How does a writer keep his urban fantasy/detective series going after killing off his protagonist? Jim Butcher deals with this dilemma in interesting ways in “Ghost Story”, the 13th novel in his popular Dresden Files series.
Harry Dresden, the only wizard listed in the Chicago phone book, is both an experienced monster hunter and a private detective. His first-person narration in the books and short stories chronicling some of his adventures is an endearing mix of Philip Marlowe and nerdy child of the 1980s. He will go from explaining some of the quirky ways that magic works in his universe to talking about how he plays Dungeons and Dragons with a group of friendly werewolves, or use Spider-Man references to help explain why he can’t cave in to a local crime lord’s latest demands.
There were several ways Butcher could have gone with The Dresden Files after his eponymous hero was killed by an assassin’s bullet at the end of “Changes.” Harry’s supporting cast could probably carry a book without him. Ex-cop Karrin Murphy, wizard in training Molly Carpenter or even his coroner friend Butters could have become the new lead character at least for one book. But a new Dresden Files story wouldn’t seem right without Harry and his distinctive narration. So, it makes sense that he is trapped in the mortal world as a ghost at least long enough for one more case.
At the beginning of “Ghost Story,” Harry is sent back to Chicago to do what he can to protect his friends from an evil sorcerer. He also wants to investigate his own murder if he has the time. Unfortunately, he finds out the hard way that magic works differently when a wizard doesn’t have a body any more and his interactions with his friends and allies are limited in frustrating ways.
Harry can’t take his usual magical shortcuts to track down the bad guys and he can’t do traditional detective work either. Most people can’t see or hear him, so he has to rely on a few people he can communicate with somehow. This forces him to depend more than he wants to on his psychotic fairy godmother and a ghost specialist who doesn’t like him.
“Changes” completely disrupted the status quo that Butcher had established for Harry over the course of 11 previous novels in just about every way that seemed possible. In “Ghost Story”, Butcher twists the knife a little more as he completely reinvents two of Harry’s supporting characters and reveals that many significant things have happened since the last book.
Long-time ally and potential love interest Karrin Murphy is doing what she can to protect Chicago from supernatural threats as the leader of a vigilante task force made up of practically everybody that Harry was still on speaking terms with before he died. For long-time fans, this is probably both really fun and quite upsetting at the same time considering some of the things Harry learns about Murphy and his other friends.
Things get worse when Harry finds out that his apprentice Molly is now homeless, possibly crazy and probably murdering local crooks as she wages a one-woman war on crime. It’s a great premise that begs for a spin off, but at the same time it feels almost like a betrayal to see what Butcher does to Harry’s lovable kid sidekick in this book.
As Harry learns more about what being a ghost is like and makes new undead friends, Butcher does some really cool things that build on the established rules and continuity of the series in ways that will probably make people say out loud, “Why didn’t I think of that?” He also has Harry remember things about his youth that should answer a lot of questions attentive fans have been asking for years as part of the process of figuring out why memories are so important to ghosts.
Those parts of the book are a joy to read. They are completely different from a typical Dresden Files adventure, which may appeal both to people who were getting a little tired of Butcher’s standard formula and to people who didn’t like previous books in the series. But at the same time, there is enough respect for what came before for the story to seem like a logical continuation of ongoing subplots from earlier books. So, people who would have been happy with more books like the ones before “Changes” can still enjoy the story even though Butcher is stretching out of his comfort zone in unexpected ways.
Thankfully, Harry resolves the two conflicts driving the story in satisfying ways. But the ending may have some long-time fans wondering why Butcher is so determined to keep from pushing the reset button and having things go back to how they used to be before “Changes.” A revelation at the end of the story promises that more great things are in store for the series, but die-hard fans may find themselves feeling upset with the author anyway.
Casual readers will have a lot of fun with “Ghost Story.” Hardcore Butcher fans will need to take a few deep breaths and remind themselves that change is good.
“Ghost Story” is available in the Spokane area from local retailers such as Auntie’s Bookstore, the Spokane County Library District and the Spokane Public Library. For people who haven’t read any of the Dresden Files books yet, this might not be the best place to start. But it’s still entertaining enough to encourage people to pick up at least a few of the other installments in the series.