Today I Read…Summer Knight

Summer KnightToday I Read Summer Knight, the fourth book in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I’ve previously reviewed the first three books, Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril.

Harry Dresden has never been in so much trouble before–which is really saying something. The Red Court of the vampires is after his blood, both literally and figuratively. They’re threatening war with the White Council of wizards if the Council doesn’t hand Dresden over, and Harry isn’t exactly overflowing with allies on the Council. They think that he’s reckless, foolhardy, unprincipled, and dangerous, especially after he killed his mentor and his girlfriend when he was a teenager. (There were extenuating circumstances–namely, they were trying to kill him at the time.)

Now to prove himself, Harry must act as the Emissary for Queen Mab of the Winter Faerie Court, tasked to discover who killed the Knight of the Summer Court, Ronald Reuel, and prevent a war between Winter and Summer. Easier said than done.

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Like Grave Peril, Summer Knight feels like part of a series as opposed to a stand-alone novel. Finally we learn more about why Dresden had the Doom hanging over his head in the first book, Storm Front. We meet the White Council that Dresden has been so wary of, and learn that he is right to be cautious–many of them have no love for him since he killed his mentor, Justin DuMorne, and his girlfriend and fellow apprentice Elaine Mallory (and points for people who can guess where Butcher picked those names from). We learn more about the structure of the fairy courts, though we still don’t know much about how he came to be under the power of his fairy godmother Leanansidhe. We see little of the vampire courts, though we do see their assassination attempts against Dresden. Many things (although not everything) that has been hinted at or alluded to in the past three books is pulled out into the open, sometimes kicking and screaming, though I have faith that not all has been revealed–Harry Dresden is never that simple, and there are still more than 10 books left in the series to go. However, major changes in the Dresdenverse happen because of Summer Knight–there are major shakeups in the Faerie Courts that I’m sure will have long-reaching consequences, as well as the oncoming war between the vampires and the wizards (c’mon, no way that’s a spoiler–Harry Dresden stop a war? Only by uniting everyone against him, and that’s already happened.). I’m looking forwards to finding out what happens next.

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She regarded me in that empty silence for long moments more. It was unsettling to see a face so lovely look so wholly alien, as though something lurked behind those features that had little in common with me and did not care to make the effort to understand. That blank mask made my throat tighten, and I had to work not to let the gun in my hand shake. But then she did something that made her look even more alien, more frightening.

She smiled. A slow smile, cruel as a barbed knife. When she spoke, her voice sounded just as beautiful as it had before. But it was empty, quiet, haunting. She spoke, and it made me want to lean closer to her to hear her more clearly. “Clever,” she murmured. “Yes. Not too distracted to think. Just what I need.”

A cold shiver danced down my spine. “I don’t want any trouble,” I said. “Just go, and we can both pretend nothing happened.”

“But it has,” she murmured. Just the sound of her voice made the room feel colder. “You have seen through this veil. Proven your worth. How did you do it?”

“Static on the doorknob,” I said. “It should have been locked. You shouldn’t have been able to get in here, so you must have gone through it. And you danced around my questions rather than simply answering them.”

Still smiling, she nodded. “Go on.”

“You don’t have a purse. Not many women go out in a three-thousand-dollar suit and no purse.”

“Mmmm,” she said. “Yes. You’ll do perfectly, Mister Dresden.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I’m having nothing more to do with faeries.”

“I don’t like being called that, Mister Dresden.”

“You’ll get over it. Get out of my office.”

“You should know, Mister Dresden, that my kind, from great to small, are bound to speak the truth.”

“That hasn’t slowed your ability to deceive.”

Her eyes glittered, and I saw her pupils change, slipping from round mortal orbs to slow feline lengths. Cat-eyed, she regarded me, unblinking. “Yet have I spoken. I plan to gamble. And I will gamble upon you.”

“Uh. What?”

“I require your service. Something precious has been stolen. I wish you to recover it.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want me to recover stolen goods for you?”

“Not for me,” she murmured. “For the rightful owners. I wish you to discover and catch the thief and to vindicate me.”

“Do it yourself,” I said.

“In this matter I cannot act wholly alone,” she murmured. “That is why I have chosen you to be my emissary. My agent.”

