Friday, February 12, 2016

Storm Front, chapters ten and eleven, in which the worst and best of the book are on display

Sorry for the delayed post this week, folks.  I blame the unfathomable depths of my hatred for this dude.  At least a better plot shows up in this part of the story.

(Content: misogyny with a sex worker zest.  Fun content: literal word porn, muppet anguish, Ming-Na Wen being badass.)

Storm Front
Chapter Ten: This Book Is Noir, Dammit, NOIR*

Dresden drives away from Bianca's mansion in a loaner car from the tow trucker, but stops not far away to use a pay phone to call the victim's friend and sex-co-worker, Linda.  Forgive the pun, but apparently Linda's voice is like aural sex (I feel shame, if it helps) given the buffet of adjectives Butcher pours all over it:
The phone rang several times before a quiet, dusky contralto answered. [...] "Mmmm," she answered. She had a furry, velvety voice, something tactile. [...] She laughed, the sound rich enough to roll around naked in.
That's seriously only a sampling of it.  More effort is going into convincing us that this unseen woman is totally still worth having sex with than has been spent to explain Dresden's entire living situation (phenomenally rare superpowers and permanently broke).  There's one thing here worth a second glance:
"I'm not occupied. At the moment." 
In archaic English (1400s or so), using 'occupy' to mean 'currently having penetrative sex' wasn't wordplay--that became the default meaning.  It was considered an obscene term for centuries.  People said 'occupy' for sex so much that the word was kicked out of polite conversation.  When was the last time we managed that as a society?  Sure, no one says 'gay' to mean 'happy' anymore unless they're going for wordplay, but it's not considered obscene exactly.

I wonder if the current US presidential campaign will make people stop talking about 'trump card' like it's a good thing.

Anyway, Dresden says he's investigating Jennifer's death, Linda calmly panics and says she has to go and has nothing to say thanks okay bye.  Dresden fumes for a moment before deciding that, from Linda's new job as a driver for some rich couple, and the background noises, she's probably at O'Hare airport, so off he goes, luckily finding a "silver baby limo" still waiting at the second concourse he checks.  I'd make a wildlife documentary joke (the baby limo has an increased reflective capacity to confuse predators, but its hide will turn matte as it matures, to improve solar uptake) but I've got a million of those and we'd be here all night.  Dresden calls her again from another pay phone (did those still exist in 2000?  I guess) and uses the Objectively Worst 'flirting' response: "I like women who play hard to get".  She hangs up on him again, so he walks up and knocks on her window.

Linda gets another paragraph of description, because apparently just giving one to her voice was inadequate.  Highlights include: "a little too much eye shadow, [...hair] which hung down close to her eyes in insolent disarray [...] a predatory look to her, harsh sharp".  Dresden repeats his desperate need to talk to her about Jennifer, and she concludes: "And I like a man who just won't stop".

Pictured: Kermit screaming as deafeningly as me right now.

Apparently in Butcher's version of reality, sex workers are incapable of not flirting, even when they are being pursued by a strange man who wants to ask them dangerous questions about their murdered friend.  At no point does she say 'Fuck off, creep', or 'I'm calling the cops' or just mace him.  She's a veteran sex worker and the chauffeur for a rich couple, driving their solid gold limo to the airport--there is exactly zero chance she doesn't have three flavours of pepper spray, a taser that can cook a frozen turkey, and an entire gun show in the glove compartment.  No, she's a sex worker, and that means that she is always conjuring boners, all the time in everyone, even her enemies.  Faith and fucking begorrah.

She keeps doing it even while he asks her about her recently murdered friend.  Linda admits to knowing Jennifer, having "shared a bed" (more girl-on-girl for the male viewer!), and regular threesomes with Tommy Tomm.  After literal pages of how Hard it is for Dresden to focus while talking to her, he realises--LE GASP--that she's trying to confuse him with boners so he won't realise she's hiding something!

So we're clear on relative badness: go back to literally any part of Eye of the World, no matter how much I hated it at the time.  Yeah, even that part.  This here is worse.  These pages are worse than the entirety of that book.

Dresden strikes upon the key question ("When was the last time you spoke to Jennifer Stanton"--what an unexpected direction!) and she drops the flirting instantly.  Turns out she called on Wednesday, the night of the murder, and she was supposed to have joined Jennifer and Tommy, but she'd had to work.  That, she assures us is the extent of her knowledge, so I'd skip the rest of this scene, except it's so bad and if I have to suffer, so do you.

Linda tells us that Jennifer would never get tangled up in anything dangerous or immoral:
"She was sweet. A lot of girls get like--They get pretty jaded, Mr Dresden. But it never really touched her. She made people feel better about themselves somehow." She looked away. "I could never do that. All I did was get them off."
Pictured: Kermit's face warped into overwhelming sorrow, like mine.

