Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Storm Front, chapters 24 and 25, in which the race against time pauses for exposition

(Content: violence, implied animal abuse. Fun content: Douglas Adams' style of magic, linguistic history, and benevolent moss.)

Storm Front
Chapter Twenty-Four: So Spooky You Don't Even Know*

Dresden speeds away in  an '89 TransAm, and I wonder again briefly about the supposed rules of his techbane (we could have had a line anywhere about how Mac's car never breaks on wizards and no one's figured out why, and even that would have done something for me) as he tells us about the eldritch dusk approaching, oversaturating the greens and muting yellows and such.  Dresden's pushing over 130mph, he tells us, but "I must also have been driving during the watch rotation for the highway patrol, because not one of them tried to pull me over".  Given how little Butcher cares about the implications of his worldbuilding at this point, I'm surprised he doesn't have Dresden weave an SEP field or something around the car.  Recommendation: if you're going to "luckily" have an obvious problem not be a problem, maybe don't draw attention to it for the reader?
I hit the brakes to slow for the turn onto the lakefront road that led to the Sells house, started hydroplaning, turned into the slide with more composure and ability than I really should have had, and got the vehicle back under control in time to slide onto the correct road.
Dresden the car-slayer is nevertheless a preternaturally talented driver.  Such shock.

Dresden limps quickly up the half-flooded driveway to the house, stops, reminds us all that there are unknown numbers of mystical dangers and traps and suchlike ahead, and so Goes Loud:
So I opened my Third Eye. 
How can I explain what a wizard sees? It isn't something that lends itself readily to description. Describing something helps to define it, to give it limits, to set guardrails of understanding around it. Wizards have had the Sight since time began, and they still don't understand how it works, why it does what it does.
This is not something I'm against, in principal, because I am all for magic being a concept too vast for us to adequately understand.  Terry Pratchett wrote 'it's very hard to talk quantum in a language originally designed to tell other monkeys where the ripe fruit is' and I don't need to understand Dresden's magic sight as long as I understand the rules he personally uses to interact with it.  Let's see how that goes.

All of his normal senses are heightened ("I could abruptly smell the mud and fish odor of the lake, the trees around the house, the fresh scent of the coming rain") and into the past (he sees the house across all seasons, and each part resonates its origins, windows made from far-off sand and timbers from distant forests) and future (he sees that there are a number of possible timelines in which the house will be a giant bonfire within an hour).  Not bad for a start.

Then we get into the weirdly subjective?
The house itself was a place of power. Dark emotions--greed, lust, hatred--all hung over it as visible things, molds and slimes that were strewn over it like Spanish moss with malevolent eyes. Ghostly things [...] moved around the place, drawn to the sense of fear, despair, and anger [...] like rats in granaries.
Pictured: an oak draped with Spanish moss that bears no one ill will.

We've already picked up on Butcher's choice that, in this world, 'lust' is the mindless desire for sex with no other concern for anything and is Objectively Bad (so why was that thing called a love potion and not a lust potion?) but my actual question here is: why do greed and lust look like mold?  Transitivity of grossness?  All uncomfortable things are equally interchangeable?  I mean, we had some interesting visual representations in the potion-brewing scene, with 'fiery passion' represented by ashes of a love letter and all that jazz.  Wouldn't it be more interesting if greed were represented by--I don't know, swarms of parasites, or chains wrapped around the house to protect it--MINE--from anyone else who might take it?  But no, we are not to befriend Mr Subtlety here:
Skulls were everywhere, wherever I looked, just as the edge of my vision, silent and still and bleach white, as solid and real as though a fetishist had scattered them around in anticipation of some bizarre holiday. Death.
TL;DR--every time a wizard looks at a suburban house where the family just cleared out the Halloween aisle at Wal-Mart, they are stricken with fear that this might be the home of the most evil wizard they have ever met, who is soon to kill again.
Death lay in the house's future, tangible, solid, unavoidable. [....] the future was always mutable, always something that could be changed. No one had to die tonight.
Definitely except maybe not but probably?  'This event is completely unpreventable except that it is' is a personal peeve, I guess.  Don't get me started on Doctor Who series 6.

