Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Harry Dresden is back, baby!
Seriously, I’m going to drop major spoilers about halfway through this review. I’m not kidding around here.
After dying (or nearly dying) and solving his own murder as a ghost, Harry has returned to find his body in the care of Mab. Harry has not escaped his obligations as her new Winter Knight, and so Cold Days opens with a montage of his physical therapy—Mab trying to kill him in creative ways—and a party at the Winter Court in his honour. Harry refers to this as his “first day in the prison yard” and, to continue the metaphor, he smacks down one of the biggest and baddest fae he can find to show that he means business.
Harry Dresden is most definitely back.
The Winter Knight is the Winter Queen’s hitman for mortal targets. But Mab’s first assignment for Harry is to kill the Winter Lady, Maeve, who is most certainly not a mortal. Not only does this make it difficult for Harry to carry out his assignment, but he has to wonder why Mab wants Maeve dead—and whether it is in his and humanity’s best interests to comply. Of course, the truth turns out to be a good deal more twisted and complex than it appears on the surface. As Harry leaves Faerieland and returns to Chicago to sort this out, Jim Butcher delivers us another fast-paced and fascinating story with stakes reminiscent of Small Favor and Changes.
Whereas Ghost Story forces Harry to confront how he has shaped other people’s lives, by seeing how his death and absence has affected them, Cold Days is about Harry confronting his new role as the Winter Knight. Suddenly, he is suspect, tainted by the touch of Winter. The mantle of Winter Knight changes its wearer, and numerous people warn Harry that he is going to turn into a sex-hungry, domineering, violent man who only exists to kill and fulfill Mab’s cruel designs. It’s just a matter of time, they say. Power corrupts. And Harry is scared, because he fears they’re right. He wants to resist, hopes he can resist, but with each passing hour he notices changes in himself—and others, like Murphy, notice it too. And Cold Days takes place on Halloween—barely a day and a half. How much will Harry have changed after a month? A year? Two years?
This has long been a problem for Harry, though. Throughout the Dresden Files, forces have tempted him and tried to corrupt him. Perhaps the most potent example is the shadow of Lasciel, Lash, that lived in his mind for several years, trying to persuade him to use Lasciel’s denarius. So far Harry has resisted all of these attempts, something he chalks up to a strength of will and a knowledge that there is always an alternative:
There’s always a choice…. That’s the thing, man. There’s always, always a choice. My options might really, truly suck. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a choice.
Much has been made of the fact that humans have souls and free will, while other creatures—like Mab and Maeve and their Summer counterparts—do not. As recently as Ghost Story, Uriel stepped in to remind Harry that whatever else Mab might try—blackmailing him, cajoling him, coercing him—she cannot change who he is, cannot affect that essential core that makes Harry himself. Only Harry can do that. What started as a series following Chicago’s only professional wizard has turned into a much more epic exploration of optimism and the power of free will. This is all the more important after what happens at the very end of Cold Days. The last 25 pages of this book are off the chain and are entirely the reason I’m giving this five stars instead of four.
This review has a spoiler warning for a reason, people.
Mab, answering Harry’s eleventh hour summons, shows up to the battle on Demonreach. We’ve learned that Demonreach is a maximum security prison, built by the original Merlin, for dangerous immortal creatures. And Maeve and Lily have been working to undermine that prison’s security and trigger its destructive failsafe. Lily thinks she’s working against a contagion caused by the Outsiders, one that infects people and co-opts them. But Maeve has already been infected, and Demonreach’s destruction will only further the Outsiders’ plans. At this point, Butcher has already significantly expanded our knowledge of the Outsiders and how the Fae relate to the eternal struggle against them.
And then Mab, through Murphy, kills Maeve. And Molly becomes the new Winter Lady. Oh. Em. Gee.
Up until that point, I had been enjoying Cold Days. As much as I liked Ghost Story, my principle complaint with it had been that its actual plot was quite lacklustre; the book itself was only good because of how it advanced the overall series arc. This book doesn’t suffer from that problem: it both advances the series arc and has its own compelling story to tell. But in those last 25 pages, and in turning Molly into the Winter Lady, this book achieved another whole level of epic awesomeness, because the ramifications of these developments are stunning.
Leaving aside the upheaval caused in the Winter and Summer Courts by Maeve and Lily’s deaths and the two new Ladies, let’s look at where this leaves Harry, Molly, and Murphy. Murphy has already expressed reluctance at getting involved with Harry because she will age but he—and Molly, as a fellow wizard—won’t. Harry is definitely attracted to Molly, but he doesn’t want to get involved with her. He feels that it would be a breach of trust, having known her since she was a child, despite Molly making it clear that such a change to their relationship would be OK with her—and that’s the other problem, because Molly is in love with him, but he doesn’t return the feeling.
Now Molly is the Winter Lady, making her kind of Harry’s boss. And as we saw with Lily earlier in the book, it’s only a matter of time before Molly turns into a Maeve-like clone, with all the same urges and predilections. Much like Harry, she is doomed by the mask she wears—or is she? Butcher has suddenly made the stakes so much more interesting, something the series needed. He can only spin out Harry dealing with the challenges of being the Winter Knight for so long. Adding Molly’s struggle to the mix adds a new dimension. On one hand, it might make Harry’s job slightly more bearable, at least in the short term. On the other hand, it further amplifies the conflict between fate and free will and adds a new urgency to the ongoing theme of how one’s masks and roles change one.
Masks and identity, much like the motif of free will, have always been huge in this series. Identifying things, naming things, has been half the battle in many cases. From true names that bind to the human-like forms adopted by gods and Dragons alike, the Dresdenverse takes nomenclature and identity very seriously. And this is another area in which humans differ so much from supernatural creatures. Humans change. Fae, demons, vampires, etc., do not. Oh, their forms and functions might change, as Kringle remarks to Harry at the opening of this book, as the stories about those creatures change. But Butcher takes the trouble of reminding us, time and again, that for immortals the flow of time has much less meaning. This is a result of their own stasis. Harry and his mortal friends have changed so much over the course of this series, whereas the immortals have remained relatively the same. It’s this distinction, in addition to that pesky free will, that makes humans so interesting and disruptive to immortals’ designs. Humans might not be the most powerful players, but they are the least predictable and the most mutable with time.
At the beginning of this series, Harry Dresden was just a private investigator who happened to be a wizard. He saved Chicago, even the world a few times. That got him noticed, and gradually he began tangling with bigger foes and messier conundrums. He has had the Sword of Damocles over his head, been chased by Wardens of the White Council, been a Warden himself, and become the guardian of a semi-sentient island. Eventually he became the one who was feared, the big, badass Harry Dresden—though, for some reason, the bad guys continued to underestimate him. Now he’s the Winter Knight, the Winter Faerie Court’s mortal hitman, and his onetime apprentice has become the Winter Lady. They are on the forefront of a war against the Outsiders, who will stop at nothing to undermine reality itself.
Cold Days marks yet another turning point in this series. The previous five books, beginning with White Night, have had Harry move from stumbling around in the big leagues to become a player in his own right. He is facing the consequences now, but more importantly, he is beginning to move from the big leagues to the bigger leagues, as he learns more about the purpose of the Fae and his own role to play in larger things to come. I’m quite looking forward to the next books—in particular, as much as I enjoyed this one, it was extremely Harry-centric, without much time devoted to the secondary characters. But I am looking forward to the next book, because Butcher just keeps delivering fantastic new twists and developments that advance the story and keep things fresh. After fourteen books, that’s saying a lot about a series, and it’s one reason I love the Dresden Files so much.