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May 09

Book Review: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

What’s It About

While it’s book fifteen of the Harry Dresden series all you really need to know is that (a) Harry is wizard, (b) it’s essentially a heist novel and (c) the book mostly, though not entirely, stands alone.

Representative Paragraph

This more or less sums up Harry Dresden:

You know, sometimes it feels like I don’t have any other kind of day. Like, ever. On the other hand, I’m not sure what I would really do with any other kind of day. I mean, at some point in my life, I had to face it—I was pretty much equipped, by experience and inclination, for mayhem.

Should I Read This Novel?

If you’re already a fan of the Dresden series then you don’t require an answer to this question.  If this is your first Harry Dresden novel well, I’m not sure this is the best place to start, even if there is a standalone-ish quality to the events of this book. 

Having said that, Harry – and Butcher – always takes the time to remind the reader of who is who in the zoo.  When I was still enjoying this series I found these info dumps annoying.  Now that I’ve experienced a five or so book gap between Harry’s adventures, they definitely came in handy.

The novel is mildly entertaining and the plot is serviceable.  I’m certain if you love Harry and his cast of beleaguered friends you’ll find something to cheer about in this book.  Personally, I found that all the issues that turned me off the Dresden series in the first place – the smugness, the male gaze, how Harry is constantly being beaten up… and yet somehow finds another reserve of power – still present.  I have no desire to either catch up on the books I’ve missed or read the next one.

And frankly, given the slightness of the plot, it’s clear that this nomination is meant to represent a body of work rather than promote the quality of Skin Game.

Commentary

Before I started reading Skin Game I did myself the favour of catching up on Harry’s adventures on Wikipedia.  I was surprised to discover that I’d actually read the first ten novels, only giving up on the series after I’d finished Small Favor.  And while I might have walked away from Harry just as the series was about to get really, really good, it’s not a decision that keeps me awake at nights.  This lack of regret was reinforced after finishing Skin Game.

That’s not to say that Skin Game is a terrible novel.  After the major events covered in Changes and Cold Days this addition to the series is a bit of a pause.  It has a stand alone-ish quality and If this had been Book Five of the series, rather than Book Fifteen, I’m not sure anyone would have noticed.*  As the book is mostly focussed on the setting up of a heist – Queen Mab has ordered Harry to assist Nicodemus (he of the Blackened Denarius) in stealing some unique and powerful items from Hades vault… yes that Hades – any of the continuity that does appear can be understood within the context of the story.

As a heist novel, Skin Game follows a well trodden path.  There’s the putting the crew together scene, there’s the bit where they have to steal something critical for the actual heist, there’s the planning, there’s the betrayal and counter betrayal, and there’s the unreliable narrator – Harry – deliberately not filling us in on all the pertinent facts.  For all the twists and turns there are no new ideas on display here, Butcher isn’t interested in undermining or deconstructing the heist narrative.  And that’s perfectly fine, but it does mean that there’s something slight and forgettable about the whole adventure.

Plot shenanigans aside, the novel featured all the authorial tics and quirks that turned me off Harry and his adventures in the first place.  At the top of the pile are the self aware gags and “witty banter” that felt fresh and new back in the 90s, when Joss Whedon was writing Buffy and people still used “post modern” in a sentence without feeling embarrassed, but now comes off as smug and irritating.  Here’s a couple of examples:

I looked past him to the snack table. It was indeed piled with doughnuts of a number of varieties. Some of them even had sprinkles. My mouth started a quick impression of a minor tributary. But they were doughnuts of darkness. Evil, damned doughnuts, tainted by the spawn of darkness . . . . . . which could obviously be redeemed only by passing through the fiery, cleansing inferno of a wizardly digestive tract.

— and –

“I know you’ve been aching to have your hands on my staff,” I said to Ascher, as Nicodemus examined the altar for himself. I held out my hand. “But I’d rather be the one fondling my tool. Wizards are weird like that.”

“Wow,” she said, and flashed me a grin, her face flushed, excited. “You left me nowhere to go with that one. I have nothing to add.”

“I’m just that good,” I said.

And then there’s the way Harry regularly objectifies woman.  Take this passage as an example.

I’m pretty sure the temperature of the room didn’t literally go up, but I couldn’t have sworn to it. Some women have a quality about them, something completely intangible and indefinable, which gets called a lot of different things, depending on which society you’re in. I always think of it as heat, fire. It doesn’t have to be about sex, but it often is—and it definitely was with Hannah Ascher. I was extremely aware of her body, and her eyes. Her expression told me that she knew exactly what effect she was having on me, and that she didn’t mind having it in the least. I’d say that my libido kicked into overdrive, except that didn’t seem sufficient to cover the rush of purely physical hunger that suddenly hit me. Hannah Ascher was a damned attractive woman. And I’d been on that island for a long, long time.

