Sunday, May 22, 2016

A brief lull

Hokay, so, I've locked comments on the latest Dresden post as a peace-of-mind thing.  I love passionate debate and having our blog chosen as a forum for serious ideas to be discussed, but I'm on, like, chapter twenty of book one of an interminably long series and I don't feel like I can effectively engage with or moderate a discussion that ranges over the entire body of work, so I'm going to request that we keep the references to later books to a minimum in future threads.

Also, as a general rule, if a rape survivor says 'I feel that you are ignoring and dismissing the views of actual people here regarding sexual assault in our culture' and you come back with 'I guess you just don't like complicated morality in your fiction', you're a colossal jackass and you need to rethink your life choices.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 20 and 21, in which Our Hero just can't be blamed for being terrible and useless

This post would have been done yesterday, but I had to have the 'let's not use homophobic slurs as casual slang' talk with one of my online D&D groups.  I think I surprised them by skipping over 'you can't say that' and going directly to 'I can't control what you say, but I will judge you for it, and if you're my friend I appreciate it if you choose your words such that I can easily distinguish between you and the people who want me dead'.  At least I have the GM's support this time (and the lone woman in the group, who was immediately apologetic for not calling the dudebro out herself).  Anyway, that experience pretty much ruined the day for anything except thinking about the angry rants I couldn't unleash on the guy in question because it would at that point be counter-productive.  I got my unimpressive 'I didn't mean anything by it, they're just words to me, but I'll try to cut back' apology and that's the best I could really hope for in this situation.


(Content: parental abuse, partner abuse, implied rape, murder.)

Storm Front
Chapter Twenty: Ebony Black'stone Copperfield Dresden*

Dresden cabs it to Monica Sells' house with zero fanfare or difficulties.  She never gave him her address, but presumably he was able to look her up via the phonebook, because she told him their real last name (Sells) even though she was afraid to speak her husband's true name and we don't know if 'Monica' is really hers.  Now that Dresden has worked out that she was actually just trying to drag him into this to stop whatever evil her husband is getting up to, he (and we) might wonder why she didn't do a better job of trying to clue him in (like giving him all the personal information she could and saying 'I'm like 40% sure he's gone supervillain') but maybe we'll get some justification for that now.

Dresden describes what seems like a pretty typical suburb to me--young trees, minivans, lots of 'for sale' signs on properties, not a lot of birdsong or barking dogs--and declares that it feels "blighted, a place where a black wizard had set up shop".  (I want to make a joke here about property values and white flight as soon as one 'black' person shows up in a neighbourhood, but it's hard to formulate one that's clearly only mocking racist people and Butcher's insistent use of 'black' to mean evil.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader.)

Dresden knocks and rings for a few minutes and is about to magic the door off its hinges when Monica finally answers, and we get another paragraph describing her look (jeans, flannel, and #nomakeup, which makes her look "both older and more appealing" because Dresden is That Guy).  She tries to send him away, but he bluffs that he'll tell the cops Everything if she does, then forces his way through the door.  Monica tries to taze him and I cheer up immensely for a moment, but he dodges once and when she almost gets him in the face the second time he exhales wizardliness all over the taser and it shuts down.

So, Dresden has managed to avoid burning out any of the phones he's used so far, any of the cars he's travelled in, or any of the police computers he's been near, but now that there's a taser in his face his anti-tech field ramps up to full power.  Yes.  Truly this is such an inconvenience to his life.  Butcher continues to not seem to grasp that in order for something to count as a flaw it has to actually impede the character.  It has to have effects they don't want, or that objectively hold them back.  This is also why I can't count Dresden's sexism as a legitimate 'character flaw', because while he's incredibly misogynistic, the book would also have us believe that he's right and his terrible decisions (like pushing Murphy away) are the correct and moral calls to make.  I'm trying to figure out now whether Dresden has any 'flaws' that are actually bad in Butcher's estimation, or if they're all of the same league as 'I'm so beautiful it's a curse'.

Anyway: Monica also makes direct eye contact with Dresden for the first time while she's try to electrocute his face, and they sooouuuuulllgaaaaaaze.  Dresden finally understands All The Things by reading the intense fear and love motivating her.  Monica, being a womanish lady-woman with ladybrain, has the typical soulgaze reaction to Dresden's grimdark man thoughts, freezes in shock, starts shaking, and nearly goes limp.

(Aside: is there any actual reason that a good soulgazing wouldn't prove without a doubt that Dresden was innocent of these murders and also everything else the council hates him for?)

