Thursday, January 28, 2016

Storm Front, chapters eight and nine, in which Will endures for you, precious reader

I was actually going to just drop this book and move onto something else (probably Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings), that is how much I hate Harry Dresden.  The moments when he's supposed to be roguishly charming or witty make me want to lock him on the other side of a door, and the moments when he's supposed to be foolish or abrasive or share Old-Fashioned views on women make me want to throw him off a bridge.  The nature of magic is really fun and interesting, actually, but it's so inadequately explained that it starts forming plot holes. (E.g.: Dresden meets with a vampire and takes a literal pocketful of sunshine with him as a security measure, but no explanation is given for why he can only carry one at a time, so why doesn't he go with cargo shorts crammed full of summer days?  Why does it only work once?  'Plot mandate' is not a good enough reason.)

But I figured I should at least finish reading the book so I could do a quick wrap-up post, and about halfway through (a few posts from now) I hit a line of narrative so strikingly wretched that the heavens rent asunder and a sidereal entity appeared before me to declare: No: the people must know your suffering in its every exacting detail.  Thus bidden by them who turn the wheels of the stars, I opened a new Chrome tab and began to blog.

(Content: misogyny, death, invasion of privacy, discussion of rape.  Fun content: Fred Clark, womanpires, and nitpicking alchemy.)

Storm Front
Chapter Eight: Boners (It's A Pun) (Get It?)*

Dresden stumbles home late from his investigation of the lake house (where he was accosted by White Council enforcer Morgan) and decides to unwind by brewing potions.  He's got a two-floor basement apartment, a giant cat named Mister, and no hobbies apart from magic.  He describes himself as "the arcane equivalent of a classic computer geek", doing magic and nothing else, but I struggle to see how that fits with the rest of what we know about him: that he's broke and most people don't take him very seriously.  If he's starving for work, he's not doing magic professionally, and if he's doing magic for himself, how is he affording it (we're about to see that it's pricey) and why doesn't he seem to have anything to show for it?  His apartment is candle-lit and wood-fired; no enchanted lamps or heated floor or an ensorcelled compass that detects when people lose their keys within a three-block radius.

Dresden occupies an interesting sort of place here, metatextually.  He's sort of like a level 1 character in an RPG, who is supposedly the hero/survivor of a hundred life-or-death struggles, but also has a single Potion of Lesser Cure Wounds in his inventory and is legitimately threatened by a random encounter with two Tiny Bats.  I have no idea where he fits into his world.  Do most wizards live like this?  If other wizards aren't broke, why?  Do wizards normally just run big corporations (meddling with stocks via thaumaturgy, obviously) and funnel their bonuses into building sweet arcane artifacts?  In basically every facet of his life, I can't tell if he's ordinary or exceptional by the book's standards.

Anyway.  Dresden heads down into his basement's basement, where he keeps his lab, and wakes up the air spirit named Bob that lives in a skull on his shelf.  Bob is Dresden's magical database, since he's got unnumbered years of experience assisting various wizards.  Unfortunately, Bob is also an even bigger skeeze than Dresden, requiring us all to recalibrate our skeezometers by an order of magnitude in order to take proper measurements:
"Let me out for a ride, and I'll tell you how to get out of it." 
That made me wary. "Bob, I let you out once. Remember?" 
He nodded dreamily, scraping bone on wood. "The sorority house. I remember." [....] 
"Save it. I don't want to hear it." 
He grunted. "You're trivializing what getting out for a bit means to me, Harry. You're insulting my masculinity."
Their debate on who's more masculine goes on until Dresden trumps Bob with his upcoming date with Susan ("Dark skin [...] dark hair, dark eyes. Legs to die for. Smart, sexy as hell."  Three repetitions of the word 'dark', one unspecified use of 'smart'.  Is there any louder way to scream 'I'm not racist or sexist because I threw in a single word about her that isn't about her body'?)  Dresden moves on to demanding they make an "escape potion" without actually specifying the type of escape (Bob later says it'll temporarily turn him into wind), but Bob refuses unless they also brew a love potion.  Harry makes various threats and refusals back, but ultimately realises Bob has the upper hand and relents.
And, I thought, if Susan should ask me for some kind of demonstration of magic (as she always did), I could always--No. That would be too much. That would be like admitting I couldn't get a woman to like me on my own, and it would be unfair, taking advantage of the woman.
He doesn't quite call it what it would actually be (hint: rape) but at least consent eventually came into his calculations somewhere.  After his own manly pride.  (I hate Dresden so much.)   So they brew the potions, which are interesting enough (Harry at one point pours a jar of mouse scampers into the escape potion, and a sigh into the love potion).  Other ingredients for the love potion include tequila ("Champagne, tequila, what's the difference, so long as it'll lower her inhibitions?"--I also hate Bob), chocolate ("Chicks are into chocolate, Harry"), perfume, lace, candlelight, a love letter (torn from a smutty novel: "women eat these things up"), and powdered diamond (Dresden substitutes a fifty-dollar bill after being assured "Money [...] very sexy").

