Jim Butcher: Ghost Story

Note: For those of you who have not read the previous Dresden Files novel, Changes, this review is one big spoiler – no way to avoid it. Go ahead and get caught up on the series, then come back and check this one out; you’ll be glad you did!

Ghost StorySo, you’ve stamped out a worldwide vampire scourge, saved the daughter you never knew you had, murdered her mom and maybe got the girl, all in a day’s work. What’re you going to do now? Go to Disneyland? Well, if you’re wizard Harry Dresden, who has the kind of luck most of us wouldn’t wish even on our worst enemies, you get yourself killed on the way to meet the girl. Or, more accurately, you get murdered in cold blood.

Six months after the shocking event of his murder, Harry wakes up somewhere that’s neither Heaven nor Hell, and not precisely Chicago. And yes, he’s still dead, though his physical body hasn’t been found. Harry’s given a choice: move on (where ever “on” may take him) or return to Chicago and solve his murder. When he’s told that three of his friends will die if he doesn’t go back, off to Chicago it is.

Only problem is, as a spirit, Harry not only has extraordinary difficulty interacting with the physical world – and the living beings that inhabit it – but he’s bound by natural rules he can’t circumvent. Stripped of his not insignificant physical presence and his magic, Harry finds himself frustratingly helpless. This is made all the worse because his destruction of the Red Court has left a power vacuum and the struggle to fill that void has taken its toll on a great many, including Harry’s loved ones. Wracked with regrets and horrified by what he’s wrought, Harry must come to grips with his past and memories, and use those as fuel for the struggle ahead of him.

Given Harry’s considerable power boost in Changes, Butcher was wise to yank it all away, forcing Harry to cope in more creative ways — and to rely on others. This neatly avoids a common trap in long fantasy series: the insanely powerful hero(ine) who only gets stronger and more invincible as time goes by. Though he still possesses vast magical knowledge, Harry’s a neophyte spirit, and it takes time – and the help of friends new and old – before he’s able to wield that magic, and even then, only against other spirits. It’s up to the people around Harry to see things through to the end. This gives characters like Molly, Butters, Bob and necromancer Mortimer a chance to shine and show off their skills.

Though Ghost Story is at times emotionally dark and bleak – there are some heartbreaking moments when Harry sees the impact of his death on those closest to him — there’s ample humor and affection to balance those moments. Butcher does an excellent job of weaving in old foes and allies; it’s particularly nice to see Harry’s half-brother Thomas again, even if only briefly.

Without giving anything away, yes, Harry does help save his friends and solve his murder; the perpetrator turns out to be rather . . . unexpected. And in the end, he discovers that there are indeed fates worse than death, but so long as you are true to yourself, things will work out. Probably. This is Harry Dresden, after all.

Roc, 2011

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