Dresden informs us that from the gaze he learned more than he wanted to about her abused childhood and abusive marriage and her desperate desire to protect her children.  The kids, both preteens, choose that moment to appear and ask mom if they should call the cops, but Monica has just learned that Linda is dead (apparently they knew each other) and tells them it's fine.
I stepped closer to her. I had to have her help. No matter how much pain she was in, no matter what kind of agony she was going through, I had to have her help. And I thought I knew the names to invoke to get it. 
I can be such a bastard sometimes.
So here's that question about flaws again, because we're obviously not supposed to think that Dresden is a terrible person for breaking and entering and interrogating here, we're supposed to think that he's been forced into a bad position and he's doing what he must, for JUSTICE.  Because of that and many other aspects of his personality, Dresden's self-loathing here doesn't really characterise him as a sweet little woobie who needs a hug.  He comes across as another aspect of That Guy, the one who joins a discussion by saying "I know everyone's going to jump on me for saying this, but..." or who vagueblogs about how awful he is as a passive attempt to guilt people into telling him how great he really is.
DRESDEN: I'm so heartless and closed-off; it's no wonder everyone leaves me in the end. Siiiiiiiigh.
ME: I know, right?  And let's not forget your pointless dramatics and condescension.  Like, you never actually stop being awful, you just change the current configuration of awful, like a Rubik's cube constantly rotating into new permutations of overbearing patriarchy.
Dresden rattles off Jennifer, Tommy, and Linda's names again and begs Monica for her help, and she relents, though the chapter ends with her solemn declaration that "There's nothing anyone can do, now."  Personally, this is not a type of tension-raising that works for me, because I'm 100% certain that there will in fact be something that can be done.  A writer can't scare the audience with something that they know won't happen.  A cliffhanger that's meant to actually be scary and not just dramatic won't put the protagonist in danger--it'll have them racing to save a secondary character who legitimately might not make it.  (Or, you know, some other consequence that isn't as heavy-handed as character death, but we're taking little steps here.)  Of course, in this situation that would probably mean Murphy, and I can do without damselling of our lone Strong Female Character, but casting is Butcher's problem to fix.

Chapter Twenty-One: Abusers Are Bad People, This Should Not Be A Controversial Statement

In Monica's prototypical kitchen--her sanctuary, Dresden intuits, sparkling clean from all the time she spends being a Good Wife--he confronts her about the vague resemblance that he's mentioned a couple of times, and she admits that she is Jennifer Stanton's older sister.  (Rebellious Jennifer "ran away to become an actress"... in Chicago?  Is that a thing people do?  I thought it was always New York or Los Angeles.  Or, like, Vancouver if you're Canadian.)  Monica has some pseudo-deep thoughts about her sister becoming a sex worker, but they're not worth repeating here.

She explains that she was evasive in her first meeting with Dresden out of simple uncertainty--she knew her husband was up to something but that didn't mean she was comfortable setting a stranger to hunt him down.
"Who killed your sister?" [....] I knew the answer, already, but I needed to hear it from her. I needed to be sure. I tried to tell myself that it would be good for her to face such a thing, just to say it out loud. I wasn't sure I bought that--like I said, I'm not a very good liar.
Dunno what to make of this either.  'I know who the killer is, but I don't actually know who the killer is, so better maximise this woman's trauma anyway even though I totally don't want to'?  This reads more like Dresden is vaguely aware that he's a sadist but still trying to downplay it to himself.  I generally wouldn't actually put 'sadistic' on Dresden's list of flaws, but it sure sounds like Dresden thinks he is himself.  Anyway, totally unforeseeable plot twist: the killer is Victor Sells.

Dresden accuses her of knowingly sending him to the lake house where he performs his rituals so Victor would see Dresden and pick a fight.  She wanted to protect her children from her husband--her husband, she explains, who was a good man who got so angry that he couldn't provide as much for Monica as her wealthy parents could, and "sometimes he would lose his temper"--I feel like I'm reading Speaker for the Dead again--and then five-ish years ago Victor discovered magic.  He'd spend all night performing weird rituals in their locked attic and get steadily more magical, burst out shouting or laughing for no reason, set the curtains on fire with collateral anger.  Monica didn't confront him, having been raised in an abusive household and thus used to just desperately staying out of the way.

I'd like to think that we're not supposed to have any sympathy for Victor here, an entitled and narcissistic man who felt inadequate because he didn't make enough money 'to provide for his family' and so abused his family to vent his frustrations.  I'd like to think that Monica's remaining loyalty to him is supposed to be the realistic scars of abuse and not some heroic patience hanging onto the goodness that was buried underneath the abuse.  I would really like to.  But I'm not sure.

