If power corrupts, what happens when you become powerless? This week, fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files were treated to the release of the 13th book in the series, the eagerly awaited and aptly named Ghost Story. Suddenly we’re dealing with a Harry that we’ve never seen before, who has to come up with whole new strategies to handle the kind of Dresden adventure that longtime fans crave.
Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Ghost Story and major spoilers for all the books prior.
When we last saw Harry Dresden, he had just been shot. Ghost Story opens with Harry in some kind of spiritual waystation just shy of the Afterlife. Here he meets similarly deceased Cpt. Collin Murphy, the father of his old friend Karrin Murphy, in a strange post-mortem cop shop. Captain Murphy asks Harry to go back to Chicago to investigate his own murder, though at great potential, personal risk. Harry hesitates until Murphy says that three of the people closest to him would be in danger if he didn’t. Harry being Harry, that decides him.
Harry returns to Chicago as a ghost, in spirit form only, unable to affect the physical world, unable to even use his magic. Driven by the need to protect his loved ones, Harry seeks out Mortimer Lindquist, the ectomancer, previously seen in Dead Beat. When he arrives, however, Lindquist’s house is under attack by other dead spirits, mindless wraiths, led by more intelligent spirits called Lemurs. Harry joins in to help repel them and meets Lindquist’s ghostly defender, Sir Stuart, who begins to teach Harry about being a ghost.
Butcher’s worldbuilding has always been one of my favorite things about the series and here he adds to the world by defining the world of ghosts. In their world, it’s memories that are power. Strictly speaking, ghosts are memories, and memories can lend them strength or do them harm.
Lindquist eventually leads Harry to his friends and here Harry discovers that he’s appeared six months after he died. The world is now a very different, and much darker place. The destruction of the Red Court of Vampires has created a power vacuum and various entities, most notably the creatures known as the Fomor, have risen to try to fill it. And with Harry gone, his friends have been forced to make uneasy alliances, take drastic actions, and, in the case of Molly Carpenter, leap headfirst into dangerous behavior and possible insanity.
As usual, Butcher frustrates Harry’s path, complicating his search for his killer. There is plenty of action here, culminating, as usual, in an intense climax. But we do find out who killed Harry and why. Along for the ride are some old friends (such as Murphy, Will, and Butters), some new friends, and some, like Molly, who have changed dramatically. There are also enemies, old and new, and some, like the Leanansidhe, Harry’s faerie godmother, who best fall into the category of frenemy.
Out of all the changes ricocheting out from, well, Changes, the biggest difference is Harry himself. In part that’s because he’s literally a spirit, no longer a being of flesh and blood. But that physicality, or lack of one, influences his mental state. Without a body, Harry is unable to interact with the world directly, unable to use his magic the way he used to. He can’t just leap into the fray shouting “Fuego” and make things go boom. He can’t fix things with power and violence. This Harry sometimes has to watch. He has to think. This far more thoughtful and reflective Harry was one of the most interesting aspects to the book. Over the course of Ghost Story Harry finds out how to be a better ghost, but he also finds out how to be a better human.
What Butcher accomplishes here is something that works on multiple levels. On the one hand it’s the kind of Harry Dresden adventure story that we expect. But on the other it’s a very personal story for Harry. It’s Harry going into dark places, often alone, cut off from his support structure and thinking very hard about his life and his actions. We also see moments from his past that have been referred to but never depicted and for a fan like me, those were some of my favorite moments in the whole book. This is Harry not only looking at the future that awaits him after Death, but looking back on the person he was and the choices he made while he was alive. This is Harry evaluating himself and, in many cases, finding himself wanting.
Don’t get me wrong — this is a different Harry than we’ve seen before, but it’s still Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. He still cracks wise with the best of them. He still has a problem with authority. He still drops references to the X-Men, Star Wars and Star Trek, among others. And, once he gets the hang of it, he still kicks ass. I mean it’s not like ghosts can chew bubblegum.
Ghost Story has its share of introspection, sure, but there’s also magic and mental battles, scenes taken straight from war movies, and scenes on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (or something very like it). There are knife fights, ghost fights, and even skull on skull action (but probably not in the way you’re thinking).
While I won’t spoil it, there’s a spiritual explanation for most of what happens in this book, delivered almost deus ex machina toward the end, and it was not only problematic but almost negated some of the power of the choices made in the book. Free will, man, turns out it’s extra important even when you’re nothing but will. Still, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book overall. And the ending... I’ll just say that the ending gave me exactly what I had been hoping for for several books now.
All in all, I don’t think Ghost Story surpasses my favorite book in the series to date, Turncoat, but it comes closer than any other. It’s a different kind of Dresden story, to be sure, with a level of maturity in both the character and the writing that helps elevate it above the earlier books. If you’re a Dresden fan, you should definitely check it out. And then, like me, wait eagerly for the next one.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, blogger, and narrator who lives in New York. He is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group and a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop. His website can be found at www.rajankhanna.com.