Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Can we take a moment to bask in how far the Dresden Files, as a series, has come? From its humble beginnings in Storm Front, this urban fantasy series about a Chicago wizard/private detective has become my golden standard for urban fantasy. Over the course of 13 books, the Dresdenverse has expanded from wizards and sorcerers to an epic mythology comprising monsters and magical beings of all kinds—and its characters, plots, and themes have all kept pace with that growth. It's safe to say that this is one of my favourite series I've ever read, that I'm a fanboy, if you will. On my bookshelves, my Dresden Files books abruptly shift from paperback to hardcover at White Knight as I caught up to the series' publication. Beginning with its previous instalment, Proven Guilty, and ending its sequel, Small Favor, this marked what I consider the highest point, so far, of the series. Don't get me wrong: the subsequent volumes have been excellent, just not quite as good as those three books. Ghost Story has not changed my mind on this count. Nevertheless, it is a marked turning point for the Dresden Files.
My friend Aaron saw me reading this at lunch, and so of course I had to rave about the Dresden Files and, being the book pusher that I am, "suggest" that he borrow the first book from me. (I am a coercive suggester, no matter how good-natured my friends might be about it in front of me. I know they're just trying to placate me so I will not spam them with more book recommendations. Too late!) Anyway, I love introducing friends to new series and watching their reactions. Speaking from experience, having re-read all of these books last year prior to reading Changes, I know how powerful it is to see these characters and their universe grow with each subsequent book. It's an awesome and inspiring feeling, and I marvel at Butcher's ability to construct such intricate narratives that draw upon the richness of previous books.
Now that we've considered how far the series as a whole has come, can we stop for a moment to celebrate Karrin Murphy? Seriously, along with Molly, she's one of the best things about the Dresden Files (we'll get to Molly in due time, don't worry). And it didn't strike me until Ghost Story how drastically she has changed. In the first book, she was so suspicious and leery of Harry. She didn't quite see him as a con artist, like her partner Carmichael did, but she viewed him with that same mixture of distrust and disdain that cops often have for consultants (worse yet, psychic consultants). Murphy was a reluctant and sceptical member of Chicago PD's "Special Investigations" unit. Since then, Murphy and Harry's relationship has evolved to the point where they trust one another implicitly. They've saved each other's lives so many times, and Murphy has gone from doubting that magic even exists to actively understanding how certain aspects of magic work. As of Ghost Story, she has lost her job with the police and has been attempting to hold together the network of magic practitioners—the Paranet—that Harry helped to establish. And she is so close to breaking, because she has gone through so much in the past few years. Harry's death didn't help either.
My only regret with Butcher's portrayal of Murphy is that there wasn't enough of it. I don't mind that she was paranoid and suspicious of Harry's ghost—considering how often people have tried to use Harry's image to get to her, that's totally logical. More importantly, on the visceral level, she didn't want to believe that Harry's ghost was legitimately him, because she wanted to believe Harry was still alive out there, somewhere. She keeps repeating that they didn't find a body—no body, no proof that he's dead. But if Harry is a ghost, well that's pretty definitive. (Unless you are Queen Mab and a sentient island, in which case it is but a flesh wound.)
Harry is not wholly responsible for Murphy's current state, but he is a factor, and that's something he has to confront in Ghost Story. As with all ghosts, Harry has unfinished business—ostensibly he gets sent back to solve his own murder, but the substance of this book is how Harry confronts his aborted relationships with the people he left behind. Set six months after Changes, Harry's sudden absence has been felt in a big way:
"You don't know how many things just didn't come here before, because they were afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
She looked at me as if her heart was breaking. "Of you, Harry. You could find anything in this town, but you never even noticed the shadow you cast." Her eyes overflowed and she slashed at them angrily with one hand. "Every time you defied someone, every time you came out on top against things you couldn't possibly have beaten, your name grew. And they feared that name. There were other cities to prey on—cities that didn't have the mad wizard Dresden defending them. They feared you."
That's Molly, telling Harry why it's been so hard since he left. She has been going around trying to forge a new defender for Chicago, an alter ego dubbed "the Rag Lady". And it's tearing her apart, because as long as she does this, her psychological wounds from Chichen Itza will never be able to heal. But she feels a burden now that Harry is gone, like she's the only one capable to even attempting to stand in his place and defend the city.
We get to see more of Molly's internal turmoil and doubt later in the book. In fact, it's fairly central to the story. One of the most disturbing facts Harry must come to terms with his how he has failed Molly as her teacher. Butcher highlights this in several ways. The Leanansidhe, Harry's godmother, has taken over his duties as teacher, and her pedagogical approach reminds Harry of his former teacher, Justin du Morne. Both believe that pain is a necessary component for learning. Although I doubt Harry comes so far as to agree with them, by the end of Ghost Story he acknowledges that his behaviour toward Molly has been contradictory: he coddled and cared for her like the daughter of one of his best friends, yet he also used her when it seemed necessary, when her talents could help solve whatever problem he was currently facing. That pattern of behaviour culminated, of course, with the assault of Chichen Itza and the physical and emotional trauma Molly endured there. Harry spends much of the book contemplating whether he should have ordered Molly to stay out of that confrontation, but it's not until the end that he learns his worst offence is something he ordered Molly to make him forget.
There's a spoiler alert on this review for a reason, people.
