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?

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