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.

The 4 best and 4 worst things about Solo: A Star Wars story

The movie has ups and downs but ultimately comes out ahead.

Solo: A Star Wars Story came out last weekend. I put it in a poll against Deadpool 2 and it squeaked out as the movie for which people wished to see me write a review. So here we are. Here’s an odd thing. When I walked out of the theater I was pretty sure I hadn’t enjoyed the movie. But the more I thought about it as I was preparing to write this review the more I realized that yeah, I did enjoy it.

It was a pretty generic summer blockbuster but there’s value in that kind of movie, too. They don’t make you think hard, they don’t make you cry too much, they don’t piss you off. They’re there. They’re the pretzels at the bar. Comforting and offering a pleasant distraction with their familiarity even when they aren’t particularly note-worthy.

One thing I think is of particular interest is that this movie demonstrates Disney’s continued desire to implement large chunks of the old Expanded Universe stories that they axed out of the canon in one of their first moves after purchasing the IP. We’ve seen this before in Disney asking Timothy Zahn to write a new Thrawn book to add to the new canon before they added the character to the TV show Rebels. The writers of this film also borrowed from the young Han Solo trilogy written by Ann C. Crispin. The original story was a trilogy of books so some chunks of the story are condensed while others are left for possible future films and some of the details are different but many of the same major character moves for Han still exist in both stories very similarly.

Even being a very generic movie, there were a few things that stood out, both good and bad, in the movie. Let’s look at those, shall we? SPOILERS ahead!

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

The trailers were misleading

The trailers made this movie look like it was going to be a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s 11 set in space. You may recall that one of the first articles ever posted on this website was one in which I hoped that Jon Snow’s trip beyond the wall in Game of Thrones was going to be turned into a miniature fantasy version of a heist flick. Heist movies are one of the few genres that greatly intrigue me outside of fantasy and sci-fi. Every time I think I see a meshing of the heist with one of the other two I always get excited and this movie was no exception. But it didn’t really happen at all.

The train robbery that the latest trailer focused so much on was really just the end of the first act of the movie. It involved something of the highly specialized crew but the recruitment phase that is a staple of the genre doesn’t really exist and the entire story arc is over so quickly that it doesn’t feel very heist-y. The infamous Kessel Run was used as part of the second act of the movie, but again it only gets an act devoted to it instead of an entire movie and again omits the necessary crew building step as they only make one stop to add to their team and there’s little to no specialization among the various group members. The movie also ignores all three opportunities it has for describing intricate plans, another staple of the genre.

The movie works as the generic sci-fi action flick it ends up being but it’s always confusing and frustrating when trailers lie directly to the potential audience like that.

It reintroduced the Kessel Run workaround

As I mentioned above they included a story arc about the infamous Kessel Run. For those of you who are not nerdy enough to remember what that is, let me explain. In Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo for the first time Han brags that the Millenium Falcon is one of the fastest ships in the galaxy and that it even made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Now, in the context of only that movie, it was probably a writing error because parsec sounds like a fancy futuristic unit of time. A parsec is a unit of distance, though, and some people endlessly made fun of the movies. (The script apparently indicates that Han was lying through his teeth in an attempt to con Obi Wan and so one could interpret that to mean that Han was the one making the error rather than the writers. George Lucas also later indicated that Han was both telling the truth and that the distance unit is used because the Falcon accomplished the feat with superior navigating rather than velocity. So there’s definitely some mystery, here) In the expanded universe a workaround was introduced wherein getting to Kessel required flying past a cluster of black holes known collectively as The Maw. A faster, smaller ship could do the run in less distance because it would be able to fly closer to the black holes while trusting the lack of mass and velocity to keep it from sucked in.

The movie changes some things. Instead of flying through/past The Maw ships are forced to navigate a deadly combination nebula and asteroid field known as The Maelstrom (which is pronounced bafflingly by Lando as “The Maw-lstrsom”). When they flee Kessel after successfully performing their theft they are forced to flee through the Maelstrom without using the safe route that has been inexplicably blockaded by Imperial forces (Yes, it’s a pretty glaring plot hole but is really just a means to an end, so we’ll let it slide.) During their flight through the nebula, they do come across The Maw, but it’s not the same. It’s described by the characters as a single massive gravity well instead of a cluster of black holes. I’m not sure what the difference between a massive gravity well not created by a planet or star and a black hole is, but that’s how they describe it. Eventually, Han and company escape and he immediately starts crowing about how they made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It was a nice call-back to both the original series and the Expanded Universe many of us grew up with.