Predictably, I have Questions.

We're told that the ingredients for any potion vary with the person making it, and Bob's ability to deduce the right ingredients from knowledge of a person is what makes him so valuable, so the above isn't just a love potion, it is a Harry Dresden Love Potion, for use only by Harry Dresden to make a woman fall in love with Harry Dresden.  So... why is it so generic?  Why is it full of stereotypical Chick Stuff instead of items that might actually relate to the kind of person who would love Harry?  Why isn't the liquid base black coffee with a ton of sugar (the way Harry likes it, to keep him working at all hours)?  Why a "passionate love letter" that he could and would never write, and not something that might actually represent his affections for someone, like sharing a personal secret or wish?  Why perfume and not cologne or aftershave or something?  Lace and not a scrap of leather jacket?  Chocolate and not blood shed doing the right thing regardless of cost?

There are societal-level reasons that a Harry Dresden Love Potion reads like a Wal-Mart Valentine's Day Bargain Gift Bag, and they are the same reasons that Wrath personified is always a muscular dude who murders people but Lust personified is always a curvy white woman that causes other people to get aroused.  Love and romance are girl things that are not related to male identities, but are simply catered to for the sake of naked sex times.  And, apart from Exceptional Girls like Murphy, we assume that The Women have largely interchangeable tastes, as if we don't all know women who hate chocolate or never read a romance novel or wouldn't prefer the smell of sawdust and solder to the most expensive perfumed diamonds in the world.  (I assume that a Harry Dresden Love Potion wouldn't work on a man, but would it?  What would go into a manly love potion? Beer, gunpowder, beards, and Neil Patrick Harris' voice saying the word 'turgid'?")

I'm vexed by this in particular because a lot of things in this book can ultimately (maybe) be brushed off as Dresden's own foolishness (his dismissive attitude towards Monica, his interpretations of world politics and wizard history) but this is worldbuilding on an objective level.  This is, we are told, Expert Magicking, and thus the universal power of candlelight and purple prose to make a woman tear off her own undergarments are fundamental Fact.

Anyway.  Harry pours the potions into a couple of clearly-labelled old Gatorade bottles (this chapter is full of noodle incidents like "that diet potion** you tried", "the antigravity potion, remember that", and "ever since the invisibility/hair tonic incident") and goes to bed, head full of the deadly tasks still to face, like talking to a vampire woman vampire woman.

Chapter Nine: WOMANPIRE 

Dresden awakes the following afternoon to Murphy on the phone, and says he's got no leads yet but he'll have something by the end of the weekend.  Apparently Murphy is currently being hounded by the commissioner, who likes to use her as his scapegoat for unsolvable crimes.  It's not clear what makes her a good scapegoat, unless he likes to tell people 'My best detective believes in magic but I can't fire her because somethingorother (female privilege, probably) so I am bound'.  Harry suggests that he would have more luck talking to Bianca than Murphy has had, but she forbids it:
"If you get your ass laid out in the hospital or the morgue, it'll be me that suffers for it." 
"Murph, I'm touched." 
"I'll touch your head to a brick wall a few times if you cross me on this, Harry."
The endless heaping of Murphy's tough-talk without actually seeing her do anything but beg Harry for help does not make for a compellingly deep, plausibly strong, or even vaguely interesting character.  Y'all know how I do--getting attached to the underloved female characters is like my signature move in these posts--but Murphy needs to actually be involved in something before I can particularly care.