Victor invented ThreeEye and forced Monica to take a drink so she could see the world as he did.  Dresden informs us of how horrible this is, how she would have seen the true power-obsessed greed-consumed monster that her husband had become and the memory would never fade.  Victor tried to mass-produce ThreeEye but couldn't get enough power for the volume he wanted, no matter how much emotion he tapped into, until he realised he could also siphon emotional power off other people, and that lust was more useful than fear or anger for his purposes.  Obvious conclusion: track down investors to hold magic orgies.  Monica tries to say that even then, "there were moments that I could almost see him again", but Dresden is a Man and he has no room to feel compassion for Monica when he's too busy feeling RAAAAAGE at Victor.  Monica flinches away, fearing Dresden's anger, because of course she fears anger, so much of her life and her trauma revolves around getting trapped in or avoiding other people's anger.  Dresden isn't doing a thing to make this easier for Monica, which ought to count as a flaw, but since it won't actually hold him back at all (send her into a panic attack where she can't exposit plot for him anymore, for instance) it still doesn't count narratively.

Victor found the Beckitts and got their cooperation by promising vengeance against Marcone; used Monica to get to Jennifer to Linda to Marcone's lackey (Lawrence or Tommy?).  That made for enough people that Monica got to stay out of the magic orgies sometimes, but Victor continued power-hungry and she could tell he was starting to think of ways to use the children.  Jennifer threatened to go to the cops and Marcone if Victor didn't let Monica and the kids go, and thus the murdering began.

Dresden tells us that he wants to comfort her, soothing words and arm around her shoulders, et cetera, but he realises that would just make her scream now, so he gets her a glass of cold water and says he's sorry.  It's the least terrible thing he's done yet.
I wanted so badly to tell her that everything would be all right. I wanted to dry her tears and tell her that there was still joy in the world, that there was still light and happiness. But I didn't think she would hear me. Where she was, there was nothing but an endless, hopeless darkness full of fear, pain, and defeat. 
So I did the only thing I could. I withdrew in silence and left her to her weeping.
Funny, innit, how every time Dresden abandons a person to their fears without trying to give them any solace or hope, it's because he intuitively knows that none of the things he could say would actually help.  Forensic scientists want him to explain magic murder--nope, nothing he can say.  Monica thinks Victor is invincible and her children are doomed--better just leave without saying anything to her.  I mean, dude, since you're not apparently in a pit of despair yourself anymore, you must have some idea what you're going to do next, so why not give her a lifeline, or even some vaguely convincing balderdash?  'Your husband might think no one can escape his death traps, Mrs Sells, but my dad named me after Houdini for a reason--I'll be back when I've saved us all'.

Tween Jenny (named for her aunt) stops Dresden on the way out to be innocent and precocious at him, saying she recognises him from the Arcane and if he'll help her mom.
"My daddy used to be one of the good guys, Mr Dresden."
Pictured: Five-Tongue Fleming reminds us that abusive fathers are not, in fact, good guys.
"But I don't think that he is anymore." Her face looked sad. It was a sweet, unaffected expression. "Are you going to kill him?"
(I assume 'unaffected' here has to mean 'sincere, not an affectation' rather than 'dispassionate', but it can be hard to tell after a bit of evocative prose like 'her face looked sad'.)  This is of course Dresden's opportunity to tell the audience that he doesn't want to kill Victor but might have to for everyone's sake, and Jenny goes on about hoping Dresden is "one of the good guys [....] we really need a good guy."  As per usual, the author fails to grasp levels of mental development among children; eleven-year-olds (or thereabouts) might not be up for a serious debate on the morality of lethal force in the apprehension of violent criminals or the acceptability of the death penalty, but they're also not going to ask in childlike wonder if you're 'a good guy' or breeze past the question of killing their superpowered evil father.

Dresden returns to the idling cab and asks to be taken to a payphone.
Then I closed my eyes and struggled to think. It was hard, through all the pain I felt. Maybe I'm stupid or something, but I hate to see people like Monica, like little Jenny, hurting like that.
Bruh, I don't know what the dealio is, but sometimes, like, I have feelings just because other people are having feelings?  Like, someone who isn't even me is in pain, so like, I'm not here for that, bruh, and then I feel bad?  What the heck?  No one else does that, right?  It's just me being stupid and it'll go away?  Bruh.  Bruh.

Dresden thinks about going to Murphy for police support, but concludes that even if she believes him there's too much bureaucracy trying to get a warrant to raid a house in a different jurisdiction on a Sunday.  Going to the Council isn't an option because they're all travelling and thus incommunicado, because apparently there's no wizard version of a text message and despite thousands of years of magical development it's just an inviolable law of nature that people can't be communicated with while moving.  (The lesser-known third corollary of the Heisenberg Principle.)  Not sure why he can't throw a flare into the air for Morgan and just say 'Hey, I know I have a court date tomorrow, but I am 95% sure I've also tracked down an evil wizard selling wizard meth to mundanes, would you get someone to look into that for me if I accede to literally any conditions you demand?'  Like: Dresden's not even taking steps to make sure that someone will go after Victor if Harry fails.  No.  Dresden must do this By Himself Alone Solo With No One Else.

