Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 14 and 15, in which having lots of women in your book is no protection against rampant misogyny

I worry sometimes that these posts are too negative, and that there's only so much benefit that can possibly come from what amounts to a couple thousand words of vitriol.  (I'm not Jewish, but I think about the concept of tikkun olam often.  It's good stuff, in the modern interpretation.)  And then I read another paragraph and I remember that this book fucking deserves my ire and we all deserve to be armed with the knowledge to defend ourselves against this kind of garbage.

(Content: misogyny, sexual assault, murder. Fun content: watch me stumble around trying to make sense of this world's logic, like a drunk man escaping a labyrinth in a centrifuge.)

Storm Front
Chapter Fourteen: Fucking Magic, How Does It Work*

Oh good, we get to start this week with further examination of how unfathomably stupid love potions are (and all defences of them).  To recap, Dresden and Rodriguez are standing in a three-foot-diameter copper circle that is their only defence against some kind of acid toad demon, and she wants to get down on the floor and bang, even though this would lead to their immediate violent deaths.  It takes Dresden a full minute to pull away from the kiss she initiates, though he assures us that he felt self-conscious and hesitant the whole time.
The potion had taken hold of her hard. No wonder she had recovered from her terror enough to come back up the stairs and fire my gun at the demon. It had lowered her inhibitions to a sufficient degree that it must also have dulled her fears.
OF DEATH?!  To be clear here, actually having sex isn't an option on the table for them right now, because they would die immediately upon breaking the circle.  So we have to ask again what it means for this potion to have 'lowered her inhibitions'.  That's a phrasing that implies that the drinker will do what they really want to do, behind their fears and anxieties and all those things that, apparently, aren't the 'real' person.  But obviously that's not the only thing a 'love' potion does, or else people would take them before job interviews and public speaking and the like, to suppress their stressors and just get on with the task at hand.  Stage fright is an inhibition.  'Not dying' seems to me more like one of those things we want, which an anti-inhibition potion would only intensify.  There's also the specificity of trying to jump Dresden: is that because Rodriguez really wants to jump him, or because he made the potion and therefore he's induced her to want him, or because she really wants to jump someone and the only other option is a toad demon?
Susan's fingers wandered, and her eyes sparkled. "Your mouth says no," she purred, "but this says yes."
Dresden is of course still naked and somewhat sudsy from his shower, so clearly this particular fantasy wouldn't be complete without Rodriguez grabbing his junk.  But for extra fun, we have here Rodriguez using a classic anti-consent line to justify her continued advances, which means this 'love' potion has not only obliterated her self-preservation instincts (and probably her entire identity outside of her role in this book as the literally-hypersexual Latina) but also any concern she might have for consent from the object of her chemical lust.  Again: not an indicator of love.  This potion is a terrifying mind-warping poison that turns the drinker into a potential rapist.  What in the actual entire fuck.  Good thing Dresden is a mighty Man and able to easily fend Rodriguez off when she literally tries to judo him to the floor, or this scene might have been uncomfortable for the male readers.  (See also: good thing she's hot, good thing they aren't related, good thing she's a woman... Butcher had a lot of ways that he could have made this scene something other than a 'cheeky' patriarchal wank fantasy, and he made sure to avoid all of them.)

Anyway.  Bob the Skull can see the escape potion and offers to throw it to Dresden in exchange for twenty-four hours of freedom from his skull.  Dresden refuses, on the grounds that he is responsible for Bob's actions while free (he says this like it's some kind of legal quirk, and not a moral concern), but Bob is a terrible person and insists.  Can't wait to find out what kind of sexual assault he gets up to.  Dresden gets Rodriguez to drink half the potion by implying it's an aphrodisiac or something, and they get a few seconds of magic wind travel before it drops them outside in the rain.  Dresden says they'll be safe if they can get to Reading Road, which always floods in the rain and will count as enough running water to kill the demon if it follows.  Combining potions leaves Rodriguez nauseous and thus still useless, but it seems like it may have at least neutralised the 'love' potion, so we're spared any more of that garbage.

