The Dresden Files: Skin Game shows other people how to write

I’ve been listening to James Marsters read the Dresden Files books for months now. I got the first one on sale from Audible more than a year ago and have been borrowing them from the library or buying them on Audible ever since. The first book definitely had its issues and especially early on read like someone who couldn’t stop thinking about sex for five seconds, but if you follow along the now 15-book (plus a handful of short story collections) series you can watch a writer – in this case, Jim Butcher – grow into his talents.

The series starts out good but far from perfect in Storm Front. By the time Butcher got to the fifth book, Death Masks, he had really started to hit his stride and the series went from being something I listened to idly for lack of an obviously better choice to one I devoured as fast as I possibly could. Skin Game, the most recent full novel released by Butcher, was easily the best, yet. It also showed far superior versions of flawed moments in movies I have written about, this year. SPOILERS for Avengers: Infinity WarSolo: A Star Wars Story, and The Dresden Files: Skin Game follow.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

This book was terrific for a lot of reasons and if you want to read it I really hope you’ll turn back, now. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the aforementioned movies these are not little baby spoilers. They’re really massive ones on which the movies turn, entirely. Alright, I’ve warned as much as I can.

Skin Game is actually a heist story

Harry gets ordered by Mab, the Queen of Winter Faerie and his current boss, to help out Nicodemus Archleone, the head of a group of fallen angels melded with evil humans known as the Knights of the Denarius or the Denarians. Nicodemus wants to steal The Holy Grail from Hades. If you’ve ever heard a better setup for a fantasy heist story I want to hear about it. You immediately have what’s guaranteed to be a nigh-impenetrable vault owned by an incredibly powerful person who is likely to take offense at your attempted burglary, and you’re partnering the hero with the most villainous character and organization* he’s ever encountered. It’s going to be a good time.

*One quick note: Nicodemus and his crew are recurring villains in this series, but this is only, I think the third time they’ve been encountered. Butcher does a tremendous job creating villains that the audience is going to want to hear from again and then not overusing them. A lot of other authors, I think, would be tempted to put Nic behind every single problem Harry faces but we can go several novels in between appearances so he – and other recurring villains in the series – never wear out their welcome, for the audience.

The most important staple of a heist story is assembling the crew. And they do it. Nicodemus is joined by his alleged daughter Deirdre; a summoner and take on the traditional cockney ne’er-do-well who isn’t 100% evil, Binder; warlock, fire-specialist, and ally of Binder, Hanna Ascher; shapeshifter Goodman Grey, former cop and frequent Dresden ally Karrin Murphy, thief-with-a-grudge-against-Nic Anna Valmont; and a Bigfoot-like creature that can wield incredibly powerful magic known as The Genoskwa.

Each of these members gets a proper introduction. Each of them has a specialty which allows the team to function as a whole. There are conflicting personalities which raise the tension of the heist above and beyond the actual theft. And, like any true heist story, the setup for the caper is significantly longer, tougher, and more interesting than the theft itself.

If Solo had really wanted to be a heist film, this is the model it should have followed. Because it doesn’t really do any of these things it’s actually an action film starring thieves. That doesn’t make it a bad film, just not what I was expecting and not what it could have or should have been if it wanted to be more than a perfectly adequate summer popcorn flick.

Skin Game shows how to have a villain kill that which he loves

By far the biggest issue in Avengers: Infinity War was the bit about the Soul Stone. To jog your memory a bit: Thanos discovers, after finding the location of the Soul Stone, that to actually acquire it he must sacrifice that which he loves most. But the way he has been described and portrayed throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a person who is as incapable of love as Gamora takes him to be. Instead, Thanos informs Gamora that she is what he loves most in the universe before throwing her off of a cliff.

Some have argued that comparatively, the man who loves nothing might come closest to loving Gamora and that’s fine for an argument purely in response to nitpicking the logic. But the greater issue is that which it conveys to its audience about the nature of love and abusers. I’ve already written on the subject and here’s someone else writing more eloquently than I could if you want to read more about that. But the basic idea you should be getting is that it was a really poor choice on the part of the Russos.

Skin Game, though, has a lesson for the MCU, in this. It turns out Hades has blocked the way to his vault with three gates. The third and final gate is the Gate of Blood. To get through it you must kill someone in front of it and their shade must pull the lever to open the way. In this moment Nicodemus knows there is only one person on his team that he can trust to open the gate once he has killed them, his daughter, Deirdre.