His task is to drop Victor (presumed to be at the lake house for some reason; I guess that's his only ritual spot?) without breaking any Laws of Magic.  Victor, who was untalented and ignorant and easily banished in shadow form just a few chapters ago, is now "as strong a practitioner as I had ever gone up against".  I dunno, Dresden, I bet he doesn't have a bulletproof forcefield like you do.  I feel confident that this is a situation that can be resolved with a smashed window and a blunt instrument.  Or you could go for the quick-draw solution, tap the storm before he has the chance and just pour lightning onto his house, then grab him when he runs for cover.  Or bluff, phone him up and tell him that the cops are about to hit the house on a drug bust.  Victor probably doesn't know how hard you've worked to burn that bridge yet.  'You have until the storm hits to stop this wizard from completing his evil ritual' is the kind of problem that an RPG group could have a field day with.  Have you considered hanging out around gaming shops and grabbing some Call of Cthulhu veterans to be your tacticians?

Dresden realises that he forgot to check the Sells' bathroom for Victor's hair or the like, but "I had the feeling that he wouldn't have been that careless. Anyone who spends time thinking about how to use that sort of thing against people is going to be doubly paranoid that no one have the opportunity to use it against him."  Aren't you supposed to be a magic nerd, Dresden?  Isn't this literally all you think about?  And you can even be bothered to maintain a brushcut?

But then Dresden remembers Chekov's Scorpion, that evil talisman that Monica brought him way back at the beginning of the book, still in his office desk drawer, which he can use to reflect Victor's power easily.  It does finally occur to Dresden to set the cops on Victor as a backup plan, but it turns out that Murphy has already busted into his office with a warrant for his arrest, and she refuses to believe him (over the phone) when he tells her not to go digging in his desk for her own safety.  Murphy, obvs just demands to know what he's hiding and opens the scorpion drawer, followed by screaming and gunshots.

Oh, look.  A cliffhanger where Murphy gets damselled after all.  Joy.

Next week: man save woman from scary insect.


*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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 18 and 19, in which repetition masquerades as exposition

So, how was your week?  I got a temporary cat (while his usual people are out of the country for a month) and he's very snuggly and he's pretty sure he needs to be fed twenty-nine times a day or society will crumble.

Here in the Department of Analysing Terrible Books the hate engine keeps chugging on.  We're closing in on the final act, with about a quarter of the book to go, and by the looks of it we have nothing to look forward to, so I added a puppy.

(Content: childbirth, parental death. Fun content: magicians, puppies, and the writer's-block panacea.)

Storm Front
Chapter Eighteen: If I Monologue Enough Maybe You Won't Notice These Plot Rails

I could just write MAN ANGST for a couple of lines instead of talking about the actual events that open this chapter.  It starts with "Have you ever felt despair?" and continues with "When I'm in turmoil [...] I go for walks. It's just one of those things I do" and eventually Dresden starts spewing backstory, but leave that a moment.  What we have here is something I tend to think of as emotional hipsterism, a hallmark of the truly pretentious man.  Sometimes he feels despair--but you've probably never heard of it.  He, you must understand, has difficult feelings that even he can't just shrug off immediately, despite his manliness, and so he must go for a walk--who can fathom the oddity of this?  Admittedly, the wizards in this world would make more sense if they were all solipsists.

Dresden refers to his wandering around Chicago at night as "pretty stupid, in retrospect", despite the established fact that he's carrying a heat cannon and a bulletproof shield.

Anyway, we hear a bit about Dresden's parents.  Of course they're both gone now, no points for guessing that, but for the lightning round question, cast your vote: which parent had a formative influence on Dresden?  If you guessed "his father, because his mother died in childbirth", you get all the points and Butcher gets none.  I looked up some statistics just to see how vanishingly unlikely that is, and the answer is 'very', especially when noting that mortality is closely related to the mother's socioeconomic factors of health and (spoilers, like you care) Dresden's mother was actually a fantastically powerful wizard.  (I don't know if Dresden knows that yet.)  I read enough to learn that Dresden's mom was actually killed by a curse, but I'm going to throw out a wild frickin' guess that Butcher decided on that later, as part of Operation: Continuity Is For Suckers.

So here the death of Dresden's mother is not merely sidelined but actually framed in reference to his father: "He wasn't there when I was born. He wasn't there when she died."  We're told that dad showed up a day later, "gave me the names of three magicians" (not Potter, blessedly, but Harry Houdini, Blackstone, and Copperfield) and then took him on the road with his travelling stage magic show.