Halfway to the flooded road, a shadowy avatar appears under a broken streetlight to villain-talk at Dresden: how they didn't think he'd survive this long, do you really think I'd give you my name, soon my demon will kill you, et cetera.  Dresden is "stunned" that they summoned the demon, as if he isn't well-versed in the risk-reward ratio of doing so and this isn't a pretty standard thing in his world and life.  The shadow is in turn startled when Dresden mind-slaps it, demanding to know how he is capable of such a thing, as if they don't all know he's a wizard.  The shadow calls for the demon and for some reason Dresden watches it walk out and casually toss a car aside, instead of running more.

Maybe it's a pet peeve, but there are few narrative decisions I detest more than characters stopping to watch a threat be dangerous rather than running.  Especially if they end up just barely missing a closing door or something by one second later on.  Dresden compounds this by taking the time to "thrust [his] staff" at the shadow and dispel it, which apparently causes the caster on the far side some pain but otherwise does nothing to improve his situation. (He gets a one-liner out of the experience, which is presumably good enough.)  Then he tries to haul Rodriguez to her feet and does the whole angsty 'if I run I can still make it to the river but she'll die'.  But no, he is too Good and Pure to do such a thing, so he faces off against the demon, and then finally strikes upon the Million-To-One Chance that he could tap into the storm himself to draw enough power to kill it.  (There is much talk of channeling power to the tip of his staff.)

It works, leaving him exhausted but completely unharmed.  What a twist.

Naturally, Morgan the Warden arrived just in time to see the demon but not the avatar of the person who summoned it, so he declares that Dresden is a blight and he's convened the Council to come to Chicago in two days and sentence Dresden to death.  He disappears immediately, and within minutes a cop car has arrived to grab them both.  ...What?  Okay, sure.  Rodriguez declares this to have been the worst night of her life:
She glanced aside at me, and her eyes glittered darkly for a moment. She almost smiled, and there was a sort of vindictive satisfaction to her tone when she spoke. "But it's going to make a fantastic story."
Damn right it is, Susan Rodriguez.  I'm sure we're supposed to think ill of you for daring to profit off this, but you have been drugged, mind-controlled, and nearly abandoned to die, and you are the only person we know who's trying to crack the masquerade on the parade of magical horrors running unchecked across the world, so as far as your journalistic career goes, you have my goddamn sword.

Chapter Fifteen: Somewhere Alison Bechdel's Scar Is Burning

It turns out that the cop car was sent there by Murphy to pick Dresden up, and that's because she wants him to check out the scene of Linda Randall's murder that night.  So that's both our sex workers dead now.  Butcher knows when he wants to be consistent (kill the sex women) and when he doesn't (worldbuilding).  The cops let naked Dresden grab some clean clothes (sweatpants and a t-shirt that says "Easter has been canceled--they found the body", perfect for a murder scene) and drive him over there.  The banter starts up immediately and I am trying to imagine a person who wouldn't wish harm on Dresden after thirty seconds listening to him talk.
"Dresden," she said. She peered up at me. "You planning on having King Kong climb your hair?" 
I tried to smile at her. "We still need to cast our screaming damsel. Interested?" 
Murphy snorted. She snorts really well for someone with such a cute nose.
I don't know what any of this means.  I actually miss Wheel of Time and its compulsive capitalisation and 'here are the sixteen different names we have for this thing'.

In another weird quirk, Murphy explains that Linda was killed in the same manner as "Tommy Tomm and the Stanton woman".  Was that actually easier or more natural to say than 'Jennifer'?  Really?  Would anyone call Tommy 'the Tomm man'?  No.  That's a reference reserved only for women to make them sound less like people.  Just put on your fedora and admit you'd rather call them all 'females', Butcher.