Unlike what happens in Avengers, everything leading up to this moment has shown that Nicodemus and Deirdre absolutely care about each other, even if it is in their own twisted way. They both think they’re doing the right thing, for whatever reason, and so when Nicodemus kills her it’s also a moment of self-sacrifice for her. She chooses that fate for herself as much as he does. And the fact that Nicodemus loves her so much comes into play, later in the story, as well. His grief over killing her causes him to react stupidly multiple times. It’s the turning point for the climax of the novel, even.

Skin Game shows Solo how to have a friendly-appearing crook betray their allies

It was obvious from the beginning that Nicodemus, Deirdre, and The Genoskwa were going to betray Harry. Grey also seemed to be on their side, though less emphatically. Similarly, Anna and Karrin and eventually Michael Carpenter – he had to replace Karrin after an early confrontation with Nicodemus led to her being too injured to continue – were all on Dresden’s side. Binder and Hanna were anyone’s guess but they both seemed like they weren’t entirely evil and so the audience could hope they’d come down on Harry’s side and turn the balance in his favor.

Hanna, especially, just seemed like someone who had been dealt a bad hand in life and who, with a little bit of effort, could be convinced to work for the side of the good guys permanently. Perhaps a bit like a certain Tobias Beckett? But, like Beckett, she decides to betray our heroes and work for the villains. Unlike Beckett, however, her heel turn makes perfect sense.

She was close with Binder but not so close that it was unreasonable for him to be unaware of the full extent of her identity or plans. You’ll note how different that is from Beckett who had a woman who loved him and seemed to know him very well as well as a very relaxed, friendly creature on his team; it just doesn’t make sense that these two people with obviously good hearts could work for or with such a cold-hearted villain. When Hanna reveals her betrayal to Dresden she does so with a full explanation of how very much she hates him; that’s another huge difference from Beckett; betrayals work better with strong motivations and Hanna has one while Beckett had nothing but a shrug and I-told-you-I-was-going-to-do-thises.

It’s one of the saddest but strongest story moments in the entire book and even a highlight moment of the entire series. Because Hanna was everything she seemed to be. But there was more to her, as well. She wasn’t directly lying to Harry or Binder she just didn’t tell them the whole truth. When the reveal comes everyone realizes they’ve allowed themselves to be fooled. The entire thing is driven by strong character motivations and makes for a terrific denouement instead of just checking a box off on your storyboard.

Skin Game ends like a heist movie, too

Every good heist movie has a moment where it looks like the thieves have been outsmarted after all and are going to lose everything. The action is abruptly interrupted to go back in time to some seemingly unimportant moment that you hadn’t stopped to think about since it ended and it’s revealed that the protagonist(s) saw it coming all along and planned for this eventuality, too.

Harry uses Nicodemus’ grief against him so that Nicodemus will pick a fight with Harry. The obscure rules of engagement they were playing under meant that Harry couldn’t make the first attack but he also had no intention of letting Nicodemus leave The Underworld with The Holy Grail if he could help it. Nicodemus takes the bait but then puts Harry in a sticky situation. Not only is The Genoskwa on his side but so is Hanna. And they’ve both taken up Coins of the Fallen, meaning they’ve got fallen angels riding shotgun in the back of their brains giving them more strength and cunning than they had before. And then Grey waltzes over, ready to join the party.

It is at this moment, when all seems lost, that Harry flashes back to before the heist even started. He remembers the steps he had to take in order to hire Goodman Grey, whose loyalty is entirely to the person who hired him and who never betrays such a contract, before the heist even started. Back to the present and Grey takes Harry’s side against the enemy which turns the tide of the conflict and allows Harry and friends to become victorious.

There is, of course, more to the story before, during, and after the events I’ve described which combine to make it even better. If you’re interested in urban fantasy novels I can highly recommend The Dresden Files. The series, as I said before, starts out rough, but it definitely improves and you get a much greater appreciation for where the character is, where he’s been, and where he’s going by starting from the beginning. And if, on top of the urban fantasy, you want to read a good heist story or just see some terrific examples of common story tropes done amazingly well? Then Skin Game is probably the book for you.

All good things… Part 2: The Princess Series – The Snow Queen’s Shadow

A terrific book series ends horribly due to questionable reasoning.