(Dresden's dad wasn't an actual wizard, and I have so many questions about his parents' life and marriage and arrangement.  Did he know his wife was hella magical?  Did he care?  Did he choose to stay away because he felt inadequate?  Did he ever ask her to teach him?  It turns out that Dresden's mom's signature move was portal-hopping, so why wasn't she on the road with him?  Why didn't he have any actual enchanted tricks crafted by her?  Or friends in the wizard community?  Or did she hide all of that from him for undoubtedly super selfless reasons that coincidentally make this plot way simpler?)

In any case, Dresden's dad then died abruptly of an aneurysm when Dresden was six, and that sense of loneliness and despair is exactly what he feels now, facing certain doom from either his enemy wizard or his court session on Monday.  Which... I mean, Dresden has been in a lot of life-or-death situations before, even ones just referenced in his anecdotes, like He Who Walks Behind or his evil magic teacher for starters.  I know that if you want to shoehorn in some dead parents, you've got to make your own opportunities, but connecting his current situation to a six-year-old's fear of abandonment just doesn't ring true for me.  Others are welcome to make a countercase.  (Did neither of Dresden's parents make arrangements for the care of their son?  You'd think maybe this would be a moment for a wizard friend to swoop in and explain that he's Dresden's godfather.  But I guess Dresden's trying to hammer home DESSSPAAIIRRRRRR and so he leaves the backstory hanging in tension.)

Dresden finds that he randomly walks back to Linda Randall's apartment, a terrible idea if I ever heard one, exceeded only by his subsequent decision to magically unlock the door, duck the police tape, curl up on her bedroom carpet and fall asleep.
"This is stupid, Harry," I told myself. I guess I wasn't in the mood to listen.
The last three chapters have been an amazing parade of contrivance towards set pieces that Butcher clearly decided he wanted to feature but didn't know how to justify.  (Maybe I'm unrealistic, but surely you don't leave a fresh murder scene completely unguarded after just a couple of hours?  Surely there's some newbie who could stand to spend the early hours of the morning standing by a door and preventing entry or tampering?)

Dresden awakens when the sun has risen and literally talks to himself for half a page, with line breaks like dialogue, forcing me to picture him now as Smeagol/Gollum snipping at each other.
"Get off the floor and get to work." 
"Don't wanna. Tired. Go away."
He's telling himself to go away.  I could perhaps let this go as internal monologue, but literally speaking aloud to himself?  I feel like I'm reading fanfiction.

A shocking break from tradition follows: Dresden looks around the room and sees evidence that Linda was an actual person: "a high-school yearbook [...] several photographs serving as bookmarks" and a framed photo of herself at graduation between her smiling parents.  It's not much, especially since it's used to imply how happy she used to be before she got into sex work and everything was terrible forever, but it's the first hint we've had that she had any depth of character.

But that's just a preamble, because this whole weird walk and break-and-enter and murder-scene nap was all a prolonged version of that cliche where our hero is searching desperately for something, can't find it, gives up, lets his gaze fall in a random direction, and there it is, the next plot token--a little plastic film canister exactly like the one he found at the Sells' beach house.  It has a full an undeveloped roll of film inside.

Just how atrociously bad are these cops?

I mean, okay, you know there's magic involved and you can't explain what's going on and maybe there is no mundane evidence that could help, but of all the things in the room to overlook, a full roll of film didn't strike anyone as potentially important evidence?  It could be anything!  It could be blackmail material she was going to use against someone powerful!  It could be secret government documents!  It could be the first non-blurry sasquatch photos!  What kind of hard-driven murder investigator sweeps a crime scene and misses a roll of film because it's slightly under the bed?!

It's not like there was much else in the room for it to get lost in, given the total lack of character-building possessions.

Dresden immediately grabs his rod and sets forth to find "this photographer", implicitly dismissing any possibility that Linda might have taken the pictures herself.  Why would she have the pictures if she didn't take them?  Is there something I forget about her alibi, or does Dresden just assume she couldn't possibly have any skills or interests outside of sex work?  Whatever.  The chapter ends as somebody else unlocks the apartment door and bursts in.

Old noir master Raymond Chandler gave us the one-size-fits-all solution to any stuck plot--a man bursts into the room with a gun**--but Butcher has already given us alternatives such as toad demon attack, the spontaneous existence of tracking spells, and various meddling sex objects women, so I'm not sure if this is a nod to the classics or just running out of ideas.

Chapter Nineteen: The Latest Findings From The Faculty Of The Screamingly Obvious At We-Already-Knew-That University

Dresden hides behind the opening door and the stranger who enters doesn't notice him, despite his eyes sweeping the room in a panic.  (Dresden informs us that it's exactly this panic that causes him to miss Dresden in his peripheral vision, which doesn't really jive with human instincts, but sure, whatever.)
His hair, a listless shade of brown, was drawn back into a ponytail. [....] He was a good-looking man, or so it seemed, with strong lines to his jaw and cheekbones.
I went searching on variants of the phrase 'listless brown' to see if maybe this was just a kind of hue adjective I've never heard before, but all I found was this (you are welcome):

Pictured: an excellent but fatigued puppy.

