Proven Guilty is
probably my favourite Dresden Files novel my second-favourite Dresden Files novel, after Small Favor. It has almost all of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse in it: Murphy, the Carpenters, Faerie, and sticking it to the White Council. Jim Butcher manipulates the relationships he's developed over the past seven books to play on motifs of love, family, and temptation. If Dead Beat showed us how much Harry has changed, Proven Guilty offers us hope, in more ways than one. Butcher reaffirms Harry as a hero even as he reminds us of Harry's fallibility. Magic and shadow of a fallen angel aside, Harry Dresden is, like the rest of us, only human.
Can I let you in on a secret, though? Parts of this book frustrated me.
I know, right? This is the best Dresden Files book thus far, and still I'm complaining. What's the deal? I just have such high standards when it comes to what I really love—and in case you can't tell, much love for the Dresden Files.
When reading this book, it seems to lack the structure that Butcher's formulaic mystery style lends to the previous novels. Although still in Butcher's style, Proven Guilty is slightly more haphazard with its scenes and events, to the point where, near the middle of the book, I had to remind myself what the hell was going on. The mystery is more nebulous—vampires and necromancers the antagonists are not—and the good guys are, at least at first, more disorganized. In summary, something about Proven Guilty felt off. It irked me.
See, I have one weakness (well, two if you count kryptonite, but don't tell anyone that, 'kay?): too often I seize upon a vision of what a book should be, and then I pan it for being something else, even it's still acceptable. Wait … now that I think about it, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I guess I only have one weakness—er, I mean, no weaknesses.
But I digress.
As with most brilliant books, Proven Guilty's weakness is actually its strength. We're talking the kind of strength that creeps up on you with ninja-like stealth only to pounce at the last moment with hawk-like precision and rhinoceros-like force. While I was being all shallow and conservative and yearning for "yet another Dresden mystery," Butcher was getting creative on us and writing something innovative.
Proven Guilty is the most character-driven Dresden Files novel yet. Although the lives of the characters have always been important, and Harry in particular tends to drive the plot whichever way he damn well pleases, the effect is amplified here. Rather than a concrete, moustache-twirling villain like we saw in Death Masks, it turns out the original mystery was caused by Molly Carpenter.
I love Molly. A minor character seen on the fringes of Harry's life, Michael's oldest daughter spontaneously becomes a profound person. She offers us a look at Harry when he as a teenager: inexperienced, hormonal, and bursting with magical ability. Harry no doubt sees the resemblance, hence his offer to vouch for Molly. Even as Butcher promotes another character to the main cast, he promises us a relationship that will reveal more about what makes Harry tick—and plague Harry with an annoying teenage student in a quid pro quo to all these years of being a wiseass.
If you want to get metaphorical—and I do—Molly's tribulations represent the struggle of adolescence: defining one's identity, dealing with interpersonal relationships and hardships, gaining independence from one's parents, etc. Similarly, Harry has to struggle with what his magic means for his relationship with Murphy. They both acknowledge a mutual attraction (go Team Murphy!), but there are so many ancillary concerns that they elect not to get involved.
This is the triumph of fantasy. By juxtaposing them with supernatural counterparts, Butcher emphasizes the humanity of his protagonists. Once-human, now-faerie Lily has changed, become bound to Titania despite a desire to help Harry. Thomas, even more amiable to Harry, confesses his weakness that led to joining the Wild Hunt. In contrast, Harry is tainted by the shadow of Lasciel, yet he still tries to do the right thing. Even with all his power—and the accompanying responsibility—he is still only human; if ever that's in doubt, the repeated references to his lack of a sex life remind us of that.
Harry has been a hero, a leader, and a brother. Now he has to be a role model. That's right: it's time for Harry Dresden to grow up. Be afraid! Be very afraid!
And as for the real antagonist, the one behind Molly's role in the mystery, Mab's apparent madness (Mabness?), and the Big Bad who orchestrated everything from the beginning . . . he or she remains in the shadows. Although it's been hinted at in the past, Proven Guilty makes the threat explicit. In a way, this book feels like a culmination of the entire series thus far, a sign that Butcher has an over-arching plan even as each book remains a self-contained adventure. Therefore, while it is not an endpoint, Proven Guilty is an important milestone in the Dresden Files. It's the culmination of seven volumes, and the vibrant promise of much more to come.