Chicago Special Investigations unit. Pawprints at the murder scenes and chewed up corpses. Magic circles and street gangs. A protagonist whom the law is not sure whether to adopt or arrest.

The Cool Thing to Consider
Let’s consider pacing and exposition.

Fool Moon is relentless. At nearly every moment of the story, something is happening. Harry is always doing something, even when his narration is feeding us exposition. He makes potions while his skull familiar explains the varietals of werewolf. He reflects on his life choices while in the middle of a gun/wolf/berserker fight in a dark auto shop. An infodump from a demon sizzles because it’s also a confrontation for Harry’s name and/or soul.

All of that (and more) is exposition. If you sift back through Fool Moon after you’ve finished it, you find exposition all over the place. Butcher, via Harry or somebody Harry is conversing with, tells us things all the time. There’s magic to explain. There are oh-so-many types of wolf monster to explain. There are attractive women to explain.

The cool thing is that Butcher manages to do all of this without slowing things down. It’s a much different way to survive the need for exposition than that of, say, Gene Wolfe, who adroitly uses unreliable narrators and incomplete explanations to inform readers indirectly. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, because as I mentioned, it’s mostly telling rather than showing.

I think there are three reasons Butcher gets away with this much telling. First, this is a detective story. Detective stories are about processing information—that information has to come from somewhere. Whether the detective is finding them herself, getting them from others, or some combination of the two, the clues have to eventually add up. We get a little more of that kind of exposition than usual in Fool Moon because it’s told from first person perspective—Harry is telling the readers things as he hears them.

Not all of the exposition is directly related to the werewolf murders, though. We learn things about Harry’s past, about his feelings, about the characters around him. It’s mostly delivered in snippets and asides via a conversational tone that ties the whole novel together. That’s the second element—the strength of Harry’s narrative voice allows Butcher to tell rather than show as often as he does.

The third trick that allows Butcher gets away with all the exposition is that, as I mentioned earlier, there is always something happening. Fool Moon is fast. It’s not for nothing that fully half of the back jacket quotes mention the pacing. The book reads fast because, as Elmore Leonard might say, Butcher has left out the parts people skip. The only time Harry—and the readers—rest is when the wizard is knocked out. Whatever bones I might have to pick about the use and abuse of secondary characters, Butcher spins a hell of a good yarn.

What We Nick from This Novel
Pace and space isn’t just for the NBA.
Sometimes exposition is inescapable. You might have a world to build. You might have mysteries to solve. You might, for plot reasons, need somebody to explain something. One way to deal with that is to spread the exposition out (space) and keep stuff happening during the exposition (pace). This is a variation on “don’t let characters lecture.” Butcher is better than Hoffman at stringing together scenes, though his job is made easier by the fact that Fool Moon covers only a few nights—we get narration for most every moment Harry is conscious from the moment he arrives at the first murder scene to the final confrontation with the baddies. It’s frenetic, though. Even the lulls in the action—those few moments where nobody is actively trying to turn Harry into literal or figurative dogmeat—have something going on. It should feel busy and forced, but it never does. This is what a page-turner looks like.


Nicking from Novels: Jim Butcher’s Dead Beat

This week on Nicking from Novels, my first encounter with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

The Overview: Contemporary supernatural with the whole standard slate: vampires, fae, werewolves and wizards (among others). First person narrative with an extensive supporting cast (more on that below). This volume is far enough into the series that protagonist Harry Dresden has accumulated a bunch of miscellaneous powers in addition to his raw wizardry. Nothing particularly fancy or clever going on with the language. Protagonist succeeds through raw talent and stubbornness. And consistent outside intervention.

The Plot: An old enemy (a vampire) blackmails the protagonist into going after a macguffin. He finds out what it is, finds out there are Bad Guys who also want it. There are some fights. Then there are some more fights. Between, there is investigating. The finale takes place on a literal dark and stormy night. Background events combine with main story events to suggest plot points in later volumes of the series.

The Cool Thing to Consider

In a moment, I’m going to discuss the use of supporting cast, particularly in series. I want to clarify a few things before I get into that, though. The Dresden Files books have been recommended to me by several people whose opinions I respect. I went in hoping for a good read, and instead found what is, at best, a “good enough for an airplane” book. I’m willing to give Mr. Butcher the benefit of the doubt, though. I jumped into the middle of the series, and every author has bad books. (They’re sometimes harder to avoid when you’re an NYT bestselling author with publishing contracts.) Not especially liking the book kept me from getting sucked into the story until the very end—this also meant that I picked it apart more than I generally do. What follows is going to skew academic, because that’s the part of my training that the reading activated.

