Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 22 and 23, in which Harry Dresden is just the best ever

(Content: misogyny. Fun content: all the salt you could ever need, plus bespoke character deconstructions.)

Storm Front
Chapter Twenty-Two: Introduction to Applied Balderdash

Dresden arrives back at his office and sprints up five floors with much aching and wheezing.  He finds his office door ajar, and conveniently hears only two sounds: a pained gasp from Murphy and the scuttling of the scorpion.
I clenched my jaw in sudden anger. Victor Sells's little beastie, whatever it was, had hurt my friend. Like hell I was going to stand out here and give it the run of my office.
These points where Dresden stops to inform us of his completely normal reactions to things really confuse me.  Last time it was his bafflement at experiencing sympathy for Monica; this time it's dashing frantically across the city to rescue Murphy just to stop outside to suddenly feel anger and reject any possibility that he might just, like, close the door and walk away now?  I feel like going grocery shopping with him would be an ordeal.  'Next item on the list: Cheerios.  I crumpled the paper in my hand, feeling the dry crackle of its pale fibers slide between my thumb and palm.  There was no way I would get this close to the Cheerios and just let them go now.  No way in hell.'

He storms into his office, rod and staff in hand, ready to do battle, and then stops to tell us about the table of free explanatory pamphlets at the door "with titles like Real Witches Don't Float So Good, and Magic in the Twenty-first Century".  Yes, the White Council is absolutely willing to murder people who learn about the truth of magic behind the masquerade, but why should that stop Dresden from handing out badly-xeroxed flyers to people who don't know any better?  I mean, PSA flyers would make some sense, like 'Running Away and Running Water: How to Survive a Demon Attack' or 'So You Think You Might be Dating a Vampire'.  Victor could have benefited from 'The Goggles Do Nothing: Why You Should Never Pursue the Third Sight Unsupervised'.  Things that normal people could actually have a use for.  I mean, maybe that information is in Dresden's pamphlets, but they sound more like heritage minutes about how wizards are actually way cooler and more practical than you silly commoners think.

Pictured: the secret formula to this blog: salt, salt, and even more salt.

Butcher actually lays out the whole office for us, the relative locations of chairs and filing cabinets and his desk by the corner and the overhead fricking fan before getting around to mentioning Murphy's presence curled up behind the desk, presumably because he has no idea how to maintain tension.  Dresden still hasn't seen the scorpion, but he kneels to help her and promises to call an ambulance.  By the description, she seems to have been stung in the shoulder?  Murphy, of course, groggily insists that Dresden set her up and handcuffs them together as soon as he hangs up the phone.
She twisted her head around, grimacing in pain, and squinted at me. "You should have talked to me this morning. Got you now, Dresden." She broke off in a panting gasp, and added, "You jerk." 
"You stubborn bitch from hell."
Quick recap: Dresden isn't actually withholding any information from Murphy, but he's decided for some reason to act like he is, and she in turn believes this (ironic), so she's decided they are Enemies and the only reason he warned her not to look in the drawer is so she would get attacked by his hell scorpion.  At which point he rushed over to the office to call for an ambulance, which she apparently thinks is just further evidence of his guilt.

Y'all know what's really compelling tension?  When two characters are fully aware of the facts but have drastically different ideas about the appropriate way to act upon them, and so are torn between their loyalty and their sense of reason.  Y'know what's not?  One character disregarding all logic and evidence to single-mindedly pursue the virtuous hero who has committed no crime, forcing our hero to insult and demean her even as he rescues her from her own terrible decisions, exampli gratia, fucking THIS.  This isn't even a Javert situation where Murphy is Lawful Neutral and intends to make Dresden pay for his crimes regardless of any other factors; he's done nothing illegal, but it lets Butcher drag the book out a little longer if she stands obstinately in his way.  See also: Morgan, who ignores all other circumstances and suspects in order to make Dresden's life harder whenever possible.  These aren't good guys or bad guys--they're just badly written.  Plot obstacles with dialogue, not characters.  If you want a reaction from me other than rolling my eyes all the way into the back of my skull, there should be at least some part of me that can see Murphy's side.  But no, she's just a "stubborn bitch from hell" and Dresden is a saint for trying to save her anyway.

