Ghost Story — Transparent, Dull

When we last left Harry Dresden, he was dead.

Really.

That’s a hell of a way to start a book.

Needless to say, Jim Butcher’s latest Dresden offering, Ghost Story (Dresden Files, No. 13) vastly differs from any previous Dresden novel. Limited in his form as a ghost, Harry Dresden is sent back to Chicago to save friends from certain doom. He cannot interact with the living very well, so he heads for the only person who could possibly help him — one-time antagonist Mortimer Lindquist, world class ectomancer (which, for those of you unfortunate enough to miss Ghost Busters as a kid, means that he sees dead people).

Unfortunately, Harry is soon informed that he has been dead for six months and much has changed. After his (spoiler alert!) destruction of the Red Court, a vast power vacuum has emerged and there is a struggle in the underworld to control what was once controlled by the Red King. Old creatures have crawled up from the depths and begun to take over, leaving humanity at the perilous brink of destruction.

Harry convinces Mort, after helping him fight off a powerful surprise attack at Mort’s house, to visit Karrin Murphy and convince her that Harry is back (sorta). Mort reluctantly agrees and off they go.

At this point in the novel I started to get bored. I like a quest as much as anybody, but when all that seemed to be happening through the first half of the book is Harry wandering around convincing people it was really his ghost, I grew tired quickly. Anxious for something to happen to drive the story forward. And the pacing of the book drags in the middle, which left me wondering if the novel was ever going to start. Considering how insane Changes: A Novel of the Dresden Files was, I expected Ghost Story to be a tad vanilla in comparison. This, though, is vanilla strained through a mesh filter then bleached just to be certain.

Then mixed with starch.

After a (needless, in my opinion) side quest (damn it, I’m starting to sound like I’m plotting a D&D game) helping some kid who just murdered someone (never claimed that Harry has a real sense of responsibility, something even the author points out throughout the book) escape from an abusive wizard (which you knew was going to piss Harry off, given his background), the story finally begins to pick up steam as Harry realizes that this strange new enemy who is after Mort is none other than an old nemesis he killed long ago and is back in ghost form as well. He has to stop this old enemy from accomplishing what she started off doing a long time ago (hint: remember Sue?).

Now…

…damn it, I hated this novel.

I’ve never hated a Jim Butcher book before. I’ve been displeased with what he puts some of his characters through, or some of the things they do in response to others’ actions. But I’ve never looked at a Butcher book (especially a Dresden novel) and ask “I spent how much on this?” The story pacing was brutally slow, so bad that I was beginning to think that I hadn’t expected the Spanish Inquisition this time. I felt that I was being tortured as I delved through the pages, wondering when the hell the story was going to start.

Harry, as a ghost who must think his way through many of his problems (no more blowing them up), seems to have an easier time thinking now that he’s been deprived of his magic. This is slightly out of character for him, though he has shown no small amounts of cunning in the past.

It paints a slow picture of Dresden as being a beast when you see his former apprentice, Molly, struggling to fight against the crushing weight of the enemy and you realize that Dresden did not think his grand scheme through (as I said, cunning doesn’t always translate to intelligent). Molly, after Dresden dies, is left to the ever loving mercies of Lea, the fey godmother to Harry Dresden (and world class bitch), she of the Winter Court. Murphy, who had been in denial about his death (they never found his body, which totally pissed me off, which I will explain later), is crushed to discover that the man she looked up to, admired, and possibly had feelings for was well and truly dead (well, sorta). His friends, who have been struggling to protect Chicago since his death, are frayed to the edges of sanity and yet the enemy still keeps coming.

Now, Butcher does play on the emotional strings a bit at the end, when Harry gets to see that all his friends are okay. This scene in particular actually affected me more than anything else in the book. But then…

…Butcher deux ex machinas the damned book!!

Seriously.

There had to have been a better way to pull off the ending of this book, yet Butcher went and did the worst thing possible. It annoyed me to no end (I actually typed “annoyed me to know end”, which goes to show just how annoyed I truly was) that Butcher did this to the end. A lot of people are going to be pissed at me for saying so, but doing to Harry what Butcher did was beyond crappy (though it does extend the series a bit longer).

Still…

It’s written, nothing we can do about it now except hope that the author doesn’t go off and rewrite his own rules to his universe.

Borrow it. If you buy it, you’re going to be mad at yourself for ripping out the pages and throwing the book against the wall afterwards.

–reviewed by Jason

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  1. #1 by Chris on September 7, 2011 - 2:06 pm

    Just finished Ghost Story yesterday.