After lunch, Dresden monologues at us for a while about how wizards aren't innately special people, but they're very good at preparations, so if they know what they're facing, they'll have a solution.  In the case of going to face a vampire madam, Dresden polishes his cane--I see you snickering there in the back--secretly holsters a silver knife, pockets his escape potion and pentacle (his mother's, given to him by his father, the first indication we have that Dresden had parents), and puts "a small, folded piece of white cloth into my pocket".  Apparently he also wishes he could bring "my blasting rod or my staff, but that would be like showing up at Bianca's door in a tank".

Dresden drives down to the Velvet Room on the lakeside, a 1920s mansion, and his car sputters out just as he arrives, leading to a not-particularly-interesting battle of bluffs between him and the predictably stupid muscly doorman, who ultimately buzzes up to Bianca and lets him in, though the guard takes the cane off him.  (What's the difference between a cane and a staff and a blasting rod?  Is there some reason he couldn't make a staff that looked like a cane?  I have many issues with the Penny Arcade dudes, but all I can think about is this classic comic.)  Dresden gets to keep his pentacle, though, and in this setting vampires are vulnerable to faith, not symbols themselves, so Dresden's faith in magic makes it a good shield.  (On this subject, I look to Fred Clark and his thoroughly alternative take on what kinds of crosses confound vampires--in his philosophy, I'm not sure whether that pentacle would work or not.)

Dresden enters the big old house, passes "a well-groomed young woman with a short, straight haircut" and waits in the library for half an hour before Bianca appears.  A sampling of the descriptions I'm having to read right now:
Her hair was a burnished shade of auburn that was too dark to cast back any ruddy highlights, but did anyway. [....] She approached me and extended her hand, a motion oozing feminine grace.
I have trouble imagining any kind of feminine oozing that could be described as 'graceful', but correct me if I'm wrong that these are words best not put in close proximity to each other.
"A gentleman, they said. I see that they were correct. It is a charmingly passe thing to be a gentleman in this country." 
"You and I are of another world," I said.
Et cetera et cetera Bianca is the most fuckable thing he's ever seen and he draws her chair out for her and she crosses her legs "and made it look good", which is just baffling me.  Anyway, he says he's here to ask about Jennifer Stanton's murder and Bianca instantly leaps over the table to tear out his throat, so Dresden hurls the handkerchief full of sunshine at her and blasts her across the room, shredding bits off her.
I had never seen a real vampire before. [....] It had a batlike face, horrid and ugly, the head too big for its body. Gaping, hungry jaws. Its shoulders were hunched and powerful. Membranous wings stretched between the joints of its almost skeletal arms. Flabby black breasts hung before it, spilling out of the black dress that no longer looked feminine. [....] Its clawed feet were still wearing the three-hundred-dollar black pumps.
Do I even need to explain all the things that bother me here?  Bianca has become 'it' instead of 'she' now that she doesn't look human, but unless Butcher is trying to do something clever here with gender assignment, it seems likely to me that the "flabby black breasts" (wild guess: some humans have those) indicate that Bianca is also a female vampire (not a genderless vampire in a female role), so what does it say that she gets her pronouns revoked for not being sexy enough?  Is there any particular reason that a key element of her hideous transformation is that her flawless white skin has turned black?  I feel these things should speak for themselves.

Dresden pulls out the pentacle and pours enough magic into it to ward her off, creating a standoff situation.  Bianca reveals that she thinks Dresden killed Jennifer, and so there's a lot of 'why should I trust you not to try to kill me if I lower my weapons' haggling.  Dresden swears "by fire and wind" (these are phrases that I want to mean more than 'it sounds cool') that he had nothing to with the murder, and they cautiously sit down again.  Bianca transforms back: "The flabby black breasts swelled into softly rounded, rosy-tipped perfection once more."

I don't know what to make of the obsession with breasts in this chapter (and others).  Is Butcher trying to go for 'scared but erect' in the reader, or can he just not help himself?  Dresden says that she looks perfectly beautiful again, but he can't forget what she 'really' looks like.