(Though on further thought, Dresden is absolutely guilty of breaking/entering and assault at the Sells home, so I guess it's more accurate to say Murphy isn't accusing Dresden of anything he's actually done.  Also, why didn't he call the ambulance until now?  You'd think it'd be because he doesn't want to expose paramedics to the doom scorpion, but he's just called them in and still doesn't know where it is, so... yeah.)

The scorpion attacks from under the desk; now that it's been switched on, it's grown to the size of a terrier, blindingly fast and dripping acidic venom from its tail.  In his panic, Dresden kicks away his weapons and struggles to scurry after them since he's cuffed to Murphy, so he grabs the open desk drawer, yanks it out, and uses it as a shield/bludgeon, buying a few seconds.  Decent action sequence.
"Sometimes, Murph," I panted, "you make things just a little harder than they need to be. Anyone ever tell you that?" [....] 
"My ex-husbands."
Strong woman too stubborn for keep man in life.  Never heard that one before.  Murphy's stubbornness is quickly justified by the poison debilitating her mind, because it has been pages since the last time Dresden had to protect a drugged woman from a magical monster while she actively impeded him.  (Faith and begorrah, how great would it be if we dropped Dresden entirely and this series was just about Murphy and Susan being pals and trying to figure out what the hell is going on as irresponsible arrogant wizards spread havoc in their city?)

Murphy announces that she's gone blind, and Dresden informs us that while the common brown spider is about as poisonous as a bumblebee, the sheer dosage could be fatal.  (Also, uh, it's magical?  Is that not a concern?  Dresden knows the relative venom strengths of scorpions and bees, but he also thinks it's normal for venom to burn skin on contact?)  Dresden hauls her out of his office and kicks the door shut while the scorpion is still struggling to pull its stinger out of the wooden drawer.  The scorpion breaks through while he and Murphy (now unconscious) wait for the elevator, but Dresden knocks it back with his bulletproof forcefield (suddenly much harder to use than it was a couple of chapters ago) and makes it inside.

Dresden monologues at us about how this monster is obviously not a real live scorpion but a magical construct (you don't say) that will keep growing larger and smarter the longer it's left.  And then--miracle of miracles--Dresden's techbane actually kicks in at a bad moment and kills the elevator before it can reach the ground floor.  The scorpion breaks into the elevator shaft and begins tearing through the ceiling, and Dresden talks to us for a while about how unfocused his evocation magic is without his rod in his hand, how trying to torch it now would be as indiscriminate as a grenade.  This chapter is honestly the best we've seen magic handled in a while, with clear limitations set on everything he does (the shield takes time and concentration to form, fire needs a filter, elevators can't make it five floors with Dresden onboard).  Too bad it's tangled up with the ruination of Murphy's character.

At the last moment, Dresden flips his plans entirely and, rather than throw fire upwards, calls wind from below, forcing the elevator to rocket up the shaft in a gale, finally crushing the scorpion at the top.  Then, in the moments before it plummets back down (brakes destroyed too) he wraps himself and Murphy in several layers of shield to cushion their impact again.  Again, full marks for magic.  For once, we see Butcher treating spells as a toolbox from which solutions can be constructed, rather than a plot-shoving force with no clear rules.

It's tough to write wizards, I get that.  How can you make magic both mysterious and comprehensible, or let your characters use it to solve a problem without letting them laugh off any challenge that comes their way?  That's tricky, and there's more than one solution.  Brandon Sanderson has spoken at length about his preference, making lots and lots of rules for magic and then sticking to them, which cuts back on the mystery but drastically ramps up the problem-solving.  JK Rowling takes a little of both by emphasising that there's a lot of mysterious magic out there and our heroes just aren't informed enough to understand it, so they mostly stick to the simple point-and-click stuff.  JRR Tolkien chortles a bit and tells us we're asking the wrong question, but we don't know that's what he said because he is speaking a language he invented himself this morning over tea and toast.  So there are lots of solutions.  Butcher's approach in this chapter is pretty sustainable (although I'm not sure why he didn't call his wind staff to his hand with wind magic, as is explicitly in his skillset).  But the approach we see here--where Dresden actually has a very specific and device-dependent set of skills--is oddly out of tone with the rest of the book, where Dresden casually grabs fistfuls of sunshine and performs binding spells off the cuff with a stick and a slice of bread.  Is there a reason that he couldn't have bound the scorpion with a circle, or block the door with one?  (Or a reason that he didn't have a circle already in his office to put things like possible magic talismans inside to keep their owners from animating them into acid-venom Terminators?)

