The newest Harry Dresden novel COLD DAYS does what the predecessor Ghost Story failed to do: work as a series book and a standalone.
The story: Newly drafted as the Winter Knight of Mab, Faerie’s Winter Queen, Harry gets his first mission: Take out Mab’s daughter Maeve. Killing an immortal is, of course, a challenge even for Harry, but he learns that the next night is Halloween, when immortals enter the mortal world and become killable.
So Harry re-enters the mortal world himself, reuniting with his friends and trying to figure out how, exactly to whack Maeve. Plus as usual, problems multiply. Maeve insists her mother’s gone mad. And someone’s plotting a break out from a supernatural prison that will as a side-effect level most of Chicago.
What I Learned: If you’re going to have a story arc for a series, books have to work as both arc installment and standalone (I get into that at the link to Ghost Story). This one works fine in its own right: Harry has a challenge and he accomplishes it (Maeve turns out to be behind the planned breakout. She loses). It has the added touch that things have changed enough during Harry’s supposed death that it has a modestly different feel (nothing radical, but enough to entertain me).
But it also advances the series: We learn that creatures from Outside are plotting to destroy everything and that “Nemesis”—someone working with or for them—is behind most of Harry’s long-running problems (such as the Black Council operating inside the council of wizards). That’s not a wildly original goal (or name) but it is more than we’ve had before (the Black Council was always presented as the big bad, not the puppets).
What else I learned: Romantic tension is much overrated. Harry and Murphy have been friends since the start of the book and flirting for the past three or four (and Harry’s apprentice, Molly, has an interest in him too). And that’s as far as it goes (Dresden writes good romances in his Codex Alera series, but not so well in The Dresden Files).
One of the truisms that gets tossed around about sexual tension (interpreting that very loosely) is that writers should prolong it as long as possible. Superman and Lois and Clark should forever be a triangle rather than a relationship (some writers were pushing against the Superman/Lois marriage long before it got rebooted). If male and female characters of TV show X get together, it will kill viewers’ interest. While it’s true a fixed relationship cuts off certain story options (Peter Parker obviously has more flexibility in his romance plots now that he’s single again), after a certain point I just think it’s ridiculous. Sure, it works in romance novels, but romance novels end, usually happily. All Butcher does is acknowledge the sexual tension and let it sit there, kind of like cold suet pudding.
Yet another thing I learned: Even though I’m a comics fan, Harry’s geek references feel overdone (I honestly don’t remember him being such a comics fan, but of course it’s years since I read the first book). Strangely enough even though I’m not a sports fan, I wonder why more fictional characters don’t make sports references—after all, probably more people in the real world do.
On the plus side, Butcher does an excellent job of keeping the tension up, and building the obstacles up to a nail-biting finish. And he’s done it consistently. We start off with the initial Kill Maeve mission. Then throw in complications (Maeve’s lies, attacks by faerie assassins). Then Harry learns of the potential destruction of Chicago. He has a hazardous encounter with a powerful entity that really doesn’t want to talk to him, and learns just what’s at stake. And finally we come to the big finish as an overwhelming faerie/outside force attacks the prison against Harry’s much smaller troops. At some point I think I’ll reread this and note how Harry manages to survive all this—after all, threatening the hero is simple, having him win can be much tougher.