This tragic sex worker is only capable of selling sex, not actively improving the lives and self-esteem of her clients.  Very sorrow, such subsuming of self in the service of men, wow.  This also serves to assure us that Jennifer was someone worth mourning--she didn't get jaded like all those other sex workers.  She was more like a person, or at least cared about people (men).  Is that as bad as this gets?  No, it has one more circle of hell for us:
"Why," I asked her, the words slipping out before I thought about them. "Why the slut act?"
What's this?  Has Dresden noticed that he's basically writing a straight-faced parody and revealing some clever--oh, fuck it.
"Because it's what I do, Mr Dresden. For some people it's drugs. Booze. For me, orgasms. Sex. Passion. Just another addict. City's full of them." She glanced aside. "Next best thing to love. And it keeps me in work. Excuse me."
Yup.  That's where this ends up.  Linda can't stop flirting because she's a sex addict constantly looking for her next lay.  Now, look, I'm sure (I hope) that a considerable number of sex workers do actually enjoy their work, but you'll find a lot more addicts among their clients.  The idea that your average sex worker just desperately wants to screw all the time is a fantasy as indulgent as Dresden's mighty blasting rod.

Pro tip for dudes writing sex workers: don't; you're almost definitely atrocious at it.

Linda's employers, the ultra-professional Beckitts, arrive and demand to know who Dresden is; Linda claims he's an old boyfriend and tells him to take off.   Mr Beckitt cops a feel of Linda as he gets into the car, while Dresden notices that Mrs Beckitt's face reminds him of soldiers released from German prisoner-of-war camps after WW2: "Empty. Numb. Dead, and just didn't know it yet."  Because if you want precise characterisation, the best direction to leap in is something associated with Nazis.  That's definitely ideal for your scenario, and not a howling cliche used every time someone wants to be dramatic.  At least pick a different war.

Dresden heads inside the airport, gets coffee, and considers what to do next--he needs do to paying work, and interrogating Linda doesn't count, so he either does the murder-magic research Murphy wants, or he digs more into Monica's missing husband.  The latter is less likely to get him decapitated, so Dresden calls the only pizza place close enough to the lakehouse, and is soon put on the line with the cracking-voiced teenager who delivered to Victor Sells.  The kid immediately goes into "I told you I'm not gonna say anything to anyone" sputtering, and Dresden runs with it, getting the terrified kid to drop a few specifics: that he saw an orgy going on inside, and that he ran into a photographer as he left (explaining the unsubtle film canister mentioned some chapters ago).  The kid hangs up soon after, being much better at saying 'no' than Linda was.

Dresden brushes the whole thing off as "an advanced case of male menopause" on Victor's case, because apparently 'midlife crisis' wasn't misogynistic enough.  He hasn't yet realised that, as this novel's B-plot, the whole thing is going to turn out to be some kind of giant magic-related conspiracy.

(Question for the audience: are there psychometric magics in this setting?  Like, you can find a person via an object they've touched, or vice-versa?  I kind of assume there is, since Dresden apparently specialises in finding lost objects, but finding photographer dude or Victor himself would be way easier if so.  Just wondering if that remains consistent later.)

Dresden returns home and gets jumped by one or more goons just outside his door.  Foot on his neck and baseball bat smiting the ground next to his face, Dresden is told to stop snooping or else, and then left.  He stumbles inside, but of course as a protagonist, after some aching and groaning, he takes it all as motivational:
"You are not some poor rabbit, Dresden!" I reminded myself, sternly. "You are the wizard of the old school, a spellslinger of the highest caliber. You're not going to roll over for some schmuck with a baseball bat because he tells you to!"
Are you though, Dresden?  Highest calibre, I mean?  We keep coming back to this: you're either one of the less-than-two-thousand people in the world who can wield magic, and therefore spectacularly powerful by any reasonable measure and have no reason to live in fearful poverty, or you're a low-rung hobbyist whose physics-defying abilities are irrelevant in the magical hierarchy and indeed the societal power structure in general.  Any chance you'll make up your mind soon?

Dresden makes some tea and grabs his gun--sorry, his "Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's Special", because this is that kind of book--having decided that the goons were almost definitely sent by Marcone, and they would be more put off by a gun than a wand.  Then it's time to start reverse-engineering that murder magic after all.

Chapter Eleven: A Brief Interlude Of Actual Plot

We catch up with Dresden the next morning, sleepless, hextuple-checking his "calculations" on the magic.  Apparently the spell is impossible or the killer is godlike.  I'm very curious what kind of math goes into murder magic, but we won't hear any of that.  Dresden immediately takes off to see Murphy.
Things were bad. They were very, very bad!
Gripping.  General guideline: if you're using exclamation points outside of dialogue, they had better be ironic.  When they're not, I start reading in the voice of a failing standup comedian--one who doesn't know the difference between loud and funny, but has just realised that the audience does.