Personally I feel like the listless ponytail is going to seriously detract from any dude's attractiveness, but who am I to tell our hero which men he should ogle?  More importantly, Hot Stranger Man makes "a strange, cawing little sound" when he sees the bloody bed and immediately dives to search underneath it.  Dresden immediately concludes that this man is the photographer in question, again for no reason I can perceive.

Dresden kicks the door shut, flashes his badge, and startles the man with a solid bluff check: "I knew we'd catch you if I just waited".  (Again, why aren't the cops watching this place?  Isn't returning to the scene of the crime an actual thing killers are known to do?  Google suggests it's not purely a TV tradition.)  The man defends himself as an innocent newspaper photographer, but Dresden produces the film roll and keeps pressing.
I tried to think of what Murphy would sound like, if I was downtown with her right now, waiting for her to ask me questions.
Or... like, maybe what a private detective would sound like if he was questioning someone connected to both of his current cases?  I mean.  This is literally your job, Dresden.  You should not be improvising this.  These are actual skills that you are supposed to have been trained in by actual people.  You are not an everyman hero swept up in circumstance.  You are on billable hours.

Their exchanges remain stupid ("Am I in some kind of trouble?" "We'll see about that."  Of course he's in trouble!  He broke into a cordoned-off murder scene!  You don't need to bluff on this, man!) but the guy identifies himself as Donny Wise before realising that Dresden isn't an actual cop.  He tries to run, Dresden slams the door shut with magic, and Wise freaks out that he's "one of them" and begs for mercy.  When Dresden says he's trying to catch the killer, Wise demands to know why he'd risk death if he wasn't even sleeping with Linda.  Dresden, never one to miss a humblebrag, just says "Who else is going to?", thus ignoring a much smoother opportunity to think about his motivations, instead of the pages upon pages of unprovoked navel-gazing we've had up to now.

Wise demands the film in exchange for telling Dresden all he knows, and insists the film itself is useless "if you don't know what you're looking at".  Then why is it so important to steal it back?

Wise says that he knew Linda because he sometimes does magazine photoshoots with sex workers around town, and she called him in to photograph her through the window at the beach house Wednesday night.  He saw the thunderstorm sorcerer orgy inside, took all the shots as requested, and delivered the film to Linda the next day.  He didn't recognise anyone else inside.
"I wasn't looking. But they wasn't being too particular, if you take my meaning. Turned my stomach."
I don't think I do take his meaning.  'Not particular' doesn't sound like weird kinky stuff.  Was it gay stuff?  Was that the stomach-turning part?  Fuck you too, Donny.  Anyway: Dresden intuits that Wise actually wants the film back so he can blackmail people, though he claims he'll destroy it.  Dresden, genius of the year, instead says "Fuego" and incinerates the film on the spot without actually checking whether Wise is telling the truth.  Also, if that was really Wise's only involvement in this incident, why does he react to demonstrations of magic with 'you're one of them'?  He saw naked things happening, not telekinesis.  Was it magic sex?  (Create your own most disturbing 'was this your card?' joke.)

Dresden lets Wise go, despite not actually getting any information out of him that we didn't already know or at least mightily suspect, and still with no reason that Wise should know wizards are real, let alone involved in this case.  Dresden finally takes the unfathomable leap of induction that it wasn't chance that he was sent to the Sells' house before knowing it was important in this case, concludes that perhaps Monica knows more than she is letting on, and sets out to find her.

I'm 90% sure that Monica never gave Dresden her address and we have no proof that 'Sells' is even her last name, so I'm not sure how he plans to do that, but it doesn't matter because the next chapter opens with him arriving at her suburban home, no questions asked.

I just don't know, y'all.


*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.

**The blogqueen also suggested the alternative "a gun bursts into the room with a man", which I hope to work into my own writing someday.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 16 and 17, in which true rules of power and exchange are demonstrated

Gracious, but it has been so long since a Dresden post.  There's a very simple reason for that, which is that every time I opened this file up to try to write something, I felt immediately exhausted and queasy and started asking myself serious questions about how I wanted to spend what limited time I have in this world.  But I'm feeling more fortitudinal today, ready to go a couple rounds with with this nonsense while I keep sorting out my own next writing project.

(Personal aside: I think my newest prescription is actually working?  A lot of things are still a struggle but I hate myself so much less than usual, most days.  It's nice.  I recommend it to everyone.  Except people like Harry Dresden.)