    I didn’t hate it, but after ‘Changes’ and the teaser in ‘Side Jobs’ I was let down. So much potential seemed to be wasted on telling a filler story.

    From the get-go, I wanted to know who killed Harry, and the payoff was disappointing at best. Sure, I could see Harry doing it the way described, and it fit with the theme of unintended consequences to Harry’s actions throughout the series, but…meh.

    *SPOILER ALERT*

    Yes, Mab is a clever and tricky one, and it follows that she would not be fooled by Harry’s plan. However, using her as the big reveal at the end was just anti-climactic. News flash Mr. Butcher- the story is in first person. We know Harry lives. We know there are at least several (last projected count was 23 total in the series per Butcher) The underlying question of ‘is Harry’s shade really Harry’ is pretty much moot. I would have been more surprised if the answer had been yes. Give the readers some credit. Scene with Mab should have been front and center, even if it wasn’t crystal clear who it was or whether or not it was real or imagined. And, oh by the way, hints dropped by the silent one and Lea suggest that even with all of Harry’s careful planning, word was out who did what.

    Points for clever twist: the Deus Ex didn’t involve the angel Uriel, as would have been expected up until that point. Clap. Clap. Still unimpressed as a whole.

    This book felt like the “gritty reboot” so many movie series have gotten lately. Spider man, anyone?

    Harry’s many pop culture references fell flat this time out. I have no problem with using lines, throwing nods towards movies etc. however, if felt forced, like the author just ran out of witty dialogue and threw in something to fill. New flash number two: *BAMF* would have worked with the audience as is, no need to explain the source. You are most likely NOT bringing in new readers at book 13, those of us who have been here the whole time read what you read, watch what you watch and get the same jokes you do. It is why I like the character, he felt familiar to me as a sci-fi/comic/movie fan.

    I liked seeing Molly grow as a character, taking on Harry’s responsibilities at the cost of personal sacrifice says a lot for her. However, I feel a sense of foreboding that she will be used as a villain in upcoming novels, giving Harry an enemy that would cause him emotional trauma and self-doubt, even though with Ghost Story she has proven to be on the right side of the equation. It would be as if Han turned up and shot Luke’s ship instead of Vader’s.

    On enemies: recycling one that had been put to rest when there are so many more to choose from was annoying. Just when I get to the part where Big Bad reveals themselves, I find not something new (Formor), not something hinted at in the past (black council), but….

    CorpseTaker.

    Really?

    The zombie dinosaur wasn’t good enough? ‘Cause I thought it was really cool. We had to go with…wraiths?

    Sigh.

    Okay. Whatever.

    And Harry fell right into its trap. Yup. Again. Had planned it all along. Of course.

    Finally, some predictions for future books:

    Red Court has an uprising, due to the hint that there may still be younger members that survived ‘Changes’

    Molly becomes evil Molly, possibly seduced by the Black Council

    Maggie is captured or becomes member of Black Council, since now that Harry knows where she is, it will slip up somewhere along the line. (This is an irritating issue as well, Harry specifically told McCoy to hide her, and McCoy had no way of knowing that Harry would be shot. Nor did the Carpenters, for that matter, and Hey! isn’t Molly a Carpenter AND Harry’s freaking apprentice? How the F**K did McCoy think that her location would remain a secret?! Harry himself just went through a whole experience where MEMORIES ARE USED AS POWER! No matter where he ended up, that information could be used against her.)

    I take it back. Now I’m mad at the book.

    Chris

    • #2 by Barb Caffrey on September 7, 2011 - 5:38 pm

      Chris, I agree with you that when a series book disappoints, it tends to disappoint in a big way. I’ve had this happen with other books — the ninth amd tenth books in Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series bothered me, and one of ’em moved only one day forward — tying up a bunch of loose ends in previous novels (I think this was the 10th book). Just one! (I can’t recall when I’ve ever been so disappointed in a series book.)

      Anyway, as for this book . . . I’ve read several of Butcher’s novels in the Harry Dresden series and liked them. I’ve liked most of his allied short stories (in other anthologies, and in Jason’s reviewed “Side Jobs,” too). But it sounds like this particular novel did something very similar to what Jordan did in his ninth (or possibly tenth) book, where really we’re kind of noodling around with all sorts of subplots that don’t advance the main story one jot. It is annoying for a reader to have something like this because you’ve been led to expect a great deal more, and when an author doesn’t supply it and just noodles around — well, what can you do except throw the book across the room?

      Thanks very much for your comment, btw; I know I’m not Jason, but I always appreciate good dialogue.

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