Although I had my suspicions about the identity of who pulled the trigger, the ultimate person behind Harry's death eluded me right up until the big reveal. I'm sure there are plenty of people who find it unsatisfactory or even cheap, but I think it makes perfect sense. Harry arranged a hit on himself, because he knew that when he donned the mantle of the Winter Knight, there would be no going back. Ever. To me, this cements irrevocably the poignancy of his sacrifice for Maggie: he was out of options, and the only way to save his daughter was to sacrifice himself in a way from which there was no escape. Harry Dresden, master of twisting the arms of various magical creatures, had finally found his own personal kobayashi maru, his no-win scenario. So he tried to cheat.
And he failed. Epic fail, even. Mab brought him back, with some help from the not-so-friendly neighbour island of Demonreach, and he still has to serve her as Winter Knight. Fortunately he isn't so worried that she can twist him into a monster now, but Harry's brilliant plan to evade his duties as Winter Knight by dying did not succeed. Oh well.
Still, having Molly wipe his memory of this set-up was a cruel thing to do to his apprentice. The fact that she had the strength to comply with his request speaks volumes about Molly as a person. And I think it's a very interesting part of the relationship between Harry and Molly, because he trusted her enough with this important task—but at the same time, it's also an example of how human and how flawed Harry remains, despite his terrible legendary status as a monster killer. He is not a monster. But he is oh, oh so human—and one of the paradoxes of humanity, of having free will, is that we can embody both amazing good and horrible evil, and unlike the amoral creatures of Faerie or the Nevernever, we can recognize those dissonant aspects of ourselves and cringe, look away, even deny. We are complicated tangles and snares of emotions and desires and beliefs and actions, and with the moral dilemmas made explicit in Ghost Story, Butcher cuts cleanly through this Gordian knot in order to put that on display for all of us.
While reading Changes, I anticipated that Harry would try to void his deal with Mab to become the Winter Knight by dying and then being resuscitated. So I was somewhat prepared for his death, although its method and madness still made me start—I should have known that Butcher wouldn't be so mundane as to do it the way I had predicted. Similarly, I knew with Ghost Story that Harry would rejoin the world of the corporeal and living by the book's end; there was no question of it. I did not foresee that Mab's deal would still be in effect, and so Uriel's seven words meant as much to me as they did to Harry. The subsequent conversation between Harry and Mab was one of the best moments in the book. Harry stands up to Mab and tells the Faerie Queen of Winter how she will behave—but that's par for the course. What's intriguing is that Mab demonstrates how badly she wants Harry as her Winter Knight. She could have let him die and chosen someone else, but she wants (needs?) Harry Dresden, enough that she worked with a semi-sentient landmass to revive his body.
Speaking of Demonreach, I am so eager to learn more about that island. Ever since Harry got a brief glimpse of references to it in McCoy's journals, I've wanted to know more. It's obvious that there is more of a connection between Harry's past and Demonreach than Butcher has revealed. This is just one of the many tantalizing aspects of the series that continues to run parallel to each book's main plot.
If Harry and Mab's conversation is one of the best moments in the book, Harry's little whirlwind tour of his friends and family, courtesy of Uriel, is the most frustrating. Butcher uses Uriel as an unabashed source of exposition, and it is clunky. It made me cringe, and I wish he had found a better way to explore what had happened to Harry and why he came back to solve his murder. Furthermore, all those glimpses at the people important to Harry were more confusing than helpful. I did like learning that Maggie is in the more-than-capable hands of the Carpenters, but what was up with our look at the domestic life of Thomas and Justine? I have no idea what that was, and I'm just going to pretend it didn't happen until Butcher manages to explain it better….
Narrative issues aside though, Ghost Story is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a major turning point for Harry and for the series. This is the moment when Harry can no longer ignore who or what he is: he is not just some guy who solves magic-related mysteries; he is not just a member of the White Council or a Warden or a mentor. He is a major player in something much larger, something that has been in motion perhaps before he was born. There are forces we've only begun to glimpse that are manipulating Harry, as well as other entities. (I think the Black Council are either pawns or complicit lieutenants in a scheme related to the Outsiders/He Who Walks Behind.) In previous books, Harry has accepted that something sinister has been going down in the magical world and that he can have a role in fighting it—but now he has to confront how major a role that is, how crucial he is to the entire enterprise, for both his friends and his foes. Because as great as it is for Harry's allies that he is now back in action, let's remember who brought him back: Mab and Demonreach didn't do this for the sake of being nice.
I haven't talked too much about the specific plot of Ghost Story, about the reappearance of Corpsetaker as the antagonist or how Harry gains a better appreciation for Mort. To be honest, all that seemed secondary to my reaction to what Ghost Story does for the series as a whole, and more importantly, my reaction to how Harry changes as a result of coming back from the dead. The plot itself? Good. Sufficient for its purpose, and I'm sure that for some, it's really the star of the show. For me though, there is so much more going on here. Maybe as a fanboy I'm reading too much into it, but I like to think that I'm just teasing at much deeper threads of discussion. Like Doctor Who, Buffy, and so many other series that I love, the Dresden Files is just so rich and densely-layered in its mythology and metaphor that it's more than just a series of related stories: it's something beautiful and profound. Ghost Story reaffirms this. It does not, as a story on its own, regain the heights of Proven Guilty or Small Favor. As an instalment of the Dresden Files, however, it is of incalculable importance.