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.

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