Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
It’s hard to believe I’ve had to wait over a year between Dresden Files books! I’m glad I developed this sideline of being a teacher while I waited.
As with previous reviews, this is full of spoilers. And, to be honest, I don’t really understand why someone who hasn’t been following the series up to this point would be much interested in what happens in book 15. If you’re really curious about whether Dresden Files is for you, check out my reviews from the beginning; the reviews of the first few books don’t have too many spoilers.
So from here on out, I’m going to assume it’s just me and my fellow fans. I’m also going to assume that, like me, you’re still relatively enthusiastic about the series—you don’t think it has jumped the shark or declined steeply. Because if you have—and you have that right, as a reader—then this review is not for you. I am here to praise Jim Butcher, not to bury him.
Harry has to team up with Nicodemus and a group of lesser bad guys to steal something precious—the Holy Grail, no less—from the vault of Hades. He has no choice; as Mab’s Winter Knight, he is hers to loan out in repayment of favours she owes Nicodemus … and he can’t refuse as long as there is a parasite in his head that only she can remove.
I love heist stories! And I love that Harry takes Murphy along for backup. Butcher assembles a neat ensemble of villains for Harry to work with. The posturing gets tiresome at times—this is one of the disadvantages to having such a rich universe of supernatural beings, namely that it starts becoming difficult to work out which power trumps which. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and dangerous situation in which Harry finds himself.
The actual heist, though, is unimportant. Skin Game is really about Harry’s return to Chicago after such a long absence. It allows us to revisit some of the characters who haven’t played such a big role lately, and it allows them to reassure Harry that he is not a monster. Well, most of them. Butters isn’t so sure.
The question of how far Harry can go, how powerful he can become, before he becomes a monster has been with us since the first book. The sorcerer whom Harry defeats represents the dangers of abusing magic, of allowing power to corrupt oneself so utterly that one loses all humanity. And that’s only one of the infinite dangers that Harry faces in this world. In my review of Summer Knight, I mention that I don’t think Harry can ever become another Lloyd Slate, that he just doesn’t have it in him. Now look at him, years on, struggling with the mantle of the Winter Knight and the desires it wakes in him.
Butters has reason to question. So does Harry. With each passing book, he seems to become more powerful. But Butcher also gives us voices of faith and integrity. Both Murphy and Michael assert that Harry is basically a good person, and that this goodness will allow him to resist temptation and corruption. They point out that the fact he still cares enough about people to ask these questions, that he makes these deals with beings like Mab to save people rather than for his own gain, demonstrates he is still basically a good person.
It remains to be seen who is ultimately proved right. That’s what makes this series so interesting and enduring. It’s ultimately the story of Harry Dresden, from a young upstart wizard in Chicago to being a Warden of the White Council, the Winter Knight of Queen Mab, and, oh yeah, a father—twice over now.
Reading Skin Game was a pleasure. In some ways it is a return to some of the older formulas in Dresden Files. It echoes back to the less serial, more standalone stories of the earliest novels. Though the characters—with a few notable exceptions, like the perplexing Goodman Grey—are now well-established regulars, the plot is more of a one-off. It puts Harry back in charge, in a way: although Mab was initially pulling the strings, we later learn that Harry has been outmanoeuvring Nicodemus all along. It’s pretty sweet.
Although this feels like the earlier Dresden Files, it’s noticeably a better book. One of the privileges of reading a fifteen-book series is getting to see how a writer’s style and skill changes over such a long period of time. The earliest Dresden Files novels were good; some were even great. None of them approach Skin Game, though—and arguably, this novel isn’t even as good as Cold Days or Changes. But over the past fifteen years, Butcher’s writing has improved noticeably. His plotting is tighter, its intricacies coiled more elaborately. He is better able to move his pieces in the shadows and work his clever tricks off stage, working up to a big reveal.
I’m not sure what else to say. Fifteen books in, and it really does feel like all has been said. Skin Game delivers exactly what a fan of the Dresden Files wants after Cold Days. It introduces new mysteries and problems, such as Harry’s daughter-spirit, and Butters is now apparently a Knight of the Cross. I’m very eager to learn more about Molly’s experiences as the new Winter Lady (spinoff series, please?). And it looks like Murphy’s showdown with Nicodemus has had a lasting impact on her, physically, in much the same way Michael has had to retire after his injuries on Demonreach.
It seems clear that from here on out, Harry has two problems. The first is that Nicodemus is still out there and now knows that he has a daughter. Nicodemus is not a foe to be underestimated; he has survived for multiple millennia despite three Knights with literally God-given powers working to stop him—oh, and now he has the Holy Grail. The second is that Harry still has very little hold over Mab, and it’s only a matter of time before she manoeuvres him into another unpleasant or untenable situation—after all, she has been doing this considerably longer than he has. So it seems like Harry really needs to start thinking of a better game plan.
Damn it, Butcher. Now look what you’ve gone and done … Skin Game has only just come out, and all it’s done is made me want to read the next book already!