Anyway, it's time for the Temptation of Harry Dresden, as the old flavour of evil magic calls out to him and reminds him that rejecting it once before had only earned him the suspicion and ire of wizard-kind.
 This was the sort of strength that could reach out and change the world to my will, bend it and shape it to my desiring [....] I could kill the Shadowman, now, before he knew I was here. I could call down fury and flame on the house and kill everyone in it, not leave one stone upon another.
I admit I was wondering why Harry didn't do that.  I'm not generally in favour of killing, but I don't necessarily condemn it in the name of protecting oneself or others.  If Harry had at least left word with Morgan (maybe a sticky note on his unconscious chest) that the real killer is Victor Sells, then he would only at this point be risking his own life by going in and trying to talk Sells down nonviolently.  That could be admirable.  (Though, again, Sells is like a triple murderer at least by now, so I'm pretty sure the Council is going to confiscate his head?)  But it's not quite that, either:
The energy was all there, gleeful within my anger, ready to reach out and reduce to ashes all that I hated and feared. 
The silver pentacle that had been my mother's burned cold on my chest. [....] Another hand took mine. The hand was slim, the fingers long and delicate. Feminine. The hand gently covered mine, and lifted it, like a small child's, until I held my mother's pentacle in my grasp.
There is apparently not a woman in this world who doesn't have dainty little doll hands.
Magic came from life itself, from the interaction nature and the elements, from the energy of all living beings, and especially of people. There is no truer gauge of a man's character than the way in which he employs his strength, his power.
(Wow, I have some terrible news for you, Dresden.)

We have here the first clear declaration of something that's been implied previously: magic has its own morality in Dresden's world that does not directly relate to our world or indeed to mundane morality in his.  Dresden doesn't want to magically nuke Sells' house because that would be Bad Wizardry, perverse and corrupted.  Dresden does declare "I was not a murderer" but everything else he says is about not killing with magic specifically, so it's not clear to me what the repercussions would be if he, say, brought a gun or a knife and used magic only to shield himself until he could finish Sells the old-fashioned way.  Would his magic abandon him?  I have to assume not, because Morgan ostensibly has a few magic skills in his toolbox and a sword specifically designed to kill wizards, so beheading people clearly doesn't bar him from wizardry forevermore.  And Victor has literally been magic-murdering people and his power has only grown, so clearly the power itself doesn't care how it's used.  So why is any of this about killing with magic as opposed to mundane weapons?  That seems to be a value system overlaid onto it by wizards themselves.  There could, plausibly, be some way in which using magic to kill people literally corrupts the magician, but that's not the concern at hand.

Dresden is making a solid moral choice here--I won't blow up the house because I don't want to be the kind of person who blows up houses--but he frames it in this weird paradigm that is all about magic and being different and special, rather than framing it as 'no one should murder, no exceptions for wizards'.  It's not even the Spider-Man principle that great power brings great responsibility, because Dresden clearly doesn't feel all that responsible to use his magic to benefit people.  He won't fleece them, we know this, but he'll also sit around his office for weeks at a time doing nothing, rather than (all groan as I get back on my hobby horse) asking Murphy for bits of evidence so he can track down missing persons for her.  He doesn't particularly try to educate people (except the people who come directly to his office and are easily convinced by pamphlets) on the existence or dangers of magic.  He just puts an "I'm A Wizard" ad in the phonebook and assumes this is the greatest good he can do in the world?

Anyway, with the pentacle reminding him of all the goodness of White Magic that he believes in (ew), the temptation passes, he reminds us all again how alone he is, and he walks into the skull-strewn hypno-scape.

(Maybe-final complaint: did Dresden actually learn anything from using his Third Sight here, apart from confirming that This Place Is Spooky?  I guess he confirmed there aren't any traps outside?)

Chapter Twenty-Five: I Don't Love Money, I Just Say That To Get It Into Bed

Dresden tells us more about how the capital-S Sight of the house will haunt him forever: "It seethed with negative energy, anger and pride and lust. Especially lust. Lust for wealth, lust for power, more than physical desire."  I'm no longer sure what lust is, if it's distinct from greed or envy or avarice or hunger or indulgence.  I mean, you can probably have sex with money, but if Victor Sells has a plan to get it on with power itself, I want to at least hear his weird scheme before they take him down.  Why is wanting an inherently negative emotion?  (Is there such a thing as lust for justice?  Truth?  Can you, in fact, lust for love?)
I limped up the front steps. My Sight revealed no alarms, no sorcerous trip wires. I might be giving Victor Shadowman too much credit. He was as powerful as a full-blown wizard, but he didn't have the education. Muscle, not brains, that was Victor Shadowman.
Why does Dresden keep calling him Victor Shadowman?  His name is Sells.  He gets this supervillain epithet purely because he once appeared to Dresden as an obscured figure in the rain, no one else has used it, and yet Dresden repeats it almost obsessively in his head.  It feels like he's trying to build up his opponent here into a more mythic figure, like a little kid narrating his daydream struggles against the Dark Lord of Clavaldorf (his step-dad, who means well).