Phew. Ready?

When I was halfway through Dead Beat, I was mentally sketching a Nicking from Novels about quality supporting cast. Harry Dresden has plenty of friends. A few of them drive the plot here. (More of them show up in passing.) Butcher fleshes out his secondary characters well, combining Harry’s perspective with enough direct experience of the characters’ actions to give a sense of both personality and ability. I liked that.

What became harder to deal with as I continued into the latter half of the novel was the sheer volume of supporting players. Dresden has a laundry list of supernatural friends, foes, and frenemies. Butcher gives many (too many) of them face time here. They become distractions for several reasons.

First, Harry’s reliance on allies makes him less convincing as a protagonist. Butcher shows off Harry’s power plenty, but Harry is constantly bailed out by buddies…and nearly as often by enemies who are inexplicably more concerned with having their own vengeance than with Dresden getting what’s coming to him. By the end of the novel, I was never wondering “how will Harry get out of this situation?” I was wondering “who will come out of the woodwork to save him?” That’s not a good place for an author to leave his or her protagonist.

I think I understand what Butcher was aiming for. Harry Dresden occupies a world full of powerful nasties. Super necromancers. Wizards who can hold off armies of demons with a single spell. Fae nobles who can shred reality. Demons who hide in coins. Ninja ghouls. (Yes. Ninja ghouls. And the ninja ghoul is just a flunky.) Dresden is a bundle of power and, more importantly, the potential for even more power. The bad guys and the grey area guys all want a piece of that, but Dresden isn’t quite tough enough to play in those big leagues yet. Therefore, he needs help. Rather than making the antagonists seem especially big, though, the constant saved-by-a-friend makes Dresden shrink.

Second—and trickier—this is a book well into an ongoing series. Recurring characters are going to recur. I kept comparing it to Brust’s Taltos books. What would I think of those if I jumped into the middle of the series? I mean, technically I did, but I chanced into reading the book that is, chronologically, the earliest. Brust has Vlad accumulate a variety of friends (and a smaller number of enemies). Sometimes the least of these make cameos that are only mildly necessary, or necessary only because of the narrow but extreme competence of the supporting character in question. None of those appearances ever felt quite so gratuitous as the ones in Dead Beat. There are just too many. Dresden needing help is fine. Dresden getting that help from sixteen different angles just dilutes the plot.

Third: because there are so many of them, we’re not invested in seeing the bad guys defeated. We know they are bad mostly because Butcher (via Dresden’s first person narration) tells us that they are bad. Yes, raising zombie armies is bad. Yes, attempting a superspell to siphon hundreds of spirits into your own personal godhood potion is bad. I just didn’t get any personal investment in seeing the villains defeated. We know they are bad and powerful right from the start. We learn nothing more about them. They take turns beating Dresden up until they eventually take turns getting defeated by him (and/or his allies).

I think that Butcher tried to convey some sense of the chaos of competing factions and just didn’t manage it. There’s never a sense that power balances are shifting, nor much sense that the stakes are rising. (The stakes become clearer over the course of the novel, but that’s not quite the same thing.) There’s little differentiation among the villains’ agendas. And the wicked vampire who kicks the plot into motion? She appears twice. Once at the beginning of the book and once at the end. She becomes an afterthought.

There is one place that the secondary characters effectively add to the story. Dresden has a problematic relationship with the Wardens (wizard cops), but he ends up having to call them in anyway. When they arrive, the tensions are sharp and the novel’s main plot snaps into focus as part of broader events. Why does it work? Because the characters take things personally. The antagonisms are emotional and mutual. The way the book is written, Dresden has much more personal stake in getting the best of the Wardens than he does in stopping the wicked necromancers. Those conversations were the ones that had me flipping pages and spurred me to the book’s finale.

Overall, the plethora of secondary characters might be well-realized, but their volume—as allies and antagonists alike—becomes a distraction. There is only room for so much supporting cast, especially in a first person narrative. (It’s one of the difficulties of the technique. The more you focus on secondary characters the more the protagonist recedes toward the background.) There’s a balance to be struck, and Butcher misses it in this book.

What We Nick from this Novel:

You have to choose between Batman and the Justice League.

If you’re going to write a story with a single badass protagonist, make sure he (or she) is at the center of the thing. If you’re going with an ensemble cast, go with an ensemble cast. You can’t have it both ways.