Ghost Story [book review]


Ghost Story is the thirteenth installment of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels. I read somewhere that Butcher wanted to call the novel Dead but this was flatly rejected by the publishers. The title itself leaves absolutely no room for question. Implicit in the title is the spoiler: harry Dresden is, as of the twelfth novel, Changes, dead. That’s right: some jerk–some lousy irredeemably stupid schmuck–killed the hero of the series. It’s Harry’s job to figure out whodunnit.

Jim Butcher. Ghost Story

I admit at the outset that I’m a fan of the series. I’ve read each of the first ten books two, sometimes three times. I got turned on to the existence of his work, like many people did, when the SciFi Network aired its one-season The Dresden Files program, which took considerable license, but turned me on to the hardboiled magic detective. Many people have lauded Dresden as Harry Potter, all-grown-up. I guess there’s some merit to that analogy.

But in this novel, Harry is dead. It’s been almost two years since the last Dresden Novel was released, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting Changes for several months, to find out who killed him. Somebody shot the poor guy, and he fell right into Lake Michigan and bled to death.

Part of the strength of Butcher’s writing is the core magical world. The strength of the The Summer and Winter Fae courts, He Who Walks Behind (an otherworld creature, a la Chthulu), demons, angels, potions, the vampire courts–Black, Red, and White–and, of course, the White Council of wizards itself. There is a (literally) underworld Chicago where all sorts of trolls and ghosts and ghouls and other nasty beasties live.

What I wanted to know, of course, is how Harry’s friends reacted. His vampire half-brother Thomas, his favorite former-Cop Karrin Murphy, his apprentice Molly, Bob the air spirit who inhabits a skull in his workroom; his pets; even his godmother Leanansidhe. We wonder who will see him, and how he will reach out to the world to the living.

Of course, there is Morty the ectomancer, who might give him a leg up on his own death; and a few allies who come from surprising places.

All that said, the book was a bit of a letdown. I was hoping for something more; and when I think back, I’m not sure what that “something” is. There was plenty of exposition: we learned a lot about ghosts and spirits, and how they navigate Dresden’s world. We learn more about threshholds. But I guess my bother is the story didn’t move forward much. Other than Harry uncovering his murderer, very little changed between Changes and Butcher’s newest novel.

A few quick nods to character growth and change in this novel:

  • Murphy is more badass than ever. Don’t cross this woman, ever.
  • Butters is becoming quite knowledgeable about magic lore
  • Molly is very bitter over Harry’s death, and is on the cusp of losing herself to the lure dark magic.
  • Mister is amazing. The damn cat made me cry.

OK. An urban supernatual novel shouldn’t evoke that kind of response. But Butcher knows how to write characters and create a world. He’s become a role model to me, in terms of writing style and exposition. His first-person narrative voice limits us to Harry’s perspective only; I would certainly like to see m0re from the perspective of Ebenezar McCoy, or Molly Carpenter, even minor characters such as Hendricks.

Sometimes Butcher tries a bit too hard at being funny or ironic in Dresden’s voice. When Butcher’s narrative is good, he is truly brilliant, and each novel has laugh-out-loud moments. This one was a bit pale in comparison to some of his earlier novels. It’s my fear that Harry, in a few more books will become a caricature of himself.

In all, the book was good, but left me feeling a bit empty. I anxiously await book 12 which, I’d bet, is already completed, but I hope it’s a slightly better showing than Ghost Story. I want Butcher’s brilliant talespinning to go somewhere, and not spin its wheels for almost 500 pages.

Four of Five Stars

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5 thoughts on “Ghost Story [book review]”

  1. Ghost Story left me a bit empty as well. I’ve reread every book in the series numerous times, and some of them are just amazing tales (and I do expect that by now I’m holding new additions to an almost impossibly high standard). While packed with action, the overarching Dresden saga did seem stuck in neutral. There was also a shift in tone halfway through the book that left me wondering if the storyline hadn’t gone through some major revisions. We may never know where it was going before the additional work (rewrites?) that pushed back its release for several months.
    Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great character work here. Murphy, Molly, Mister and Mouse (that’s a lot of M’s) all have great scenes. Mister and Molly in particular left me feeling like I’d taken a punch in the gut. It’s a testament to Butcher’s skill that he’s developed multiple supporting characters fully enough to elicit such a response.
    The Dresden books have now effectively shed itself of the weight of numerous long lasting plot lines and background details, positioning the core members of the cast to move forward in directions that wouldn’t have rung true previously. I expect this book (and Changes) were quite difficult to write, but having now moved past this stage we may see a new take on the character. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment πŸ™‚

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  2. OK, I finally read it (in one day, mind you.)

    I agree that Butcher writes in a way that you do care for his characters. I have identified with Harry since book 1 and throughout the series, all of the other characters like Butters, Thomas, Molly and the Carpenter clan, Murphy, Moose and Mister. Oh, and even for Bob even though he isn’t a person. πŸ˜‰

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  3. Mister made me cry, too. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with strong emotional responses to urban supernatural novels, or to any fiction, for that matter. Most fictional writing is about *people*, about their interactions with each other, about their interactions with their environments, about their growth as human beings (or whatever kinds of ‘beings’ they may be). Emotional responses, tears, laughter, anger, are part of the human condition, and entirely appropriate in even an urban supernatural novel.

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    1. It I guess it’s doesn’t surprise me that I had that reaction while reading a Dresden novel. It’s just that most literature in the genre doesn’t have such decent characters, and command of writing, as Butcher has. He’s able to make us truly care about his characters (unlike most authors in the genre)–even minor, nonspeaking ones like Harry’s cat.

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