The front door is unlocked.  The inside of the house is also slathered with spectral slimes-with-eyes feeding on the residual magic and slithering away when they touch Dresden's aura.  I guess he has already completely purified himself of all the power/justice-lust he was feeling a minute ago.

Dresden creeps through the completely-undefended house and catches the sound of the same music that was playing at the first murder scene with Tommy and Jennifer.  The system is in a living room at the back, connected to an upper-level kitchen/dining room that is apparently Victor's preferred ritual space.  (Maybe linoleum is easy to hose down.)  Dresden's Sight shows more of the evil slime creatures all over the speakers, feeding on the music, causing me to wonder if this is supposed to be, like, inherently evil music, or if the music itself objectively contains emotional energy, or what.  Because he needs to get some more exposition in right now, apparently, Dresden easily sneaks through to the space under the upper room, where Victor's crates of ThreeEye are just lying around, along with their raw materials.  In case we hadn't guessed, ThreeEye is a potion of Victor's own creation, starting with absinthe and then adding everything from peyote to glitter.

(Nitpick: if it weren't for Dresden outright insisting so, we would have no evidence that potion strength depends on whether the ingredients are tailored to the drinker.  Susan got full effects from Dresden's love and wind potions, and Victor's drugs apparently work fine even when mass-produced.  Aren't these things only good for a day or two?  Who's coming to pick up and immediately deliver all of this stuff?  Or is he selling this batch to other local bored rich people?  Time is money, bro.)

Dresden explains that the potions are basically inert until they're inside someone, thus he wouldn't notice their magic without full Sight, but now he's overwhelmed by all the potential suffering they radiate.
Thunder came again, more sharply, and above me, Victor's voice rose in pitch, to something audible. He was chanting in an ancient language. Egyptian? Babylonian? It didn't really matter.
Just as long as we know that it's something super exotic.  (Unless Victor also invented a potion of Duolingo, becoming fluent in ancient Coptic just to murder people seems like a lot of effort.)  He can also hear "soft sighs of pleasure from a woman", as the Beckitts are apparently providing the fornication fuel for this particular kill-spell.  Victor's chant becomes a scream just as Mrs Beckitt fakes an orgasm because this is seriously the least sexy ambience ever rises "to a fevered pitch" and Dresden (paralysed with fear for the last couple of paragraphs) leaps into action at the last second and fireballs the stereo.

Not quite as good as if he'd switched tracks over to Blinded By The Light, but I guess that'll do?

He then calls up wind to carry him to the upper level ("making my duster billow like Batman's cloak" oh my god) and sees the ritual scene, where it looks like Victor is about to kill a rabbit with Dresden's hair tied to its head.  Rude.  Shocked by Dresden's appearance, Victor moves to finish the spell, but Dresden tosses the empty film canister through his magic circle.
As a weapon, it wasn't much. But it was real, and it had been hurled by a real person, a mortal. It could shatter the integrity of a magic circle.
Okay, forget murder, how does Dresden not carry a gun just for the sake of being able to break someone's magic circle at will from a block away?  The circle bursts and hurls magical chaos in all directions; Victor tries to flamethrower Dresden but Dresden grabs fistfuls of overflowing power and conjures a shield in time.  Dresden then (reminding us again how clever he is to not get completely focused on magic like most wizards do) bodily tackles Victor to the ground and begins kicking the hell out of him, but catches a bullet in the leg from a semiautomatic gun that Mr Beckitt had on hand and has to scramble for safety in the kitchen.  The gun immediately jams, because techbane, but Victor now has enough time to let loose a tube full of his little scorpion minions and animate them.  The chapter ends with Dresden huddled behind the counter as Victor, the "naked, lean and savage-looking" Beckitts with useless guns, and a horde of expanding scorpions bearing down on him.  But Butcher very specifically mentions a broom falling into Dresden's lap, so I'm pretty sure he's going to be fine.  As usual, the action sequences in which no one says anything about human nature are the best part.

Next week: the gripping conclusion of my suffering.  Feel free to also make suggestions on what we should start in on next.  (As much as I love everyone telling me 'Will, maybe think about not torturing yourself with this stuff for a while', my personal feeling is that dissecting why a story works is usually a lot less intricate and interesting than talking about why one doesn't, so I'm skeptical how much blogworthy material I could get out of analysing my favourite books.)


*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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