Review: Changes

by Tom Ingram

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series has grown into something almost unrecognizably different from its original instalments. The first three dealt with small-scale local supernatural problems, and was often compared to hardboiled detective novels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Buffy, Butcher apparently found this style unsustainable past a certain point, and by the fifth book we have minor international intrigue which gets bigger and bigger as the series goes on. This culminated in Changes, released last year, where Harry Dresden is framed for blowing up a building, and eventually finds himself at the centre of large-scale manoeuvring by a supernatural empire.

The first line of the book has been out for quite some time now, having been released by Butcher long before the book came out:

I answered the phone, and Susan Rodriguez said, “They’ve taken our daughter.”

Dresden, of course, didn’t know he had a daughter. The girl was taken by the Red Court, Butcher’s take on traditional vampires, as part of a revenge plot. As he fights to get her back, we’re pushed through the requisite plot twists and big fights, but they all come off as a bit forced. The return of Susan is not nearly as interesting as it’s meant to be—she’d been gone so long that I’d pretty well stopped caring what happened to her long ago. While this is by far the biggest Dresden story so far, the bigness is just what works against it.

Changes is only the twelfth book in a series that is supposed to go to twenty, and at times it feels like Butcher is prematurely blowing his load. Throughout the book, all the series’ recognizable trappings—Dresden’s basement, office, lab, car, and duster coat—are destroyed. Whatever else you could say about seasons 4-7 of Buffy, at least they had the sense not to destroy the library until after the kids graduated, and the Bronze and Buffy’s house remained intact until the final season. Little things like that are important to a series, and while it’s all right to destroy them, it has to be a watershed moment with the appropriate gravity. Getting rid of all that at once for shock value just comes off as cheap.

The holdovers from the early days of the series are also quite a bit jarring. When the books started coming out, Harry was a wizard who worked as a private detective. Over time, he’s morphed into a globe-trotting, politicking wizard who for some reason maintains a private eye business that he never seems to do any work for, and the leftovers of the old days just don’t fit anymore. At this point it would be difficult to get rid of some of them, like Detective Murphy, because they’re so close to the main character, but something has to be done. The noiry Chicago trappings no longer make sense.

Worst of all, the writing has gotten sloppy in this book. It obviously needs another once-over by an editor, because there are some simple line-to-line issues like sentences repeated almost verbatim, typos, and awkward phrases. One character is introduced and described twice. With the series’s length and success, it might be tempting for the editor to slacken his or her grip, but the success only came in the first place because of that grip. Beyond that, this is probably the most unfunny book in the series. Writing a smartass, especially a long-running smartass, is difficult because after a while the constant wisecracking loses its charm and simply becomes annoying, and there are only so many funny ways to respond to broadly similar situations and dialogue before you start to repeat yourself. Dresden’s attempts at humour fall flat because they’re expected and not very clever.

The resolution of events seems too final for what is supposed to be the rough midpoint of the series, and the James Bond-style ending leaves big questions about how it can possibly continue. With any luck, this will turn out to be an aberration in the series and not the norm from now on. Butcher is by far one of the best writers in urban fantasy. I hope that he can put this embarrassment behind him and move on.

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