After pages of staring, they get back to the plot, but Bianca tells him "You're the only one in the city with the kind of skill required to cast that sort of spell."  Chicago proper has a population of 2.7 million, with about 10 million in the whole metropolitan area.  I don't know what percentage of those people are wizards, but 'best spellcaster in a city of ten million' seems like a pretty good superlative.  Are you a superhero or just clinging to the last rung, man?

Turns out Bianca and Tommy Tomm were old friends and she knew he was always kind to his escorts, so she feels actual remorse at whatever's going on.  Dresden can tell she's hiding something, so he locks eyes with her and they ★SOULGAZE★.
More than anything else, Bianca wanted to be beautiful. And tonight, I had destroyed her illusion. I had rattled her gilded little world. She sure as hell wasn't going to let me forget that.
Not luxury, not power, not control, not secrets or influence or independence or knowledge or any of those classic immortal vampire desires.  Nope.  Bianca, ancient deathless lady of manners, desperately wants everyone to think she's hot.  By human standards.  If I understand the worldbuilding so far, vampires aren't even from Earth; they're immigrants from some spirit world.  What kind of womanpire's most desperate wish is to make human men tumescent?  Ugh.  This is something that could be sold with a sufficiently developed backstory, but we're just supposed to take it as an obviously sensible desire at first glance.

She says she'd kill him now if she hadn't given her word, and he says he'd use his death curse to drag her to hell with him.  Bianca turns her head away, too slow to keep Dresden from seeing her shed a single tear.

What am I even reading.

Bianca reluctantly offers Dresden the name and number of Jennifer's friend (and threesome partner) Linda Randall, and they prepare to say belligerent goodbyes when Bianca notices that Dresden has started bleeding from the scratch she gave him earlier, and she starts getting overpoweringly thirsty.  She croakingly tells him to leave, but Dresden of course lingers by the door to watch her suffering as she tries not to murder him by instinct.  You're a tool, Dresden.  She tells him she'll make him regret the night, and the woman from earlier shows up.  I assume at this point the classic porn saxophone starts playing:
Paula murmured something too soft to hear, gently brushing Bianca's hair back from her face with one hand [...] and pressed her wrist to Bianca's mouth. [....] Bianca's tongue flashed out, long and pink and sticky, smearing Paula's wrist with shining saliva. Paula shuddered at the touch, her breath coming quicker. Her nipples stiffened beneath the thin fabric of the blouse [...]
Harry Dresden can see a woman's nipples stiffen under her shirt from across a dark room.

Again, I feel that is a thing that speaks for itself.

The saliva apparently gets Paula wasted, and Bianca bites her wrist open to start feeding as Paula collapses into some kind of sexual epileptic fit.  Dresden finally leaves: "The scene with Paula might have aroused me, if I hadn't seen what was underneath Bianca's mask. [....] The woman had given herself to that thing, as quickly and as willingly as any woman to her lover."  Dresden thinks a bunch about the implications of addiction to vampire saliva and the possible enslavement of wizard thralls, watches the tow truck guy work on his car for a while, and finally the doorman delivers Linda's phone number.  Dresden had been told Paula would bring it down, but realises that she isn't coming.  Dun dun DUNNN.  I assume we are to conclude that Bianca couldn't stop feeding and has killed Paula, just in case we weren't sure whether we were supposed to find her sympathetic or not.  (She's in the sex industry and she's a secretly-ugly woman; of course we weren't.)

Lest you think our suffering has ended, let me warn you that we haven't even met the sex-addicted sex worker who's sad that she can never make her clients 'feel better about themselves'.  For some reason, I didn't go into this book expecting it to be full of painfully misogynistic sex workers (the sexy corpse, the evil madam, the tragic hooker) but apparently that's what we signed up for.  See you all next time!


*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

**We are also informed at some point that Dresden is that most curious kind of individual: the tall skinny man who eats constantly but mysteriously never gains any weight, also known as Every Goddamn Protagonist Ever, Sweet Buttered Jehoshaphat.  So why was he trying a diet potion, if he has no body image issues?

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