Review of Changes by Jim Butcher
by Jim Butcher
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
The title of this book, breaking as it does Jim Butcher's pattern of two words of equal length for each previous title in the Dresden Files, says it all. There are definitely changes; as such, the spoiler warning here is not to be taken lightly.
If you haven't read the book and at all plan to read it, turn back now.
So it's just me, the people who have read it, and the people who won't read it (apathetic people and haters alike), yes? Well come closer, and I shall tell you a tale of one man against a universe that, while humourless, has a fitting sense of irony. Come closer, and I will tell you how the blackest, bleakest, bitterest moments of life reveal the best—and the worst—of humanity.
Butcher alters the Dresdenverse in a legion of ways with Changes; I won't waste time enumerating them here—after all, if you care, you've already read the book, yes? Besides, we'll come to them in due time as we discuss what they mean for Harry and those closest to him.
For the past few reviews, I've riffed a lot on the sweeping themes I see beneath the arc of the Dresden Files. Part of that is pragmatic; re-reading the first eleven books in quick succession depletes the number of ways I know how to say, "Good story! Great characters! Go Harry!" But I do feel that the Dresden Files is more than just formula urban fantasy/mystery. More than delivering a plot, Butcher tells a story, which means there's a theme to accompany it.
Reading the dismissive reviews of Changes, I'm seeing a lot of disappointment over the changes. Complaints that they feel random and unexpected, that the characters are inconsistent, that there are never any big consequences to Harry's mistakes . . . and I can't help but feel like they've missed something. I think all fans feel that way about reviewers who dislike a book. Yet I didn't see the changes in Changes as all that surprising. Almost everything here has been foreshadowed, to some degree or another, much of it for a very long time.
Take one of the major changes, Harry becoming the Winter Knight. (I warned you not to continue reading if you haven't read the book! This is what you get!) Mab has been cackling in that chilly eldritch way ever since the position opened back in book four. Every time she extended her offer to Harry, he would refuse. She would say, "One day," and he would reply, "Not today." And there was a reason for that exchange.
Mab, chilly eldrbitch that she is, knew this day would come. She's untold millennia old and has far more experience dealing with mortals than Harry has dealing with faerie queens. She can afford to be patient; in the end, she was right. All it took was the proper motivation to have Harry seek out a deal.
So, while I can't say I was happy that Harry chose to become the Winter Knight, I am not surprised. Likewise, I'm not surprised at Susan's return—and while Harry's child might have been a surprise until I read the dust jacket, it's a sensible development in the series.
One of the best ways to escalate conflict is to make it more personal; you can't get much more personal than a child in danger. That's called cranking the conflict up to eleven, and it will have serious consequences. When a child's life—your child's life—is on the line, the gloves come off, and rules get broken.
In my review of Small Favor, I compared Harry Dresden to John Crichton, from Farscape. I'm going to do that again, because the parallels are really striking in Changes. Like Crichton in The Peacekeeper Wars, Harry finds himself in an utterly FUBAR situation. With chaos just a couple steps away, Harry is fighting for the life of his child, and he realizes that everything he's done before, everything he can do alone, is not enough, won't be enough.
Consider this exchange from The Peacekeeper Wars:
Aeryn: This is what you want. This is what you want. Crichton: No, Aeryn, it is not what I want. It's just that fate keeps blocking all the exits. And no matter what I do I just keep circling closer to the flame. Aeryn: Then pull back. This war is not your responsibility. Crichton: You and the baby are my responsibility. How am I supposed to protect you from the Peacekeepers and the Scarrans and the Tregans and the lions and tigers and bears? With this? Winona? This gun? No gun is big enough.
Like Crichton, Harry realizes that he has to do more than beat the bad guys this time, and it will take more than one rag-tag wizard and his band of merry men (and women!) to do it. So he makes the classical tragic choice of the hero, sacrifices his purity to save someone he loves. And even though the genre is urban fantasy and the plot is often more like a hardboiled mystery than an epic quest, Changes feels more like epic fantasy because of this tragic, Shakespearean element. Butcher has not consistently impressed me with his writing style, but I remain impressed by his writing ability.
Despite my regard for Changes' theme and consequences for the Dresdenverse, I can't call it an excellent Dresden Files novel. The last portion of the book, including the climactic battle, was amazing. However, the first part was unfocused, messier than the tight plots enforced by the more mystery-oriented books earlier in the series. And this is where the critics do get it right: Harry is literally all over the place, and the one-two action-sequence-then-dialogue-scene formula doesn't hold up under the stress of constant new threats coming out of the woodwork.
For example, at one point Harry is on the run from the Eebs, a crazy Red Court vampire husband-wife hit team. He stumbles into the stronghold of the Erlking, lord of the goblins and leader of the Wild Hunt. If you recall, Harry got on the Erlking's bad side in Dead Beat. The subsequent dialogue was entertaining, but it was followed by a rather dull battle sequence that didn't seem necessary.
While Thomas is involved in the story, we don't see much development in his relationship with Harry after the events in Turn Coat. Aside from the resolution to Harry's relationship with Susan, about the only thing we do see is Harry finally making a move on Murphy. About time! As I'm firmly Team Murphy, I was happy with this turn of events—and should have known what would happen on the next page. Just when I thought Butcher had delivered every twist he had prepared, he slapped down the ultimate change.
Harry Dresden is dead, but the Dresden Files are not over, and this isn't the last we've seen of Chicago's only professional wizard. Changes is not perfect, but for its tapestry of human behaviour, it is emblematic of why I so adore the Dresden Files.