Dresden gets to the police station and is forced to wait (by a "greying matron", not the usual "mustached old warhorse" who would trust him like he deserves).  He can see down the hall to Murphy's office, though, where she stands:
...with a phone pressed to her ear, wearing a martyred expression. She looked like a teenager having a fight with an out-of-town boyfriend, though she'd tear my head off if she heard me saying any such thing.
Shucks, Dresden, I'm just a simple country lawyer, but maybe that's because you reflexively infantilise every woman you meet and Murphy (nominally a mighty cop) knows she has to constantly fight back if she wants you to take her seriously for ten seconds ever again.  I suggest we reverse the metaphor, and hereafter a teenage girl having a phone-fight with an out-of-town boyfriend shall be described as 'looking like a detective trying to get the chief to acknowledge that, even if she's a loose cannon, she gets results, dammit'.

While Dresden's waiting, some kid shows up at full sprint out of the holding cells, freaking out, Dresden tries to tackle him (ineffectively, because he's a squishy wizard) and they collapse into a painful heap, but the kid does stop trying to escape.  Instead he screams at Dresden:
"Wizard! I see you! I see you, wizard! I see the things that follow, those who walk before and He Who Walks Behind! They come! they come for you!"
The cops show up to drag the kid away and explain that he's a ThreeEye junkie, sending Dresden off into a spiral of frantic speculation, because "for reasons I don't have time to go into now" he really is marked with the shadow of He Who Walks Behind, a murderous spirit that one of Dresden's enemies once sicced on him.  He survived with a scar on his aura, which only wizards should know how to see, but the junkie apparently did as well, meaning--zomg--ThreeEye really does give people the Third Sight.

(I think I would actually really enjoy the 'oh, btdubs, I'm marked with the shadow of a spectral hitman, long story' aside if it appeared in a book that I didn't already hate.  I love a good noodle incident, even if I'm skeptical that Dresden can spare pages talking about how sexy a woman's voice is or how bored he is in the waiting room but not to explain what enemy he made who put a multiplanar contract on his head.)

Dresden further informs us that Third Sight is overwhelming, either tearjerkingly beautiful or awesomely awful, and that wizards learn to keep it shut most of the time or they go mad.  Possibly more dangerously than that, junkies run the risk of seeing through the masquerade and 'forcing' a vampire or other disguised beastie to kill them in pre-emptive self-defence, which he calls "double jeopardy" because he never went to law school.

Murphy shows up with coffee for him, filled with sugar just the way he likes it, because apparently she's his boss and his assistant.  (Spoilers: it's only going to get worse.)  She does demand 50 cents for it on the way to her office.  Her office does get some description, with its aikido trophies and sleek new PC (she unplugs it before Dresden walks in) and paper nameplate taped to the door as a reminder of how quickly she can be fired.  It's better characterisation than any other woman has got in the book so far, I'll give it that much.

Dresden explains the magic situation: he was right that it was a thaumaturgic ritual, but his math shows that it would take a hilarious amount of energy to do to even one person, let alone two.  Murphy suggests the "wizard version of Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled this off" and Dresden explains that being focused with your energy isn't the same as having a lot of it.  He provides us with an abruptly racist and bizarre metaphor involving "some ancient little Chinese martial-arts master" who can't "lift a puppy over his head" but can "shatter a tree trunk with his hands".  Yeah, that's not how anatomy works.  I mean, here's Ming-Na Wen breaking through concrete with a ruinous spearhand technique:


You're all welcome.  But: that still involves having muscles.  She can probably also slam-dunk an SUV.  I remember the last taekwondo master I trained under, and yes, he looked like a kindly grandfather, but there was nothing frail about him.  It was like shaking hands with a vise.  The magic men made of nothing but skin and bones who can headbutt mountains into valleys are just weird orientalist fantasy.

Anyway. Dresden goes on with the other possibility, which he says is less likely: a group of wizards, hard limit thirteen, all working together.  That requires absolute trust and devotion, so it's mostly only possible with a fanatical cult.  Either way, he has also worked out that the point of the murders wasn't to scare Bianca, but to send a message to Marcone, as part of the new secret drug war in Chicago between ThreeEye and conventional narcotics.

This chapter, in various ways, feels like it's from a much better book.  A book that's about wizards getting involved in mafia wars, and not about a parade of varyingly-naked skinny white women who would totally have sex with Dresden if only he weren't so tragically Devoted To Justice.  I suppose we're only halfway through.  Maybe it's going to get better?  Eventually?  Oh, who am I kidding, I know we still have Love Potion hijinks coming soon.

Murphy tells Dresden to give her a list of names of people who could have pulled off the killing spell, Dresden refuses, she threatens to haul him in for obstruction and says it's her job to be a cop, not his (true, and well done Murphy).  I would like to ask again about the existence of wizard cops, and whether Dresden (now that he understands the situation and has evidence that he couldn't be the killer) might not do better to inform the White Council of his findings.  But Dresden's pounding headache, which has been building momentum for a page, finally decides it's time for a quick end to the chapter, so he passes out on her office floor.

Next time: Murphy plays Florence Nightingale for no good reason.

---

*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.

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