Storm Front
Chapter Sixteen: Quick, Look Over There*

I was a big fan of magic tricks for a few years when I was little; I performed for my grade three class and would test out card-forces on family members at random and keep books of tricks by my bed to read before sleep, fantasising about the glorious shows I could put on if only I could house and care for enough rabbits.  (We had two.  I never actually tried to conjure them.)  The main lesson I got out of magic was that you can do damn near anything if you can just convince people to not pay attention at the right moments.  Nothing is more versatile or powerful than misdirection.

Appropriately enough, I feel like misdirection is exactly what Butcher is trying to pull on us as this chapter begins with Dresden moping about his confrontation with Murphy.
I had lost Murphy's trust. It didn't matter that I had done what I had to protect both her and myself. Noble intentions meant nothing. It was the results that counted. And the results of my actions had been telling a bald-faced lie to one of the only people I could come close to calling a friend. And I wasn't sure that, even if I found the person or persons responsible, even if I worked out how to bring them down, even if I did Murphy's job for her, that what had happened between us could ever be smoothed over.
(Setting aside for the moment that Murphy obviously does her job because she wants to do her job and thus has no reason to be grateful that some rando sorcerer stole it from her...)

It's been a while since the last post, so let's recap the details that Butcher glosses over here: what is the lie that Dresden told Murphy, and how did that lie protect her?

According to Harry's own internal monologue, the information he's holding back is that "Linda Randall had called me earlier that evening. She had planned on coming to me, to talk to me. She was going to give me some information and someone had shut her up before she could".  He's implicitly admitted that he disobeyed Murphy to talk to Linda, so that's not part of it.  And Linda was literally murdered while on the phone with 911 announcing that she knew who the murderer was, so Murphy already knows that too.  The question I'm left asking is why Linda would make a call to Harry, take a bath, and then call 911 to give them information that guarantees they'll want to grab her first.  That sounds to me like Linda changed her plans (or that one of the calls was faked).  Either way, the fact that she was killed before she could talk to Harry seems like it could be incidental to the fact that she was killed while talking to the cops.  The only information Harry is "keeping" from Murphy is that he met with Linda, which he essentially acknowledged via fake premonition to Murphy anyway.  Everything else he mentions is obvious: Linda knew something and the killer silenced her.

So Dresden literally is not keeping information from Murphy, but he is leaving her believing that he's keeping information from her.  Which could, in its own way, be a tactical choice, offering himself up as a red herring in order to convince the killer that Murphy isn't a threat, exceeeeeeept that in the next paragraph Dresden also claimed that he's 'withholding' this information (which he isn't actually withholding) partly because he doesn't want Murphy to start thinking Dresden might be, say, Linda's jealous/spurned lover on a rampage.

But by talking about what they're talking about, instead of actually laying it out like this, Butcher allows himself to write Tragic Dresden In The Rain, forced to lie to his bestie to save her, hoping that the reader will forget that Dresden has literally created a problem out of nothing, which does not benefit anyone except the killer (who doesn't have to fear a combined wizard/cop team coming at him).  That's actually some decent misdirection performed on the author's part; whether it's for the audience's benefit depends on whether you want more man-angst or coherent narrative in your life.

Well done, Dresden.  You played yourself.

In an inadequate response from the universe, no sooner has Dresden called a cab** than he gets jumped by one of Marcone's lackeys.  From the specific tang of his "sweat and cologne" Dresden identifies this as the same guy who roughed him up the first time, even as he is pummeled into submission, and lies aching on the ground hoping that here in this well-lit parking lot "Surely, God, he didn't plan on killing me. Though at the moment, I was too tired and achy to care."  Instead, the attacker produces scissors and clips a lock of Dresden's hair, which is immediately cause for panic, because a wizard could use Dresden's hair to cast an unpreventable death spell.

I just don't get the way Dresden feels about magic.  Murder is bad, but magic murder is The Ultimate Worst.  Getting killed by a lackey in a parking lot is the type of thing that you can just be too tired to care about, but getting killed by a wizard is a harrowing nightmare scenario.

The lackey flees, but Dresden tackles his legs and begins a prolonged deadly struggle with the mighty man's fist, in which we are repeatedly told that Dresden is very weak but still slowly winning.  The fight gets interrupted by a couple of bystanding dudes, and the lackey flees immediately, still with most of the hair in his hand.  He gets into his car and peels away, leaving Dresden wheezing in the rain.

One of the traditional rules of magic is that the Evil arts will give you great power at the cost of surrendering your virtues.  This applies to the real world as well, which we see among, for example, CEOs who take huge income for themselves by depriving their workers.  Or, less criminally, to writing, where you can write yourself out of a corner by introducing a new aspect of the plot that makes an earlier portion of the story nonsensical.  That's what Butcher decides to do now.

(Well, after Dresden spends a couple of pages giving us a pep rally about how he's angry and not going to take this sitting down anymore and this shadow wizard might have power but Dresden has savvy et cetera et cetera dear lord.)