I'm just saying that this book mostly only makes sense when you forget everything that happened more than ten pages ago, which is not a criticism I've ever seen levelled at it.  We can rest assured that all of these nitpicks are addressed in Book Twelve--but can you imagine if someone tried to make that kind of case in defence of Twilight?

Anyway, the paramedics are there and waiting when Dresden and Murphy safely crash back to ground level, and he cackles for a while about how awesome he is (which is irritating and questionable but, I cannot deny, precisely in character) before he steps out into the rain, reminding us that Dresden has now lost the talisman option, his shield bangle has burnt out, and the storm is here to help Victor kill him.  Whatever shall our hero do now.

Chapter Twenty-Three: Intermediate Methods in Being Better Than Everybody Else

I'm just saying this is the perfect moment for Victor to strike, blowing up Dresden's heart right there on the street, only for Murphy to regain her senses, realise that he wasn't the killer after all, and take on the mantle of protagonist hereafter.  It's not too late.  (It has always been too late.)

Dresden's first priority, of course, is getting unshackled from the unconscious Murphy, and the ectoplasm from the spider hasn't dematerialised yet, providing lubrication to slip the cuff off Murphy's wrist.
My own hands were too broad, but Murphy had delicate little lady's hands, except where practice with her gun and her martial arts staff routines had left calluses. If she had heard me thinking that, and had been conscious, she would have punched me in the mouth for being a chauvinist pig.
I include the above garbage not because it's in any way vital to the plot, but because it's such a perfect encapsulation of the book's specific type of misogyny: women may do tough things, but they are still ultimately dainty little creature, buuuut you must never acknowledge this truth publicly because it will enrage their overwhelming emotions and they will respond with animalistic rage.  Murphy being a woman isn't a character trait, it's a running gag.

Dresden quickly informs the EMTs of Murphy's situation ("massive dose of brown scorpion venom [....] don't ask") and then lambastes himself for a moment for withholding information (no he didn't) that forced her to act against him, and if he'd been more honest this might not have happened (correct).
I didn't want to walk away from her. I didn't want to turn my back on her again and leave her behind me, alone. But I did.
Y'know: we keep getting these moments where Dresden is forced (for a given value of force) to do something that appears heartless on the surface but is arguably necessary (he has to go fight Victor before the storm reaches the lakehouse) and he wallows in self-loathing for it.  Which is a functional way of getting some angst into a story with a virtuous hero who doesn't have better flaws to actually angst over.  But Dresden does have actual flaws to criticise himself for, and he keeps skating right over those in favour of attacking himself for doing relatively harmless things.  Y'all know what'd be more interesting than another 'old-fashioned' sexist hero?  A self-aware guy who was raised in sexist environments (his dad who idolised his dead mother and dismissed all other women, his mentor who thought 'women's lib' was a stupid fad, that kind of thing) but has since realised that those lessons were wrong, that women are actually capable people with real skills and talents and value, and works steadily to undo his prejudices even as they undermine him (step one: Monica is the actual crimelord wizard villain and Victor is her dupe).

Harry spends half a page telling us how tired he is and how much that doesn't matter because he's so angry.  I particularly like this paragraph about the pain in his leg, completely removed from context:
It was like a fire in my thoughts, my concentration, burning ever more brightly, more pure, refining my anger, my hate, into something steel-hard, steel-sharp. I could feel it burning, and reached for it eagerly, shoving the pain inside to fuel my incandescent anger.
Because out of context that sounds like something from Bad Romance Novel Quotes, but in context it mostly makes me think of Kylo Ren in the final battle from The Force Awakens, punching himself in his bleeding side to draw focus and power from pain and anger.  I use the specific example illustratively, but I think in general we should be able to agree that 'refining my hate' is a questionable move for any hero to make.  That does hypothetically keep it in line with Harry's much-vaunted Dark Depths, but nothing much else about his characterisation has so far--his earlier quip about being the wizard equivalent of a computer geek seems far more appropriate (especially given the chauvinism and arrogance classic of men in tech).