As the novel progresses, Harry keeps his male gaze firmly on Ascher.  At one point he notices how she’s —

breathing lightly and her skin was sheened with sweat. There like every other look I’d seen on her, it was an awfully intriguing one—easily translated to let a fellow imagine what she might look like during…

— and all this, including a vivid sex dream involving his best mate Karrin Murphy, can all be excused because (a) Harry is a hot blooded bloke and (b) he was cooped up on that island all on his own for a very long time.  And the revelation that Ascher uses sex as a defense because she was once a victim of attempted rape most certainly doesn’t, retroactively, make Harry’s lusting and fantasies look fucking creepy and icky.  Not.  At.  All.**

Finally, I grew tired of the repetition.  In Skin Trade, like every other Dresden novel I’ve read, Harry (a) get’s beaten up to the point he should be in a hospital (b) experiences angst over how he treats his friends and (c) draws on a last skerrick of power to finally beat the bad guys.  It’s that’s last point that really sets my teeth on edge.  What might have been fist punching and inspiring in the first couple of novels is a tired old trope here.

But here’s the thing, if you’re already a fan of the Dresden series then none of the issues I’ve raised above will put you off.  What I call smug prose you’ll see as witty banter, what I describe as Harry objectifying woman, you’ll see as the perfectly normal reaction of a bloke who likes women, and the repetition, well it’s that sense of familiarity – and the odd shocking development – that keeps you coming back.  And that’s perfectly fine.  It’s just not my thing anymore.

Like I say above, Skin Game, is a novel that’s been nominated to represent Jim Butcher’s body of work.  It’s just a shame that this is such a forgettable entry in the series.

——————————————————————

*Ok, that statement is clearly bullshit as I’m sure if this was Book Five readers would be wondering why Harry was on an island called Demonreach and when it was revealed that he had a daugher.  My point, though, is that Skin Game is not a novel swamped in back-story.

** But how was Harry to know?  I hear you saying.  You’re right, he didn’t know.  But Jim Butcher did.

6 comments

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  1. Troy

    I take issue with that last one , there are plenty of people who read and love Dresden books despite the male gaze and other stuff, not because they particularly like it or are blind to it.

    1. Mondyboy

      Tory, I suppose my point is that your mileage may vary. These things became deal breakers for me and they feature in this book as well.

  2. Cat

    I have had a problem with that series ever since Harry killed his girlfriend. First he’s volcanically angry at her for not giving him “his” baby and everybody thinks he has a perfect right and nobody sits him down to talk sense (which might start with “Seriously, Harry, how many times *has* your house been attacked by the Forces of Evil in the last five years? I’ve lost count, but maybe you remember? And *which* of those would have gone better with a toddler on the premises?”) and then at the end of the book Butcher arranges it so Harry can (“has to”) kill her.

    That’s hard to forgive. I could forgive it in Harry, if someone else had been talking sense on the subject, but arranging it is hard for me to forgive in Butcher.

    One of my friends just lurves that series and he gave me Skin Game, I think it was. Skin Game is the one where Karin is not holy enough to use the Holy Sword without breaking it, but Harry Dresden is, right? Also the one where it turns out girls can’t catch but the cowardly, clumsy (but male) medical examiner can muster physical prowess and courage when it really counts, right?

    Yah. So, even if that wasn’t a Puppy Pick I wouldn’t vote it above No Award. And if that’s not the right Butcher novel, I’ll read the one in the Hugo packet, but I don’t hold out much hope for it.

    1. Mondyboy

      Cat, yep that’s the one.

      One of the more risible bits, that I didn’t mention above, is when the broken sword is essentially turned into a light saber in the hands of the Medical Examiner. We’re meant to punch the air and smile. I just cringed.

      And killing of the girlfriend / mother of your daughter to create ANGST is just cheap. (Yes, I know she’s a vampire, but so what. Butcher was actively aiming for the ANGST!)

  3. itavan

    Thanks for the review. I stopped at book 3 ’cause it seemed like they were all the same and it appears I didn’t miss anything. I don’t think I’ll bother reading this for the Hugos.

    I read his Codex Alera series and liked it much better. Standard adventure fare but more fun IMO.

    1. Mondyboy

      I’ve heard good stuff about his Codex Alera series, but frankly given the amount of books I genuinely want to read, going back to anything written by Butcher would be very low on my list.

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