But then we get to the breakthrough, when Dresden is trying to imagine how, without Bob, he can reverse-track his own hairs to find where the lackey has taken them, when he suddenly realises that he got some of the lackey's skin and blood under his fingernails during their fight, and that is all he needs to perform his own tracking magic.  Because tracking magic is absolutely a thing that exists in Dresden's world, and all you need is a bit of someone's body in order to know exactly where they are.
  • "Mrs Sells, please bring your husband's comb, pillowcase, or an item of unwashed laundry when you visit my office, so that I can cast a single spell that will instantly solve your case."
  • "Hey, Murphy, I have another list of a dozen missing persons that I was able to track down for you this week, so feel free to send me the next bag of objects borrowed from the families.  I'm glad I can help with these murder cases, but I prefer saving people who are still alive, and some months I really depend on that steady income as a special consultant."
  • "Morgan, I know this looks bad, but we both know that the White Council has a permanent trace on me and would have been instantly alerted if I performed magic powerful enough to murder someone across town."

Dresden chalks out a circle on the sidewalk and performs a ten-second ritual that instantly imbues him with the power to sense the direction of the escaped lackey by smelling for that distinctive cologne.  Dresden's cab arrives and he tells the driver they'll be making two stops, first to his apartment (to arm himself) and then (he does not say aloud) to confront the city's biggest gangsters.

Chapter Seventeen: This Is What We Have Sacrificed For

The hideout is a club called the Varsity, owned by Marcone.  The cab driver calls Dresden "Loony" before driving away.  I am not at all clear why it's so absurd that Dresden would ask a cab to take him to a still-busy club late on a Saturday night.  (Dresden specifies 1:30am, meaning that it's been at least an hour and a half since the events of the last chapter, "just before midnight".  Hell of a long drive, I guess?)

Dresden confirms that he can see Marcone and crew at a table in the back before marching up to the door, magically ripping it off its hinges, and blasting the jukebox with melting force.  Dresden specifically mentions that he doesn't want to "injure a bunch of innocent diners" when he blasts the door off, thus the outward ripping, but he apparently thinks nothing of then walking inside and casually blowing up every lightbulb with a wave of his hand, showering everyone with "powdered glass".  Not dangerous at all, clearly.

At Dresden's request, Marcone calmly dismisses everyone in the club, but when Dresden then demands his hair back, Marcone is honestly baffled.  It quickly comes out that the lackey (actual name Lawrence; Dresden only calls him 'Gimpy') has actually been working for the evil ThreeEye-peddling wizard on the side.  Things then immediately devolve into a gunfight, which Dresden survives unscathed by activating his forcefield bracelet, and Lawrence dies to three shots from bodyguard Hendricks.

Dresden tells us he's immediately nauseous, as he had hoped to win the night through macho bravado and no deaths at all.  Entering the building with explosive violence was definitely the way to minimise escalation, Dresden, you useless, useless man.  He very nearly apologises to Marcone for thinking that the mob boss might have been behind those brutal murders, since he realises that Marcone would never do something so pointlessly unsubtle and cost-ineffective.  Pretty sure that intimidation tactics are absolutely part of the mob boss toolkit, but whatever.

Lawrence the dead lackey doesn't have Dresden's hair on him anymore, having apparently delivered it before he got to the club.  While his remaining lackeys start preparing for the club to have an accidental fire, Marcone says he knows nothing else about their common wizard-foe, but he'll let Dresden go in spite of this show of defiance, in exchange for being able to "let it be known" that if Dresden does take the villain down, he did so at Marcone's bidding.  Dresden leaves, back to zero leads.  So the sudden introduction of tracking magic is at least not vital to the plot, but that does mean that we've had this whole violent episode at the cost of coherent worldbuilding and it wasn't even necessary.  (Wasn't he planning to reverse-track his own hair?  What happened to that idea?)

I'll say this much for the last couple of chapters: by only featuring a bunch of white dudes, Butcher has coincidentally gone for pages without making his hero say anything particularly misogynistic, which makes for a much more palatable story.  Dresden might be a useless, terrible person, but his adventures alone, the action scenes and standoffs and mystery-unraveling, those are entertaining in a slapdash kind of way.  Wonder how much longer that'll last.

Next time: Weird plot contrivances continue to do Dresden's job for him.  For those of you who have felt bereft after my long absence, know and rejoice that I'll be aiming for a weekly posting schedule until further notice.


*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.

**How does he not have better backup methods for travel?  Why does Dresden not have an enchanted bike for those times when his car fails him?  Taxis are expensive and he risks burning them out by sheer proximity.  Surely a magic-accelerated bike and a bespelled raincoat aren't beyond the capacity of a guy who can tame storms and brew potions that turn a person to wind?