I adore The Princess Series. The first three books are masterpiece fantasy efforts that take fairytale princesses with which we’re all familiar then go back to their less familiar roots then changes them in subtle ways to tell a completely unique and fresh story. The series stars Cinderella, known as Danielle, Snow White, known simply as Snow, and Sleeping Beauty, known as Talia. After their original tales, they go on adventures to protect Cinderella’s kingdom from a wide variety of threats. Goodreads describes it a bit like fairytales crossed with Charlie’s Angels and they’re not entirely wrong.

The protagonists and antagonists of these stories are almost exclusively women making it an exceptionally feminist-friendly tale. For those looking for more representation, there is even a lesbian relationship or two included in the stories. Each of the books puts plenty of focus on each of the three women and gives them their times to shine and Jim C. Hines does a terrific job finding a broad range of solutions for each of the three characters to enact using their unique skill sets while breathing life into these characters with interesting, complicated relationships between them that lead to tears and humor in equal measure.

At least until The Snow Queen’s Shadow.

According to a postface following The Snow Queen’s Shadow, the fourth and final book in the series, Hines had initially planned to make the stories more episodic and write a lot of books but decided against it once he realized that one of the characters was in love with another. At that point, he felt he needed to go a different route and serialized his story and ended it after only four novels. I disagree with his reasoning – that the only way to do justice to the character was to have a serialized arc that ended – but we’re not going to get into that, just now.

I’ve said at least a dozen times that ending series is incredibly difficult. Last week I talked a bit about how I interpreted Kevin Hearne’s writing in the ending of The Iron Druid Chronicles as an attempt to deal with some of those pitfalls with mixed results. Hines went in a completely different direction and, if you hadn’t gathered from my single sentence paragraph, there, I was left more than a little unimpressed. In fact, it might very well be the only novel I’ve ever disliked that much and still completed. I’m about to get into SPOILERS but before I do I wanted to make sure you understand; the first three books in this series are great and I really can’t recommend them enough. But I probably wouldn’t bother to read The Snow Queen’s Shadow if I were you. And now I’ll tell you why.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The first thing that bothers me is that the story is still pretty episodic. Each book completes its own arc and while character traits and growth carry over from novel to novel there are not really any continuing story arcs. What that means is that Hines naturally avoided most of the pitfalls that come from writing series that make writing the endings so hard and he still managed to screw it up.

There is only one real problem with the story. And you might be asking yourself, “One problem? You love all kinds of terrible things with far more problems. Solo: A Star Wars Story had at least 4! What is your deal?” And the answer is that it was a really big problem. So big that I have to keep hyping it up a bit. A lot of times in stories with large ensembles you’ll see long-lost characters or frequently recurring guests make returns in the finale in order to say goodbye. If you need some examples think of Star Trek: Enterprise or Once Upon a Time (which I’ll talk about more in the next couple of weeks.) This is a perhaps cliche but very solid way to end a series by making sure even supporting characters get their sendoff, as well.

TSQS does the exact opposite of this. Not only were prominent characters from earlier stories largely or completely ignored but one of the stars of the series was completely removed from it. Snow White is possessed by a demon within the first 30 pages of the book and only barely recovers herself in time to say goodbye to Talia after Talia kills her at the end of the book because it is the only way to slay the demon possessing her. Snow’s body is present but her mind, far more important, especially in a book, is not.

Remember how Hines felt the need to make the story more serialized (even though he didn’t actually do any such thing) because Talia’s unrequited love for Snow deserved a real arc? This was his conclusion to that arc. That Snow be largely missing from the final story and that Talia be forced to kill her.

Only it gets worse.

Because before Snow was completely possessed by the demon she ripped out a part of herself, made this imaginary-sister-come-to-life named Gerta love Talia, and sent her to help the heroes. Talia, with no one else to be in love with, falls for Snow’s “sister” after she is forced to kill Snow. Kevin Hearne tried to have his cake and eat it, too, with Atticus as I described last week but it was nothing compared to deleting a character and then slotting her imaginary sister into the story as an exact replacement and having all the other characters just slot the new one right where the old used to go.

It’s true that not all stories have to have happy endings. But this isn’t just “not a happy ending”. This is actively ignoring one of your three main characters for the entire story followed by a sad ending followed by a super weird and awkward consolation prize for all of the surviving characters. The writing isn’t bad but the decision-making that led to that writing surely was.

I feel confident in assessing Jim C. Hines as an above-average writer based on his efforts in the first three books of this series, though I haven’t yet read his other works. But this book was simply poorly conceived. I like to re-read my favorite books occasionally and I am reasonably certain The Princess Series will be added to this rotation. All of them except for The Snow Queen’s Shadow which I will hopefully completely forget now that I have written this post.

