Review of Peace Talks by Jim Butcher
by Jim Butcher
A podcast I listen to, Read It and Weep, has developed a metaphor for the films it’s watching during its current season. Movies that are mostly pleasant diversions are soda (or pop as I would call it); movies that require a lot more effort to understand and enjoy are coffee (some are in fact very strong coffee). Like all metaphors this one has its limits, yet my mind kept coming back to it as I tore through Peace Talks.
This book is mostly definitely soda pop of the sweetest variety.
Trouble is coming to Chicago. As the book’s title implies, some of the most powerful beings in the world are meeting to talk peace, which is almost as dangerous as going to war. Harry gets tapped to liaise and secure this conference, yet he finds himself in a quagmire of divided loyalties. How will he honour his various obligations while still doing what he believes to be right?
Harry Dresden is many things. He is a wizard and warden of the White Council, Winter Knight to Queen Mab, brother to a vampire of the White Court, warden of a semi-sentient island prison, father to a precocious young girl with a fierce dog bodyguard … the list goes on. It’s so extensive I’ve forgotten a lot of what Harry has got up to in the past 15 books. Did I forget, in 4 years, that Harry has a daughter? You bet I did. Yet I was so eager to read the newest Dresden Files book that I didn’t want to slow down and go back and re-read any or all of the previous books. Having finished Peace Talks, I honestly don’t think that was a bad decision, because I’m not sure being “up” on the lore would have done me much good.
What makes Peace Talks sugary pop? Simply put, as longtime readers of this series are aware, Butcher is very good at setting up scenes and then knocking them down in such a way that you want to keep reading. From cracking the cover to putting down the book one day later, I was hooked on this story. Yet if I were to step back and stop to think about the story for even the slightest moment, it quickly becomes apparent that the plot is very thin on the ground. Unlike Skin Game, which had a very focused heist-related plot (it’s the heist that got me!), Peace Talks very much feels like a set-up for Battle Grounds later this year.
On its own, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Yet Bucher has us flitting from scene to scene, each one laden with a hefty dose of foreshadowing, sometimes in a way that leaves me very unsatisfied. Here’s an example: one chapter takes place at the Carpenter house, with Butters and Sanya practice-duelling. The point of the chapter is to explain some new lore around Fidelacchius and around the Swords of the Cross in general. Don’t get me wrong: this is interesting lore for sure. One of my most favourite things about the Dresdenverse is Butcher’s seemingly boundless imagination when it comes to the interactions among mythological elements and beings. However, this chapter does absolutely nothing to advance the overall plot of this particular book. It sticks out quite obviously as something that needs to be mentioned before it comes up in Battle Ground (at least, I hope it’s important!).
As a result of this structure, Peace Talks is missing something else I used to love about this series: a focused, unified plot. The earliest Dresden Files books always comprised a single mystery, with wider elements of the Dresdenverse arrayed and affected in the background. As the series has continued, the books have shifted to be less about events and more about Harry’s evolution as a powerful being in his own right. One reason I enjoyed Skin Game so much was that it felt, in some ways, like a return to the older Dresden days. In contrast, Peace Talks is a very big departure. And unlike many of the most significant Harry-centric books, Peace Talks shows very little in the way of forward-motion for our favourite wizard’s development. Perhaps the only significant growth we see is conflict between Harry and Ebenezar as they butt heads over how Harry should conduct himself re: Thomas, vampires, and the upcoming talks. What should be a very intense, very emotional and climactic confrontation is undermined by the sheer overwhelming amount of other information and ideas Butcher had recently thrown at us just prior to that scene.
And the promised eponymous talks? Butcher derails these in characteristic sleight-of-hand fashion by dropping a new Big Bad on us in the final act, and it is … unsatisfying. I get that this is necessary to set up Battle Ground, but this goes back to what I was saying above: Peace Talks has the attention span of a stereotypical millennial doom-scrolling on Twitter. Just as I think we’re settling into the main thread of the plot, Butcher pulls on the stitch below and diverts me into a new—interesting, yes, but entirely different—thread.
Perhaps the most real, most compelling part of Peace Talks occurs in a scene between Harry and Lara, when she remarks, “The more power one has, the less flexible it is, wizard.” This is the theme that keeps me coming back to the Dresden Files with each new book: problematic aspects aside, Butcher is plumbing one of my favourite themes to explore, especially in the context of being a magic user. We love nothing better than to see our characters get power-ups so that they have newer and better ways of beating the bad guys. Yet as Butcher’s characters, from Lara to Mab to Harry himself, observe in this book, those power-ups come at the cost of a slice of your free will. As Harry himself has acquired power, so too have his options been curtailed, and perhaps this is nowhere as evident as in Peace Talks.
Sometimes that power comes with weird, uncomfortable side effects, like the supposedly animalistic desires of the Winter mantle. Erm. Kay Tilden Frost has a very detailed review that discusses these problematic elements, particularly how they relate to the female characters of the series. (After waiting all these years for Harry and Murphy to get together, Peace Talks treats this romance with the fumbling hands of a pair of teenage prom dates.) Frost’s review also has a good comparison of Dresden to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I find this comparison so apt: with this movie universe, and indeed with comic books in general, you reach a point of diminishing returns when it comes to continuity. This is why retconning and crisis reset events are so potent from a writing perspective. While I’m not sure that’s appropriate in this case, I hope that in future books Butcher can do the Dresdenverse justice without getting caught up in the minutiae of calling back to every single thing that has happened of late.
Six years ago, in my review of Skin Game, I quipped about waiting one year for the latest Dresden Files book. Oh, past Kara. Poor, naive past Kara. Little did she know. After a much longer wait, we get not one but two new Dresden Files books in the space of a few months. That is, of course, because Peace Talks is really only the precursor to the climactic Battle Grounds. Reading this book was a paradox: it was incredibly fun yet also incredibly frustrating, and the reason is simply that the Dresden Files has entered the comic-book continuity zone, with all the pitfalls and perils that entails.
Butcher is obviously building towards an intense confrontation, in a cinematic sense, in Battle Ground. Yet for my particular approach to Dresden fandom, this has me worried for what this means for Harry as an individual, as a character. I think sometimes Butcher wants to have his cake and eat it too, wants Harry to be a Big Action Hero and also Just Some Guy. Peace Talks is what happens when Butcher tries to balance these two characterizations with far too much fine-tuning. In his desire to fulfil the big-picture epic story arc that he has outlined for this series, Butcher risks losing sight of the smaller moments that made this series so appealingly human despite its plethora of supernatural beings. It’s not that I disliked Peace Talks, but I am disappointed that this is the book we get after six years, and I’m not sure it leaves me optimistic as we enter what I believe to be the final few books of the Dresden Files