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 War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and The Dresden Files: Skin Game follow.
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.