All good things… Part 1: The Iron Druid Chronicles – Scourged

Endings suck both because there’s no more and because they’re incredibly hard to write.

I recently managed to read the final books in two different series at basically the same time and I’ve got a TV series finale sitting on Hulu staring at me in reproach. I always get lots of feelings when a story concludes and the only way I know how to deal with them is to write. So I decided now is probably a good time to talk about all of them and offer some of my thoughts on the pitfalls and difficulties of ending long-running stories while I’m at it. We’re going to start with The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne because that’s the one I finished first.

Ending a long-running book series is hard. If you don’t believe me just look at the examples set for us by Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. Neither of them was just lazing about as they continued to write and write and write – Jordan just kept adding to the middle of his series rather than finish it while Martin has chosen to work on other projects and to flesh out the history of his story. If ending these things were easy The Wheel of Time would almost certainly be significantly shorter and might have been finished by Jordan. Heck, even when Brandon Sanderson took over the project following Jordan’s passing he found he had to write three more books to wrap up all the plot threads Jordan had set in motion and there were still some things left to be desired.

Kevin Hearne did at least manage to end his series. But he didn’t do it perfectly. If, indeed, it is even possible to end a series like this perfectly. Let’s talk about some of the issues he ran into and the ways he tried to combat them and how well he did. SPOILERS for the entire Iron Druid Chronicles series ahead!

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The tone finishes shifting

One of the major issues with long-running stories for which there seems to be no real answer is shifting tones. You fall in love with the tone and characters of the first book in a series and by the end, it’s completely different. In SF/F novels that follow this trope, you’ll most often see a first book start out relatively fun. The threats might be real but the hero deals with them relatively easily and maintains their charm throughout. As the story continues the problems get more and more dangerous, the mood gets darker and darker, and by the end of the series, it’s almost impossible to recognize the originally friendly, happy character with whom you started the series in the grizzled, bitter one with whom you’re finishing.

The most famous example of this might be Harry Potter. Despite being raised by an emotionally abusive family he was a fairly well-adjusted kid who made friends relatively easily, treated most people with kindness, and found pleasure in small things. By the end of the series he was angry and bitter and we only got a glimpse of the return of the previously mellow kid in the epilogue of the final book once he was years removed from the events of the story that had been told.

The problem is that this isn’t bad writing; characters grow and change and stories often need to allow that. That a character might become less happy after experiencing multiples tragedies and life-or-death struggles is a more than reasonable writing choice. But it still means that by the end of the multi-book story you’re no longer reading the style of story you fell in love with. This is absolutely a thing that happens in The Iron Druid Chronicles.

The tale starts off with a happy bookshop owner who, yes, has lived for millennia on the run from a deity in the Irish pantheon but for whom life is a joy. His only companion is the Irish Wolfhound, Oberon, with whom Atticus has formed a bond that allows them to communicate using telepathic speech. Oberon as a dog finds pleasure in the simple things of life and often reminds Atticus to do so, as well. As the saga continues Atticus finds himself embroiled in deeper and darker trouble. By the end, he faces the literal Ragnarok, an apocalyptic event in the Norse mythological style led by Loki and Hel (though these interpretations of the characters are very different from those in the recent Marvel movie.) The story also does not end happily at all, but we’ll get to that in more detail in a minute.

The ending of the story is short on details

One of the issues with ending these long series, as I hinted at earlier, is attempting to wrap up the large number of plot threads. For many series, each book will only resolve some of the plot threads from previous books while it introduces several new ones and likely won’t even resolve all of those, either. This means that every book adds more characters and plot threads to be tracked in later books. It’s difficult to wrap them all up successfully in a single book, as Brandon Sanderson found out when he agreed to attempt to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed.

Before I had even started the final IDC book I was ready for the series to be over. I had stopped having fun with it several books previous but I kept reading because I have only once met a story that got so twisted from where it had started that I gave up caring about the characters and chose to move on with my life. And the book reads a bit like Kevin Hearne was tired of it as well. The book reads as if the outline for the novel were fleshed out the minimal degree necessary to tell the story and then went to print.