I laughed at her. That made something else come into those perfect, pale features-anger. Anger, cold and terrible, flashed in her eyes and all but froze the laugh in my throat. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not making any more bargains with your folk. I don’t even know who you are.”

“Dear child,” she murmured, a slow edge to her voice. “The bargain has already been made. You gave your life, your fortune, your future, in exchange for power.”

“Yeah. With my godmother. And that’s still being contested.”

“No longer,” she said. “Even in this world of mortals, the concept of debt passes from one hand to the next. Selling mortgages, yes?”

My belly went cold. “What are you saying?”

Her teeth showed, sharp and white. It wasn’t a smile. “Your mortgage, mortal child, has been sold. I have purchased it. You are mine. And you will assist me in this matter.”

I set the gun down on my desk and opened the top drawer. I took out my letter opener, one of the standard machined jobs with a heavy, flat blade and a screw-grip handle. “You’re wrong,” I said, and the denial in my voice sounded patently obvious, even to me. “My godmother would never do that. For all I know, you’re trying to trick me.”

She smiled, watching me, her eyes bright. “Then by all means, let me reassure you of the truth.”

My left palm slammed down onto the table. I watched, startled, as I gripped the letter opener in my right hand, slasher-movie style. In a panic, I tried to hold back my hand, to drop the opener, but my arms were running on automatic, like they were someone else’s.

“Wait!” I shouted.

She regarded me, cold and distant and interested.

I slammed the letter opener down onto the back of my own hand, hard. My desk is a cheap one. The steel bit cleanly through the meat between my thumb and forefinger and sank into the desk, pinning me there. Pain washed up my arm even as blood started oozing out of the wound. I tried to fight it down, but I was panicked, in no condition to exert a lot of control. A whimper slipped out of me. I tried to pull the steel away, to get it out of my hand, but my arm simply twisted, wrenching the letter opener counterclockwise.

The pain flattened me. I wasn’t even able to get enough breath to scream.

The woman, the faerie, reached down and took my fingers away from the letter opener. She withdrew it with a sharp, decisive gesture and laid it flat on the desk, my blood gleaming all over it. “Wizard, you know as well as I. Were you not bound to me, I would have no such power over you.”

At that moment, most of what I knew was that my hand hurt, but some dim part of me realized she was telling the truth. Faeries don’t just get to ride in and play puppet master. You have to let them in. I’d let my godmother, Lea, in years before, when I was younger, dumber. I’d given her the slip last year, forced an abeyance of her claim that should have protected me for a year and a day.

But now she’d passed the reins to someone else. Someone who hadn’t been in on the second bargain.

I looked up at her, pain and sudden anger making my voice into a low, harsh growl. “Who are you?”

The woman ran an opalescent fingernail through the blood on my desk. She lifted it to her lips and idly touched it to her tongue. She smiled, slower, more sensual, and every bit as alien. “I have many names,” she murmured. “But you may call me Mab. Queen of Air and Darkness. Monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe.”

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“Gatekeeper,” the Merlin said, “what is your vote?”

The silent figure of the Gatekeeper silently lifted one hand. “We have set our feet upon a darkling path,” he murmured. “A road that will only grow more dangerous. Our first steps are critical. We must make them with caution.”

The cowl turned toward Ebenezar, and the Gatekeeper said, “You love the boy, Wizard McCoy. You would fight to defend him. Your own dedication to our cause is not inconsiderable. I respect your choice.”

He turned toward LaFortier. “You question Dresden’s loyalty and his ability. You imply that only a bad seed can grow from bad soil. Your concerns are understandable-and if correct, then Dresden poses a major threat to the Council.”

He turned to Ancient Mai and inclined the cowl forward a few degrees. The Ancient responded with a slight bow of her own. “Ancient Mai,” the Gatekeeper said. “You question his ability to use his power wisely. To judge between right and wrong. You fear that DuMorne’s teaching may have twisted him in ways even he cannot yet see. Your fears, too, are justified.”

He turned to the Merlin. “Honored Merlin. You know that Dresden has drawn death and danger down upon the Council. You believe that if he is removed, so will be that danger. Your fears are understandable, but not reasonable. Regardless of what happens to Dresden, the

Red Court

has struck a blow against the Council too deep to be ignored. A cessation of current hostilities would only be the calm before the storm.”

