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Hugos Reviews 2015: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

I’ve signed myself up to vote on the Hugos for the first time this year. If you’re someone who follows nerd news, you’ll likely already know that a lot of people are signing up for the first time because of nerd-politics (if you want a good summary of what’s going on, I’d recommend Kameron Hurley’s Atlantic article here; for a very nuanced and lengthy analysis, check out GRRM’s extended series of posts, starting with this one). I’m not going to discuss the controversy in any depth here; you can probably guess my views from the angle I’ve chosen to present in my linked articles and from other things I’ve posted on this site. What I am going to do — stated now in the presence of witnesses — is read and review here all of this year’s nominees for Best Novel (and possibly some other nominated works, stay tuned).

And so: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. Book 15 in his series The Dresden Files. My one-sentence review would boil down to something like “I enjoyed reading this book; I admire the craft and research that went into writing it; if it were to win the award, I wouldn’t feel like that win was undeserved; but it’s not really my style, and I don’t think I’ll be voting for it.”

Like most people, I’ve heard the buzz around this series for a long time; I have several friends who are members of the Butcher fan club, and who rave about the Dresden books as the most compulsively readable stuff they’ve encountered in a long time. So I read the first one, Storm Front, a few years back, and was mostly unmoved. And though all the reviews I’ve read say that the series picks up speed in about Book 3 or 4, I wasn’t really interested in following Harry Dresden on his further adventures. I don’t typically get drawn into detective stories, or urban fantasy, or books whose proportions favor action scenes over other stuff (the main reason I also haven’t had much success picking up Butcher’s Codex Alera series), and I generally prefer tightly serialized series like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire to more standalone ones like Pratchett’s Discworld. Although Dresden Files clearly has an overarching plot, this book also had a tightly self-contained story arc.

All that said, if you are a fan of any of the things I list in that last sentence above and you haven’t tried out Dresden Files yet, I’d recommend you drop what you’re doing and give it a shot.

For those even less familiar with the series than I am, I’ll note that it follows the ongoing adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard living in contemporary Chicago. In the first book, Butcher’s basically giving us private-eye-with-a-supernatural-twist (kind of like where Angel started), but by Book 15, things have gotten considerably more complicated. Dresden’s amassed a whole collection of complex powers, debts and social connections, and there’s no more simple private eye work.

The management of those complexities was one of the things that impressed me most about this book. While I certainly felt my ignorance of the previous books and the past relationships between characters as I read, I wasn’t crippled by it. Butcher did a good job of giving us enough information about each character that I could remember who they were and what their relationship to Dresden was. Trying to imagine someone having a similar experience if they picked up GRRM’s A Storm of Swords without having read the previous books hurts my brain.

In addition to handling the intricacies of a long series, Butcher did a good job with the self-contained plot of this book, too. Basically, because of the web of obligations Dresden’s woven for himself, he’s pulled into a Grand Heist that forces him to temporarily ally himself with a handful of sometime-adversaries who he’s not at all sure he can trust to watch his back. The action sequences are a little more tightly packed together than I usually seek out in my fiction, particularly as things heat up in the second half of the book, but each one is appropriately suspenseful and very well-described. Butcher’s bio in the back of the book describes him as “[a] martial arts enthusiast whose resume includes a long list of skills rendered obsolete at least two hundred years ago,” and his familiarity with the combat side of things definitely shows.

I also enjoyed what seems to be a fairly comprehensive use of magical sources in Butcher’s worldbuilding. The magical forces in Dresden’s world include, among others, Judeo-Christian archangels, medieval European fairies, demons connected to the 40 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Christ, Tibetan temple guardians, and the Greek gods. While this certainly doesn’t cover every culture’s magical or mystical elements, I liked the fact that these different systems coexist in the same setting; this aspect of the story reminded me a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods.

In terms of plotting, I liked the fact that the stakes were different from what you might expect for a story that reminded me, in places, of a well-crafted D&D dungeon crawl. Dresden isn’t in this for the money; he’s worried about his family and friends. And as he gains more power and more associated obligations, he’s worried about what’s happening to him in exchange. I like angsty characters, so I appreciated the angst that surfaced from time to time in this one. Butcher also pulls off a few very well-played plot twists, one of which had me paging back through the book to look for examples of “that thing that I’ve been doing all along that you probably didn’t notice.”

There wasn’t anything specific about this book that I didn’t like. Other critical reviewers (3 distinct links) have argued that Butcher’s writing is objectifying to women; I didn’t really feel that here (although I will admit that Dresden does seem to have at least the potential of a romantic relationship with almost every unattached woman he shares a scene with). I might have liked a little more time spent on low-key interactions between characters, but that’s a style/preference thing rather than a criticism. Taken for what it is — a pulpy romp through a fantasy Ocean’s 11 — I’d call this a very fun little book. And if you like this kind of stuff more than I do, by all means, go pick up a few of these and read. I’m told you won’t be disappointed.