The action was abysmal

As I’ve mentioned before, I am by no means any sort of expert on combat sequences. But even I could tell that the action scenes in this movie were abysmal. I’m not sure what led to the issues but the majority of the fight scenes were so shaky and filled with so many cuts that it was quite impossible to figure out who was doing what to whom at any point until the fights were finished.

The relationship between Han and Chewie was great

The action was abysmal, but a lot of the emotion was terrific. I think if you asked casual fans what they most wanted to see in this movie they would say the beginnings of Han and Chewie’s relationship. I don’t know that that item would be as high for the more hardcore fans but it would probably be on the list, too. And you absolutely get to see that relationship from the very beginning and follow through as they gradually go from guys working on a criminal crew because they don’t even know what else to do into lifelong friends who just want to stay one step ahead of everyone and anyone who might want to kill them.

Perhaps the best part of their relationship is how the movie allows it to grow alongside the plot instead of trying to force things. It happens very naturally and organically as the story unfolds and it’s really terrific. Aldon Ehrenreich was not a 100% pitch-perfect Han Solo, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the rumors indicated he might be and his best moments were always with Chewie which would be the place I’d want the strongest moments to go, anyway.

Emilia Clarke is maybe not a very good actor

Emilia Clarke gained fame and notoriety for her role as the Dothraki Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s a hot ticket for any movie that wants to add some female star power. But the more I watch her the less convinced I am that she actually has much acting talent. I noted in several of last season’s Game of Thrones reviews that while the plot was still treating her as a superhero her actions and emotions were far less consistent with that reading of her character. Watching her as Qi’ra in this movie I again felt like her actions and emotions were out of sync with who and what the movie wanted us to see her as. In Game of Thrones, I figured it was bad writing, but now that the sample size has increased I start to wonder if it’s actually the acting.

Her character doesn’t seem to feel anything strongly throughout the entire movie. The most animated she gets is when Han kisses her, but she doesn’t otherwise act particularly as though she likes him. Unless you count that she seems to stick her neck out for him at the beginning of the second act but that could also be read as her seeing an opportunity to take out Vos. The problem with either interpretation is that she never expresses a desire to accomplish either of those things until she gets the latter at the end of the film.

Apparently all she ever wanted was a chance to kill Vos and take his place in the dastardly criminal organization, Crimson Dawn. But without any sort of foreshadowing for that moment it reads as a writer choice to keep her separated from Han so that it will be just him and Chewie when Luke needs a ride off of Tatooine in a decade rather than a reasonable conclusion for her character arc.

Don’t get me wrong, it could still definitely be the writing. For all Solo’s high points it’s got some low ones and not writing her character well would easily fall within the bounds of the other issues with the movie. But this is the second time I’ve been able to watch her and think, “Clarke seems to only be able to act one beat per scene, max, and it isn’t even always one of the beats that belongs there.” and that probably isn’t all on bad writing.

Donald Glover’s Lando was amazing

When I saw 2009’s Star Trek reboot there was one actor who completely out-did everyone else, for my money. Karl Urban was given the responsibility of bringing DeForest Kelley’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy back to life on the big screen despite not looking anything like the original actor. Urban was so good in the role that he solidified his position as one of my favorite current actors. He didn’t just duplicate the acting and emotional choices the original actor might have made but he also duplicated mannerisms and intonations that Kelley may never have even been consciously aware of.

I bring this up because Donald Glover did the exact same thing with his version of Lando Calrissian. His first lines were spoken from off-screen and, out of context, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you whether that was a line spoken by Donald Glover or Billy Dee Williams. He brought that level of authenticity to the character throughout the entire movie. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone, though. Even from the very first trailer, it was obvious that Glover embodied the charisma of the Williams’ interpretation of the character and during the press tours it came out that Billy Dee actually met with Donald for lunch and answered questions about how to play the character. My one complaint about Lando Calrissian in this movie was the decision to change him from a gambler who was so very good at it that it was nearly a super-power into a common cheater and grifter. But there could definitely have been worse things. There are rumors swirling that Disney may greenlight a Lando spinoff and if they can get Glover on-board for it I think that might be their best decision with this IP, yet.