“Enough, man,” Ebenezar demanded. “Vote, for or against.”

“I choose to base my vote upon a Trial. A test that will lay to rest the fears of one side of the issue, or prove falsely placed the faith of the other.”

“What Trial?” the Merlin asked.

“Mab,” the Gatekeeper said. “Let Dresden address Queen Mab’s request. Let him secure the assistance of Winter. If he does, that should lay to rest your concerns regarding his ability, LaFortier.”

LaFortier frowned, but then nodded at the Gatekeeper.

He turned next to Ancient Mai. “Should he accomplish this, it should show that he is willing to accept responsibility for his mistake and to work against his own best interests for the greater good of the Council. It should satisfy your concerns as to his judgement-to make the mistakes of youth is no crime, but not to learn from them is. Agreed?”

Ancient Mai narrowed her rheumy eyes, but gave the Gatekeeper a precise nod.

“And you, honored Merlin. Such a success may do much to alleviate the pressure of the coming war. If securing routes through the Nevernever places the

Red Court

at a severe enough disadvantage, it may even enable us to avoid it entirely. Surely it would prove Dresden’s dedication to the Council beyond a doubt.”

“That’s all well and good,” Ebenezar said. “But what happens if he fails?”

The Gatekeeper shrugged. “Then perhaps their fears are more justified than your affection, Wizard McCoy. We may indeed conclude that his appointment to full Wizard Initiate may have been premature.”

“All or nothing?” Ebenezar demanded. “Is that it? You expect the youngest wizard in the Council to get the best of Queen Mab somehow? Mab? That’s not a Trial. It’s a goddamned execution. How is he even supposed to know what her request was to begin with?”

I stood up, my legs shaking a little. “Ebenezar,” I said.

“How the hell is the boy supposed to know what she wants?”

“Ebenezar-”

“I’m not going to stand by while you-” He abruptly blinked and looked at me. So did everyone else.

“I know what Mab wants,” I said. “She approached me earlier today, sir. She asked me to investigate something for her. I turned her down.”

“Hell’s bells,” Ebenezar breathed. He took the blue bandanna from his pocket and mopped at his gleaming forehead. “Hoss, this is out of your depth.”

“Looks like it’s sink or swim, then,” I said.

The Gatekeeper murmured to me in English, “Will you accept this, Wizard Dresden?”

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Today I Read…Storm Front

Storm FrontToday I read Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first book in The Dresden Files series.

Harry Dresden-Wizard. That’s what the sign says.

Most people think he’s a kook, a crazy, a few wands short of Tinkerbell–Harry knows that he is the only openly practicing wizard with a detective’s license. He also knows that the rent is overdue. He needs a case–fast.

Enter ‘Monica’, a woman who wants Harry to find her missing husband–and doesn’t want to tell him her husband’s name, where they live, or anything that could help him actually find the missing man. Well, beggars can’t be choosers when the mail contains nothing but overdue bills.

Then Harry gets a call from his occasional ally Karrin Murphy, the head of the Special Investigations Unit of the Chicago Police Department–Special Investigations being what the police call anything they refuse to call magic. Someone has been ripping out people’s hearts and leaving behind some very messy corpses, and Harry is the chief suspect. Not to mention the doom hanging over his head, and the trigger-happy Warden Morgan watching his every move and hoping that he’ll step just the tiniest bit out of line.

Add in angry mobsters, vampires, and a new magical street drug that drives users insane, and you get a wizard who’s really about to earn his  fifty dollars an hour. Plus expenses.

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I started this series because Jim Butcher was a guest at Ad Astra this year, and I wanted to attend before work got in the way (yes, I still have a backlog of reviews that dates back that far, but the list is slowly shrinking. I read faster than I write). I’ve read the first book in the series before, but it’s been some time and I’ve never read the rest of the series, so I decided to restart it from the beginning.