After actually being pretty consistent about not being able to guess at his wizard enemy's gender last chapter, Dresden immediately starts defaulting to 'he' and calling them "the Shadowman" as he explains his new storm-magic theory to Murphy.  Quite reasonably, Murphy wants to know how he failed to consider this option before now.  I know we readers are new to magic and so these ideas aren't going to leap to mind, but if tapping storms is an adequate replacement for things like getting twelve other people to perform a ritual with you that requires absolute trust and unity, I feel like maybe it would be a more commonly considered method.  Like, if you talk to an engineer about possible engines for a doomsday machine, they're not going to say 'I don't understand, it's impossible to get this kind of power from coal... unless... unless they somehow managed to tap the power of the atom!'  They're going to say 'Well, it's stupidly dangerous, but I guess this thing has a fission reactor'.  Dresden has acted throughout this sequence like he and his enemy are inventing storm magic as they go along, but he's talked about it like established fact.

I pause here to note again that I would probably be less petty about this if Dresden weren't an awful person navigating a world that hates women and people of colour.  I guess my point is that this book is not only socially reprehensible, but I don't think there's any case to be made that the 50s-era patriarchal morality is something that's worth suffering through for the sake of the great magical story.

Dresden scopes out Linda's apartment (he's pretending he never met her, because Murphy would have questions) and it looks about the way you'd figure a thirtysomething white guy likes to imagine a sex worker's apartment looks: lingerie everywhere, half-burnt candles on every flat surface around the giant bed, an open drawer full of sex toys, unused kitchenette full of pizza boxes.

Distinctly absent from the description: literally anything that would suggest Linda was an actual person.  No books or movies or half-finished knitting lying around, no photographs of friends or family or holiday memories, no gecko in a terrarium.  Not even a terrible manuscript about a sex worker, a dashing foreign prince, and the tumult of their courtship.  Butcher actively dismisses the idea that Linda's life could not be summed up with 'fucks people for money'.

He nevertheless makes an effort to tag her as sympathetic anyway: Dresden feels "a sudden pang of understanding and empathy for Linda", since the emptiness of the apartment has much in common with his own (but even he has a cat and a blasphemous t-shirt, which is more depth than she's been granted).  Seeing her body (murdered in the same heart-ripping manner as the others), he thinks about her personality, "a quick wit [...] sly sensuality [...] a little hint of insecurity", which is still more a sex fantasy than a person, but I'm willing to give Butcher a D for effort.  Dresden is still particularly hung up on someone murdering with magic, which I get is a cultural taboo for him but remains weird to me.

(Before I forget: Linda is also naked, because she just got out of the bath.  Dresden notes her tan lines.  Help me.  Someone.)

The forensics team falls silent at his approach, and Dresden sees in their faces the deep fear of scientists faced with "bloody evidence that three hundred years of science and research was no match for the things that were still, even after all this time, lurking in the dark."  Perhaps it's fitting for Dresden's arrogance that he wouldn't realise the only reason 'science' can't explain magic is that it hasn't had a chance.  Magic still has observable, reproducible rules.  That's all you need in order to do science.  Though it pains me to say it, Dresden is a scientist of magic.  Dresden even knows exactly what happened here (murder-wizard tapped the storm to kill Linda) but he insists he doesn't have the answers they're looking for and walks away.

Murphy gives us the timeline: Linda called 911 to say she knew who killed Jennifer and Tommy, then the phone cut off as the spell hit her.  She's also done the digging to know that Linda's employers, the Beckitts, had a daughter who was killed three years earlier in a gunfight between Marcone's mob and "some of the Jamaican gang that was trying to muscle in on the territory back then".  (Is this the first mention we've had that black people exist in this universe?)  Dresden immediately concludes that Mrs Beckitt's "numb face and dead eyes" are fully explained by this loss.  Marcone, of course, dodged any legal case the Beckitts took at him.

