You should read my review of Peace Talks before you read this review. Also, I don’t know how to talk about this book without spoilers. So if you want a spoiler-free review: Battle Ground is a flawed attempt to give fans of the Dresden Files the climax Butcher thinks they want, but it falls short. There are definitely crowning moments of awesome, low moments, and the thoughtful moments we have come to expect.
Spoilers from hereon out. Seriously, you have been warned.
Battle Ground picks up quite literally where Peace Talks ended. This is kind of what happens when you split a book in twain because it has grown too large. Harry Dresden and his reluctant allies are facing off against Ethniu, the Last Titan, and an army of Fomor intent on destroying and conquering Chicago. We are told over and over that this is it, this is the biggest, baddest apocalypse to come since Storm Front. And, to be fair, it definitely is.
People are comparing this to Avengers: Endgame because of its huge battle against a single, uber-powerful opponent and the assembly of so many characters from previous books. I get it. There is definitely a Marvel vibe here—but I haven’t seen Endgame, so instead let’s talk about Deadpool. Because Harry definitely has that kind of sarcastic, fourth-wall-breaking attitude that Ryan Reynolds brought so well to the screen. I’ve always enjoyed Harry’s snark, of course, along with his introspection into whether or not he has become a monster. But here’s the problem with trying to keep it going in the midst of a novel that is 100% battle.
It gets old.
Harry spends the book literally racing from one confrontation to the next. Each confrontation is supposedly bigger or badder than the last. Yet you can only say, “This was like nothing I had ever seen before!” so many times before it starts to wear thin. Butcher attempts to keep raising the stakes, but it feels like a sliding scale: suddenly the baddies from the first confrontation are easily being slaughtered by volunteers with shotguns, because the next set of baddies is even more powerful and more invulnerable. All the while, there is no sense of momentum to the plot, because we know what the climax has to be: Harry squaring off with Ethniu, trying to bind her. The rest of the book is literally filler until Butcher can bring us to that moment.
I’m not saying nothing important happens. But I’m not happy about the important happenings.
First, can we talk about how an entire book passes without nary a mention of Thomas? He was such a big part of Peace Talks! And sure, Harry has a lot on his mind tonight as he tries to save Chicago. But Butcher could at least have thrown us a bone—there is a coda called “Christmas Eve” that is supposed to be charming and heartwarming, but all I can think is, “It’s already Christmas and you haven’t saved Thomas yet???” He doesn’t even rate a mention then.
Huge spoiler coming up soon, by the way. If you thought I was exaggerating earlier about spoilers, you are wrong and should stop reading now.
Second, Harry’s excommunication from the White Council makes sense, and I am on board for that. However, I don’t understand the hostility from people like Ebenezar. Here’s what I mean: Ebenezar presumably knows Harry’s secret path, the whole starborn chosen one bullshit that I really wish weren’t in the background of this series. He and others, including Harry’s faerie godmother, have manipulated and shaped Harry’s life from birth onwards. Now he has the gall to turn around and chastise Harry for seeking power, chastise Harry for getting into bed with the fae, chastise Harry for his choices? You set Harry up for this, my dude. I mean, I guess Butcher is trying to support Harry’s contention that most wizards are hypocritical asshats who wouldn’t know an apology if one dropped on them from the sky. But it’s one thing for Ebenezar to support a political censure of Harry and quite another for him to be so incredibly rude to his grandson like that.
Third, of course, is the unfair, unjust, terrible death of Karrin Murphy.
(I warned you about spoilers.)
Karrin Murphy dies because Randolph’s poor trigger discipline means his gun accidentally goes off and shoots her. Yeah. Murph dies from a stray bullet. The book seems embarrassed by this, because later it attempts the shittiest, laziest retcon within a book I’ve ever seen and tries to reframe her death as an honourable on that happened after slaying a Jotun. Seriousy, I felt gaslit and actually had to flip back and re-traumatize myself with her death a second time to confirm how it actually goes down. So, no, Murphy does not sacrifice herself to die a hero’s death. Even if she did, I couldn’t get behind this because one of the axioms of the Dresden Files is that Karrin Murphy does not die. She is our badass normal. She is Harry’s anchor to the mortal world that he is increasingly being pulled away from.
One could argue, based on that point, that Murphy must die, that it’s thematically necessary in order to deepen Harry’s separation from mortality. After all, they just almost hooked up in Peace Talks; we can’t have Harry ever being happy, can we? Gotta kill the woman then! Look, others have written extensively at the misogyny within this series, so I won’t rehash all that. But the women of this series do not get treated well, Murphy no exception, and insisting her death is a necessary plot device is an extension of that misogynistic dehumanization.
(Let’s not even mention that, after spending most of Peace Talks disabled as a result of the events of Skin Game, Murphy magically gets a boost that lets her fight tonight thanks to some handwavery from Butcher so she doesn’t have to sit this out and, you know, survive.)
It would be hyperbolic to say that Murphy was the only good thing left in his series—Mouse and Maggie are pretty sweet. Nevertheless, whatever my qualms or reservations about certain developments in this series, Murphy was always there as a touchstone. Solid Murphy. Mortal Murphy. Love interest Murphy.
Now she is gone and Butcher better fucking not cheapen that by bringing her back but you know he’s going to and oh my god am I hate-reading this series now?
I think I might be hate-reading this series now.
For a long time, I have praised the Dresden Files for the way it has gradually built out its mythos over these 17 books and some short stories. That is an achievement for which I am happy to praise Butcher. Where did it go wrong? I don’t think I can point to a specific book. Almost certainly things were going awry by Proven Guilty, what with Harry’s creepy relationship to Molly. But rather than lay the blame at any particular book’s doorstep, I’d rather critique the general storytelling decisions Butcher has made throughout the series. After 20 years, he has matured and improved as a writer, but he has also wrapped himself up in an incredibly complex continuity and demonstrated a devotion to the idea of “epicness.” This has always been at odds with the urban fantasy genre, particularly those books wherein the majority of the mortal world is unaware of the supernatural. Perhaps that tension, then, between the series’ epicness and its urban fantasy roots, has been one of the reasons it is so successful. On the other hand, this obsession with epicness is unhealthy. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to tell epic stories, there is also nothing wrong with searching for small stories that matter as well.
I think that’s why Skin Game worked so well for me. Although the scale of its setting was epic, at its core it was a return to the original Dresden Files format of small plot, big ideas: Harry was pulling off a heist. That’s cool. Harry defending Chicago from a Titan alongside most of the supernatural world? That’s epic, but it isn’t as interesting, because we’ve lost the intimacy of the plot along the way.
Battle Ground did what Peace Talks couldn’t, I guess … it has quashed what love I had for this series. Don’t get me wrong … I still appreciate and adore this series. I’m going to keep its books on my shelves, and if someone asks, I will recommend it (with caveats). But we have outgrown Dresden Files. There are newer series, newer authors, that strive for far more creative, original, breathtaking acts of storytelling. I don’t fault this series for being what it is, but like many book series I started reading as a child or a teen, I have grown and changed while it has largely remained the same. When that happens, you know it’s time to move on.