Harry Dresden is torn between his attempt at a self-image as a classic noir detective and as a powerful wizard, but unfortunately he can’t forget his reality of being broke and in trouble most of the time–he’s more magical working stiff than awe-inspiring all-powerful mage or hard-boiled tough-talking hard-living private dick. The answers to all of his problems don’t come easily enough to him for him to really fulfill the image he wishes he had. Though you do have to admire his ability to take a punch, considering how often it happens, and he doesn’t stop his investigation for anything or anyone, even when it would be in his own best interest to just walk away. Harry Dresden is in many ways the living embodiment of Murphy’s law–anything that possibly can go wrong for him will, and it only gets worse in the later books. He considers himself gallant and a bit of a throwback to chivalry, though he’s fairly good about acknowledging that Karrin Murphy could kick his ass and fire him as a police consultant.

I wouldn’t call this book brilliant, but it is solidly entertaining. Butcher has said in an interview that he wrote Storm Front in a writing class, and “I fought my writing teacher tooth and nail for the longest time, flatly rejecting a lot of very good advice she was giving me. When I finally got tired of arguing with her and decided to write a novel as if I was some kind of formulaic, genre writing drone, just to prove to her how awful it would be, I wrote the first book of the Dresden Files.” I certainly wouldn’t call Storm Front awful–I quite enjoyed it, and the others from the series that I’ve read so far. And considering it was Butcher’s first professional sale, and that so far he’s published 14 novels and a book of short stories based on Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, as well as one season of a television show, I guess a lot of people don’t think it’s awful.

Chicago makes an interesting scene–how would a modern wizard work in the real world? As Harry worries so often, he would have rent to pay. Other wizards work behind the scenes, instead of advertising in the Yellow Pages, and most people think that Harry is crazy or a con man, but there are enough people who believe or are at least curious enough that he can make a living. Then there are those who don’t care if he’s magical or crazy or a con or anything else so long as he gets results, and he can do that. Harry educates those who want to learn, without going into too much detail (which becomes a problem as the series goes on, when Murphy and others are put into danger through ignorance of how the magical world, the Nevernever, works), but he also doesn’t really feel the need to flaunt what he is in front of people who are not prepared to believe. As long as their cheques don’t bounce, he doesn’t care what people think of him (plus, if Warden Morgan catches him revealing too many secrets to outsiders, he might decide that that’s enough to cut Harry down to size–about a head shorter should do it).

This series should appeal to fans of modern fantasy and noir mystery who don’t take the conventions of the genres too seriously. Harry is a man who would like to fit into the formula a little more tightly than he does, but his life just keeps getting in the way. It’s entertaining to watch, but man am I ever glad I’m not Harry Dresden. I don’t think I could take getting beat up so often.

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I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.

Then he knocked.

I winced. My mail comes through the mail slot unless it’s registered. I get a really limited selection of registered mail, and it’s never good news. I got up out of my office chair and opened the door.

The new mailman, who looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, was chuckling at the sign on the door glass. He glanced at me and hooked a thumb toward the sign. “You’re kidding, right?”

I read the sign (people change it occasionally), and shook my head. “No, I’m serious. Can I have my mail, please.”

“So, uh. Like parties, shows, stuff like that?” He looked past me, as though he expected to see a white tiger, or possibly some skimpily clad assistants prancing around my one-room office.

I sighed, not in the mood to get mocked again, and reached for the mail he held in his hand. “No, not like that. I don’t do parties.”

He held on to it, his head tilted curiously. “So what? Some kinda fortune-teller? Cards and crystal balls and things?”

“No,” I told him. “I’m not a psychic.” I tugged at the mail.

He held on to it. “What are you, then?”

“What’s the sign on the door say?”

“It says ‘Harry Dresden. Wizard.’ ”

“That’s me,” I confirmed.

“An actual wizard?” he asked, grinning, as though I should let him in on the joke. “Spells and potions? Demons and incantations? Subtle and quick to anger?”

“Not so subtle.” I jerked the mail out of his hand and looked pointedly at his clipboard. “Can I sign for my mail please.”

The new mailman’s grin vanished, replaced with a scowl. He passed over the clipboard to let me sign for the mail (another late notice from my landlord), and said, “You’re a nut. That’s what you are.” He took his clipboard back, and said, “You have a nice day, sir.”

I watched him go.

“Typical,” I muttered, and shut the door.

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there. My ad looks like this:

HARRY DRESDEN-WIZARD

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations.

Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.