Dresden goes to McAnally's again, I pass my saving throw to keep a straight face, and he finds that it's packed.  We now get Dresden's breakdown of the pub crowd here:
They were the have-nots of the magical community. Hedge magi without enough innate talent, motivation, or strength to be true wizards. Innately gifted people who knew what they were and tried to make as little of it as possible. Dabblers, herbalists, holistic healers, kitchen witches, troubled youngsters just touching their abilities and wondering what to do about it.
I'm trying to parse the phrase 'make as little of it as possible'.  Is it purely descriptive (they don't want to make magic a big part of their life, causing me to wonder why they would hang out at a magic bar), or is Dresden snipping at their lack of motivation and vision?  Because I know a literal kitchen witch, and while I don't believe she can perform magic, I do believe that she could drop Dresden and Victor in the time it took her souffle to rise.  And 'troubled youngsters', apart from being obvious YA protagonists, sound spectacularly dangerous to me, given that Victor apparently so little innate power that he didn't notice it until middle age but he's now nearly overlord of the city.  Surely a scared teenager (in a setting where magic is explicitly fueled by emotion) is a stupendous danger on several levels?

What even is a dabbler in this situation?  Dresden has just said that he's used more magic in the last day than most wizards can in a week, which by my count includes a tracking spell, a single fireball, using his forcefield three times, and a mighty wind (and maybe the couple of times he's intentionally blown out electronics with his techbane aura).  If that's the upper limits of a top-tier wizard, could a dabbler only cast one of those spells per week?  Say, a single tracking spell that will flawlessly locate a specific individual across any distance?  Because I'm pretty sure that alone is an incredibly valuable skill, especially if you're too small-time for the White Council to be permanently up in your business.  Hell, that's more tracking magic than Dresden planned to use to find Victor to begin with.

But the point of this chapter, in case we didn't notice, was that this final showdown is, once again, a thing that Dresden must do Alone Solo By Himself because no one else is awesome enough.  These people all know Dresden on sight and avert their gazes as he storms in, because they know that there's magic murder going on in town and they are hiding in a relatively protected location until it's over.  Dresden isn't here for their help.  He's here to borrow Mac's car.

Morgan arrives as well, with dramatic timing against the lightning, to declare that he's figured out 'Dresden's' scheme (storm magic to blow people up) and he intends to keep Dresden stuck in the bar at swordpoint until the storm passes.  He tries, once, to say that he knows who the real killer is (why does he not say the name; isn't knowing someone's real name also power over them?) but Morgan is plot-mandated to be bad at his job, so Dresden (exhausted, injured, non-athlete Dresden) sighs, grabs the nearest chair, and floors Morgan (rested, ready, experienced mage-killer Morgan) with a one-two combo.

Why is Morgan a Warden?  The character as presented has no qualifications.  He's a bad detective, a bad judge of character, he holds vindictive grudges that overwhelm his reasoning, and he's so useless in a fight that he can be taken down by a burnt-out geek with furniture in three seconds.  I know the council supposedly likes him because he's so loyal, but surely there are a non-zero number of competent people in the world who would love to be the attack dog for the wizard Illuminati?

Because everyone in the bar knows who Dresden is and his whole troubled backstory, he acknowledges that he appears to have just confirmed that he is "a rogue wizard fleeing justice", but embraces his stupid action hero nature and declares aloud "I haven't got time for this".  Mac calmly retrieves his car keys and hands them to Dresden again, because Mac is a designated good guy and thus apparently isn't remotely suspicious of Dresden no matter what happens, ever.  Who in blazes is Mac?  Why is he so much more certain of Harry's innocence than Murphy or Morgan?  I feel like this is the point when a properly suspicious detective (Sam Vimes, say) would wonder who would be so calm when a fugitive beats down a cop in his bar.  Might think that a hypothetical accomplice of Victor Sells (an accomplice who knows every wizard in town, who is so unnoticed that he's practically scenery, who hangs around a bad part of town and has an ideal location to do hidden business) would be very happy to see one suspected murderer go chase down the other, because when the dust settles, whoever dies, he knows that everyone will believe the perpetrator has been brought to justice and no one needs to go snooping around any more to find out who else might have profited from the ThreeEye trade.

This book claims to be noir and yet Our Hero's mysterious and most trusted ally apparently has no ulterior motives whatsoever.  I mean, this should be obvious.

Next time: four chapters to go; the final showdown begins as Harry wrestles with the Dark Side to remind us all that he's actually not such a bad dude after all.  Objectively.  Shh.  Objectively.


*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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