Tobias Beckett is inconsistent for the sake of the plot

Tobias Beckett, as played by Woody Harrelson, is a complex character. But he’s a bit…too complex. When Han meets this character he’s a very happy-go-lucky scoundrel, much in the vein Han grows into by the time of A New Hope. He puts on a tough face, but you can tell he has a heart of gold. The easiest way to tell if a scoundrel has a heart of gold is always by the crew they surround themselves with. Chewbacca seems threatening in ANH, but he never hurts anyone. His actions tell a story of giant furball who knows his strength and size are intimidating to strangers and has enough of a sense of humor about it to mess with them from time to time. If Han is hanging out with an honorable warrior with a sense of humor like that then you can tell he can’t be as bad as he wants you to think he is.

Tobias’ crew is much the same way. He has a woman who has a clear, strong sense of honor who obviously desperately loves him. The pilot is a good sort with a calm sense of a humor who tries to draw the new guys out of their shells. There is no way a truly evil dude would have worked with a crew like those two for very long. And, yet, the movie telegraphs very early in the second act to even the least genre-savvy viewer that Beckett is absolutely going to betray Han at some point. That’s not entirely unexpected or unreasonable; scoundrels with hearts of gold are still scoundrels, after all. We’ve seen before how such characters might abandon the other heroes for selfish reasons – heck, just look at how Lando abandoned Solo and Beckett at the refinery when Enfys Nest shows up. But when Beckett’s betrayal comes it has nothing to do with personal gain or keeping his hide. He does it simply because he apparently likes working with Paul Bettany’s evil criminal mastermind character, Dryden Vos.

There are some villains who disguise themselves as scoundrels with hearts of gold but there’s always something foreshadowing about their behavior or their associates to give it away. It takes more than a warning to assume everyone will betray you to make that shift work.

Han shoots first

After Beckett betrays Han he also betrays Vos and then tries to make off with the hyperfuel. Han wants to give the fuel to the rebels because it’s the right thing to do but once Han escapes Vos and catches up with Beckett. Beckett, unfortunately, is not interested in splitting the treasure and so he monologues for a moment as he tries to distract Han, who already has the drop on him, so he can shoot him and escape with the booty.

There has been a grueling debate among the Star Wars fanbase ever since George Lucas released the special editions of the original trilogy. You may recall that in ANH Han runs into the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo after agreeing to transport Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids to Alderaan. In both versions of the scene, Han is forced to sit down at a booth at gunpoint by Greedo. In both versions, they have a conversation where Han tries to convince Greedo to let him go. In the original version, this conversation is mostly a distraction so Han can get his gun out and blast the villain, ruthlessly but necessarily in order to save his own skin. In the modified version, Greedo shoots first but inexplicably misses a seated Han from less than three feet away before he gets blasted. Lucas wanted to make Han look less scoundrel and more heart of gold but it’s a far weaker interpretation of the character and most fans argue that “Han shot first”

As Beckett tries to distract Han in Solo, Han doesn’t fall for it and he doesn’t hesitate. He guns down his mentor and friend before Beckett can shoot him. This is Han the scoundrel with the heart of gold. He didn’t want to shoot Beckett, you can tell from his actions before and after he does so, but he knows he has no choice if he wants to live and Han is a survivor. You can’t survive in the criminal underworld without being a little ruthless sometimes, and it was good to see that acknowledged as we continue to hurtle to a new world with fresh takes on Star Wars.

Solo is not a perfect movie. It’s not even really a particularly good movie by most measures. But it’s a fun movie that does nostalgia in a significantly better, if more specialized, way than Ready Player One. It’s easily the kind of movie that your average Star Wars fan can keep around the house for a bland but quite enjoyable palette cleanser in the years to come. As long as you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of a Han Solo origin story, you’re not expecting some sort of cinematic masterpiece, and you have a large, friendly bucket of popcorn to munch you should find this movie plenty enjoyable.