No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment

You’d be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I’m serious. But then, if you’d seen the things I’d seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you’d wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

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Blood smells a certain way, a kind of sticky, almost metallic odor, and the air was full of it when the elevator doors opened. My stomach quailed a little bit, but I swallowed manfully and followed Murphy out of the elevator and down the hall past a couple of uniform cops, who recognized me and waved me past without asking to see the little laminated card the city had given me. Granted, even in a big-city department like Chicago P.D., they didn’t exactly call in a horde of consultants (I went down in the paperwork as a psychic consultant, I think), but still. Unprofessional of the boys in blue.

Murphy preceded me into the room. The smell of blood grew thicker, but there wasn’t anything gruesome behind door number one. The outer room of the suite looked like some kind of a sitting room done in rich tones of red and gold, like a set from an old movie in the thirties-expensive-looking, but somehow faux, nonetheless. Dark, rich leather covered the chairs, and my feet sank into the thick, rust-colored shag of the carpet. The velvet velour curtains had been drawn, and though the lights were all on, the place still seemed a little too dark, a little too sensual in its textures and colors. It wasn’t the kind of room where you sit and read a book. Voices came from a doorway to my right.

“Wait here a minute,” Murphy told me. Then she went through the door to the right of the entryway and into what I supposed was the bedroom of the suite.

I wandered around the sitting room with my eyes mostly closed, noting things. Leather couch. Two leather chairs. Stereo and television in a black glossy entertainment center. Champagne bottle warming in a stand holding a brimming tub of what had been ice the night before, with two empty glasses set beside it. There was a red rose petal on the floor, clashing with the carpeting (but then, in that room, what didn’t?).

A bit to one side, under the skirt of one of the leather recliners, was a little piece of satiny cloth. I bent at the waist and lifted the skirt with one hand, careful not to touch anything. A pair of black-satin panties, a tiny triangle with lace coming off the points, lay there, one strap snapped as though the thong had simply been torn off. Kinky.

The stereo system was state of the art, though not an expensive brand. I took a pencil from my pocket and pushed the PLAY button with the eraser. Gentle, sensual music filled the room, a low bass, a driving drumbeat, wordless vocals, the heavy breathing of a woman as background.

The music continued for a few seconds more, and then it began to skip over a section about two seconds long, repeating it over and over again.

I grimaced. Like I said, I have this effect on machinery. It has something to do with being a wizard, with working with magical forces. The more delicate and modern the machine is, the more likely it is that something will go wrong if I get close enough to it. I can kill a copier at fifty paces.

“The love suite,” came a man’s voice, drawing the word love out into luuuuuuuv. “What do you think, Mister Man?”

“Hello, Detective Carmichael,” I said, without turning around. Carmichael’s rather light, nasal voice had a distinctive quality. He was Murphy’s partner and the resident skeptic, convinced that I was nothing more than a charlatan, scamming the city out of its hard-earned money. “Were you saving the panties to take home yourself, or did you just overlook them?” I turned and looked at him. He was short and overweight and balding, with beady, bloodshot eyes and a weak chin. His jacket was rumpled, and there were food stains on his tie, all of which served to conceal a razor intellect. He was a sharp cop, and absolutely ruthless at tracking down killers.

He walked over to the chair and looked down. “Not bad, Sherlock,” he said. “But that’s just foreplay. Wait’ll you see the main attraction. I’ll have a bucket waiting for you.” He turned and killed the malfunctioning CD player with a jab from the eraser end of his own pencil.

I widened my eyes at him, to let him know how terrified I was, then walked past him and into the bedroom. And regretted it. I looked, noted details mechanically, and quietly shut the door on the part of my head that had started screaming the second I entered the room.

They must have died sometime the night before, as rigor mortis had already set in. They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline. He stretched beneath her, a lean and powerfully built man, arms reaching out and grasping at the satin sheets, gathering them in his fists. Had it been an erotic photograph, it would have made a striking tableau.

Except that the lovers’ rib cages on the upper left side of their torsos had expanded outward, through their skin, the ribs jabbing out like ragged, snapped knives. Arterial blood had sprayed out of their bodies, all the way to the mirror on the ceiling, along with pulped, gelatinous masses of flesh that had to be what remained of their hearts. Standing over them, I could see into the upper cavity of the bodies, I noted the now greyish lining around the motionless left lungs and the edges of the ribs, which apparently were forced outward and snapped by some force within.

It definitely cut down on the erotic potential.