Review of Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
by Jim Butcher
Second review (June 11, 2010)
As with my review of Small Favor, I will refer you to my first review for this book. I'm not even going to add many notes, because I like my original review that much, and I doubt I could improve upon it significantly.
The only thing I have to say is that re-reading the series in quick succession has given me a better context in which to appreciate Turn Coat. Even though I only gave it four stars, it's still better than some five star books I've read, and it's an excellent instalment in the series.
Having just finished reading Turn Coat for a second time, I am more moved by a book than I have been in a long time . . . I don't think even Proven Guilty affected me in this way. Butcher alters irrevocably so many of Harry's relationships in this book. There is a death that is unexpectedly tragic and all the more potent. And there are so many more questions coming up from the past about the island, Harry's mother, the Gatekeeper, etc. Anyone who accuses this book of lacking complexity, of being just another volume in a mystery series, needs to take a second look.
First review (August 31, 2009)
Following the disappointment that was The King's Grace, I needed a book that I knew I'd love. So naturally, I turned to the latest Dresden Files novel sitting on my shelf. After eleven books, only two types of people will be left reading a series: those who love it and those who hate it. The former will read it because they are addicted to the endorphins the books release and drool with eager anticipation prior to each new iteration. The latter will read it because they are addicted to the endorphins released when they write snarky reviews. Don't get me wrong: I love writing snarky reviews—that being said, you'll notice I'm firmly on "Team Dresden."
Jim Butcher has managed to create a sustainable fantasy environment and avoided jumping the shark. He's got a solid cast of supporting characters who keep the plot moving, and his system of magic is well thought-out but not so complicated as to make my head hurt. Finally, Butcher's writing has a rhythm that, while obviously formulaic, always feels fresh and exciting. Every Dresden Files book summons forth laughter as well as tears, making me cheer for Harry's wisecracks and cry for the price he—or more often, those around him—pay for his half-baked schemes to save the day.
At this point, I'm about to do something that may earn me the enmity of certain people, as I shall assume a level of presumption the likes of which we have not seen since the Dyson corporation decided Skynet was a good idea. Yes, that's right: I'm going to compare Harry Dresden to the Doctor (of Doctor Who fame).
Now, these two heroes obviously aren't synonymous; I see Dresden as more of a glimpse at who the Doctor might have been when he was younger and far more inexperienced. One striking parallel, however, is that both Dresden and the Doctor use people as weapons. The Doctor has his companions; Dresden has Murphy, Michael and Molly Carpenter, his werewolf buddies, his Pizza Guard of Little Folk, etc. Although Dresden is almost always the mastermind behind incredibly complex and improbable attempts to foil the current villain, his plans usually carry considerable risk for his comrades. To be fair, Dresden also sustains injuries in the line of duty; his badly burned hand is just one example. But it's this knowledge that people get hurt because he's doing the right thing that weighs most heavily on Dresden.
Dresden is not the single-handed bastion of awesomeness that the Doctor is. His companions all contribute their own form of awesome to the mix. I can't help but enjoy the plucky Molly Carpenter, who's just beginning to come to grips with her abilities (both magical and mundane) as she struggles with the consequences of her past and normal, human growing pains. In Turn Coat, not only does she perform ably as an apprentice, but I loved how she uses her sex appeal to charm a Private Investigator into giving up the name of his employer. Because, honestly, I have zero interest in seeing that particular duty fall to Dresden.... Likewise, we get glimpses of Karrin Murphy as both a tough, kick-ass cop and a friend of Dresden who genuinely cares about his wellbeing, even though he's generally a pain. Even as he narrates the book from the first person view of a witty wizard, Butcher manages to assemble an ensemble cast that's the core of everything good about Turn Coat and its fellow Dresden Files novels.
Having spent so much time establishing Dresden as an underdog, Butcher takes the Dresdenverse and turns it on its head: the eponymous turncoat is none other than Warden Donald Morgan. Arguably the most loyal wizard of the White Council, Morgan has spent the past 10 books looking for any reason to turn Dresden in on charges of violating the Laws of Magic. He's sure he's been framed for the murder of a member of the Senior Council, and he's come to Dresden for help. As much as Dresden is loath to help his former enemy, he knows that Morgan's innocent; moreover, he suspects this is the latest move by a traitor in the White Council. What starts as an internal matter threatens to weaken the White Council in the eyes of its powerful enemies, and Dresden, as usual, is in the thick of it.
For the most part, I'll confess that I found the political intrigue less satisfactory than in previous Dresden books. There's a big deal about the fact that someone's a traitor, leaking information to the White Council's enemies and influencing the decisions of the Senior Council. Yet when the big reveal comes, it's disappointing. Likewise, not much else seems altered in the political status quo—"Gentleman" Johnny Marcone doesn't appear in Turn Coat at all. Butcher puts out some strong foreshadowing that the next book will be a gamechanger, but I would have liked to see something more substantial in this book.
The unintriguing intrigue relegated Dresden's family matters to a back-burner, but they're more shattering than the politics. Thomas, Dresden's White Court vampire half-brother, has been making his living (literally for him) by nibbling on the life energies of his hairdressing clients. In Turn Coat, a malevolent skinwalker, of Navajo mythology, kidnaps Thomas because it wants to trade him for Morgan. The skinwalker tortures Thomas while he's in its clutches, and the consequences of the torture drastically alter Thomas and Dresden's relationship, as well as Thomas' lifestyle. I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out in future books.
In addition to Marcone, Molly is the only Carpenter who appears in Turn Coat. I see the wisdom of eschewing Michael and Charity, since we've been Carpenter-heavy for the past several books, and Butcher has written a short story about Michael. It would have been nice for Harry to pop by and say, "Hi, your daughter and I might be executed for aiding a fugitive from the White Council. Have a good week!" Wait, OK, I can see how that would not go well....
As usual, Dresden is at his best when he's at the end of his rope and has about three hours left to live. His enemies consistently overestimate Dresden's reliance on magic to get the job done: almost all of Dresden's Turn Coat triumphs are a result of using technology (by proxy) or non-magical means of foiling the enemy. Magic serves a direct combat and defencive role; beyond that, Dresden thinks outside the box. And that's why I love this series: Butcher's protagonist is a problem solver who actually creates plans to beat the bad guys beyond "fight until they're all down for the count" (although I admit that might enter into the plan under 'Plan B' at some point...).
Turn Coat's another fine addition to the Dresden Files series, and any fan should be pleased. I have some qualms about it, mostly owing to the understandably increasing complexity of the Dresdenverse and Butcher's ability to balance a compelling narrative with his bevy of characters and continuity. The book lives up to a label like "action-packed thrill ride", but after the heavy-hitting consequences of White Knight and Small Favor, I expected more than Turn Coat delivered.
Pay close attention, however, when you read the book. Butcher continues to scatter subtle clues as to the texture of an overarching narrative that spans the series and extends into Dresden's past: the mysterious Gatekeeper continues to be a fickle friend, and Ebenezar McCoy's journals reveal that Dresden's mother had something to do with the powerful island featured in the climax. Clearly, Butcher's playing a long game. These hints at a grander scope to which we're not yet privy will always keep me reading, because they promise us that no matter how much trouble Dresden finds ... it's eventually going to get much, much worse. And I can't wait.