Murphy reveals that she found Dresden's card (he gave one to Linda) but hasn't yet added it to evidence, and demands to know what he knows.  He roundabout admits to having spoken to her, that she said she knew nothing, and she used to work for Bianca.  Murphy, at long last, loses her fucking chill, slams Dresden against the door, and points out that if he'd told her this right away, not only might the police have gotten information from her, but she might not have been murdered.
She stared up at my face, and she didn't look at all like a cutesy cheerleader, now. She looked like a mother wolf standing over the body of one of her cubs and getting ready to make someone pay for it.
As much as I think physical intimidation is not admirable, I'll take a million of this Murphy over forehead-kisses nurse-mother-girlfriend Murphy.  (Also, points to Murphy for properly valuing even the one-dimensional Linda the author has given us.  Dresden is morose about how all of this relates to him and his Feelings; Murphy is just furious that another of her citizens is dead.)

Dresden considers what limited information he's still withholding from Murphy (that Linda had said she was coming to see him tonight) and decides to keep on withholding it, for fear that she'll either decide he is the killer (a vengeful boyfriend jealously taking out Linda's other lovers first) or that she'll draw Shadowman's attention and end up murdered next.  I cannot fathom how telling Murphy that Linda had called him before 911 would somehow raise her profile (she's already leading the investigation), but Dresden seems pretty convinced that it will, and that's good enough for him.
Then, too, there was the White Council. Men like Morgan and his superiors, secure in their own power, arrogant and considering themselves above the authority of any laws but their own, wouldn't hesitate to remove one police lieutenant who had discovered the secret world of the White Council.
Wait, what.

WhAT


Okay, we've been operating this far on the induction that there isn't strictly speaking a Masquerade in this world.  That there's no wizarding law against mundane people knowing that magic and demons re real, but it's mostly dismissed as fairy tales.  So Dresden lists himself in the phone book as a wizard, so that people specifically looking for magic solutions know who to call, and we can presume that over the next few decades the social trends that Dresden listed for us earlier will lead to a rediscovery of the supernatural sides of the world.

And now here's Dresden saying that the Masquerade is actually to be protected at any cost, up to and including the death of any mundane person who learns too much of the truth.  The White Council might literally murder a cop for successfully tracking down a killer wizard.  Dresden is in fact putting people in mortal danger every time he tells them he can perform a cantrip to find their missing shed key.

I've talked a lot about inconsistency in this book, but holy fuck.

Dresden doesn't look at Murphy as he says again that he knows nothing more, so he can only "sense [...] the little lines of hurt and anger around her eyes" and he's not certain if she wipes away a tear before passing Dresden's card over to Carmichael for tagging.  She asks Dresden to come to the station to make a statement (he refuses) and says she'll get a warrant if he's not home to be questioned in the morning.  And, of course, declares that if he is behind this she'll take him down, magic or not.

It occurs to me that her sudden flare of aggression earlier was perhaps less 'Murphy finally stops coddling Dresden' and more 'Murphy is a woman brimful with chaotic emotions and cannot be dispassionate like Dresdenman'.
I understood the pressure she was under, her frustration, her anger, and her determination to stop the killing from happening again. If I was some kind of hero from a romance novel, I'd have said something brief and eloquent and heartrending. 
But I'm just me, so I said, "I do understand, Karrin."
I assume we're supposed to think that is eloquent and heartrending under the circumstances, but Dresden is too humble to realise what a romantic hero he is.

That is roughly the end of the chapter, but one more question about the total lack of worldbuilding in this book: who is supposed to investigate magic killings here?  The White Council knows that there have been murders, but apart from Morgan's pet theory that Dresden is evil incarnate, they don't seem to care much.  There are apparently no wizard cops checking out the scene or following leads (if there were, Dresden would hopefully contact them), but the council is apparently also happy to kill any mundane cop who digs too deep into wizard business, including murder.  If Dresden weren't around, who would actually be there to identify and stop the killer?  It's tempting to say they don't care unless the killer is targeting other wizards, but Dresden also seems pretty sure that any magical murder is the worst taboo possible, so... yeah, I'm really lost.

Next time: tracking magic absolutely exists and this whole plot is nonsensical.

---

*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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