Breaking into the Underworld: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, wizard and sometime champion, is back with a brand new adventure in Jim Butcher’s Skin Game. This one teams him up with one of his oldest and deadliest enemies as well as dragging a few old friends into the mix. The mission? A heist unlike any other.

In last year’s Cold Days, Harry settled in as the Winter Knight, working for Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. Harry wasn’t too happy about this, but he accepted his role as best he could, trying to walk the fine line between his duty to Mab and remaining one of the good guys.

In Skin Game, on Mab’s orders, Harry is assigned to help none other than Nicodemus Archleone, the head of the Knights of the Blackened Denarius, who we met in Death Masks and who later appeared in Small Favor. Harry, understandably, isn’t thrilled about working with him (Nicodemus killed Shiro, after all) but agrees to go along with it. Mab’s command allows for some wiggle room and Harry hopes to have a chance to take Nicodemus out after the job is completed.

That job, by the way, is to break into one of Hades’s vaults in the Underworld. Yes, that Hades. To that end Nicodemus has assembled a crew including his psychotic daughter, Deirdre, Binder the summoner (last seen in Turn Coat), a warlock named Hannah Ascher, and a strange shapeshifter named Goodman Grey. Harry brings in Murphy for support.

Meanwhile, through all of this, the parasite mentioned in previous books is putting Harry in increasing, excruciating pain. Mab gives him an earring that helps, but it’s clearly something that has to be dealt with, and Mab will only let that happen when Harry finishes the job.

As you can guess, Harry working alongside Nicodemus doesn’t go well, and things quickly become dangerous. I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns except to say that, as you might expect, the job is anything but straightforward.

Still, after the wonderful Cold Days, Skin Game feels like an uneven book. Part of that comes from what I felt was a lackluster heist. All of the usual brush strokes are there, but it wasn’t exciting enough. Skin Game also seems far more straightforward than a typical Dresden novel, without all of the interweaving storylines we’ve come to expect.

There’s also the fact that many of the huge reveals of the last book (the Outsiders, the prison on Demonreach, and so on) aren’t followed up here, leaving the story feeling somehow light. We know there are these huge threats building, but their complete absence makes them feel less dangerous. There are a few references, mostly toward the end, but generally Skin Game ends up feeling like a side adventure.

As usual, what I most enjoyed were the character moments. After being isolated for most of the last couple books, Harry is given a chance to interact with people here that we haven’t seen in a while and finally starts addressing some of the fallout of Changes and his assumption of the Winter Knight mantle. In fact, some of his interactions had me practically in tears. Bob is woefully underused here, but I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that we get some time with Michael Carpenter, and that helps to alleviate things a bit.

Ultimately the biggest disappointment for me revolves around the parasite that’s living in Harry’s head. It’s been mentioned a few times in the last couple of books and Skin Game reveals the nature of this parasite. The answer to the mystery is interesting, but also seems a bit forced. The whole explanation felt a bit handwavy and didn’t quite fit for me as much as I wanted to. I’m interested to hear how other people take it.

But that’s the danger of a series like this. We’re 15 books in, and things keep building. Plot points hinted at a few books back are coming to the fore and not all of them are going to please everyone.

If anything, Skin Game suffers from the quality of the books that preceded it. It’s a solid book, but doesn’t match the scope and scale of those novels. Still, it advances key elements in Harry Dresden’s life and is, of course, a must-read for long time Dresden Files fans. And, as mentioned, it just might make you cry.

 

Skin Game is available now from Roc in the U.S. and Orbit in the U.K.


Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger who has blogged about Harry Dresden before. His stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His first novel, Falling Sky, will be released on October 7, 2014.

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