The point that stands out most to me in this regard was his treatment of the Yeti. Through the course of the saga, we were introduced to five Yeti who turned out to be the children of Irish ocean deity Manannan Mac Lir. They helped with a part of one of the quests taken on by Granuaile MacTiernan, a druid trained and bonded by Atticus as well as his love interest. The returned to this story long enough to defeat a fire giant summoned by Loki to burn the world. Their total appearance in the novel lasted approximately 10 pages and three of them unceremoniously died.

60% of the Yeti in the entire world were killed while they fought and killed a being who was apparently the only or last of his kind. And it received as much “screen time” as bath and breakfast for Atticus’ hound, Oberon, received in the first book. I hate when characters return after long periods of time away simply so they can be killed off at any point in a story but this seems particularly egregious. This is not even remotely the only time this happens in Scourged, either.

Several books prior we received a multi-chapter massive fight between the heroes and Loki’s monstrous wolf, Fenrir. In another section of the final book the battle between the world serpent, Jörmungandr, and Atticus’ occasional witch ally, Laksha Kulasekaran, lasted only a pair of pages as Laksha merely possesses the monster and commits suicide. So Laksha makes a return after being largely absent for a long period of time to die again and does so to quickly end what the story had built up to be the greatest threat Atticus would yet face, as well.

Other prominent characters received a token amount of page time or merely a reference. Flidais shows up long enough to get drunk and start a bar fight before vanishing for the rest of the book. Perun and Leif Helgarson are mentioned but never seen.

Hearne may not have actually been tired of the story. It’s possible that this was simply a choice the writer made in order to ensure the plot threads were dealt with in this single book. Which brings us back to the question of whether it’s even possible to provide fitting endings for these massive sagas. The scope just gets to be too large to actually do it justice; events and characters get left out or are under-represented.

The story ends. Then it gets an epilogue.

Things get even worse, personally, for Atticus by the end of the story as his erstwhile allies lop off his right arm – necessary for a very large amount of the Atticus’ druidic abilities – following the battle. The Norse feel his efforts in the war were not sufficient for the crimes he committed. And it’s hard to blame them. Atticus didn’t just attack their pantheon and kill a handful of their gods; that would have been bad enough. He also enlisted the aid of the frost giants by promising them that they would have an opportunity to capture and rape Freya if they came with him. In his defense, what little there is of it, he hoped for and expected them to fail. He mostly wanted them along as a distraction while he and his band of heroes attempted to kill Thor.

Hearne does the series credit by taking this decision of Atticus very seriously at the very end of the story, though. Atticus is further punished by being banned from ever returning to the stomping grounds of the Norse gods. When Granuaile finds out about what he did to deserve the punishment she is disgusted with him and ends their relationship, as well. The tone of the story has finished shifting from a light-hearted romp with a talking dog into a full-blown tragedy. And every result follows logically from the decisions Atticus made. In a lot of stories a decision that, as gross as it was, was such a minor plot point in a story would not have blown up in a character’s face like that. Again, credit to Hearne for either keeping it in mind when it happened or catching back up to it, later, and working it back into the story instead of just ignoring it.

The story doesn’t end happily, nor does it have the tone it did at the start, but it does end fittingly. Could Atticus have made other choices for a better result? Maybe, maybe not. But this result fits the choices he made even if they were the only reasonable choices available to him. This is something he laments at the end to drive the point home. It’s a bit fatalistic but, again, it suits the story where it has come to rest.

And then the epilogue comes. Oberon gives Atticus an idea to have his arm restored and while we aren’t shown the fruits borne of the idea, we’re left with the distinct impression that everything will work out for him. We’re also reminded multiple times that Atticus and Granuaile are functionally immortal and it’s entirely possible they might get back together some day. The epilogue basically reads as if the editor told Kevin, “Listen. This is great and all. But you gotta give people hope for the ending they would have rather had because that’s what you do.” So rather than stick to his guns with the ending that was there or add an epilogue that suggested Atticus might find peace some day even without a girlfriend or his arm – something that would have been a great moment of validation for people who are missing limbs or don’t feel the need for romantic relationships – we get an ending that promises those things are still possibilities for the “hero” who “cocked everything up.”

There are absolutely worse things than providing hope for the readers who wanted to see a completely happy ending for Atticus but it one thing it did not do was make the story stronger.

Scourged isn’t a perfect ending for The Iron Druid Chronicles but is an ending. It’s also a good sight better than other endings we have seen to other tales. Hearne provided us with several terrific books before we got here and it’s good to see that he managed to complete the tale before the story collapsed beneath its own weight.